After studying law in Freiburg (1946-1949), completing his legal traineeship and passing his second state examination, Niklas Luhmann (* 8 December 1927 in Lüneburg; † 6 November 1998 in Oerlinghausen) worked for several years in public administration, most recently (1956-1962) as a state parliamentary officer in Lower Saxony's Ministry of Culture. There he took leave to study administrative science and sociology at Harvard University.
After his return, he moved to the Research Institute of the University of Administrative Sciences in Speyer as an advisor (1962-1965) and was appointed head of department at the Social Research Centre of the University of Münster in Dortmund in 1966.
In the same year, Luhmann was awarded his doctorate in Münster (with the thesis "Functions and Consequences of Formal Organisations", already published in 1964) and habilitated (title of habilitation thesis: "Law and Automation in Public Administration"). From 1968 he taught as a full professor at the then newly founded University of Bielefeld, where he became emeritus professor in 1993.
From 1970-1973 he was a member of the Commission for the Reform of Public Service Law. As co-editor, he was involved in the founding of the Zeitschrift für Soziologie. In 1974 he became a member of the Rhenish-Westphalian Academy of Sciences. His academic work finds expression in numerous honours and guest professorships. He was awarded honorary doctorates at several foreign universities: Ghent in 1984, Macerata, Bologna, Recife and Lecce in 1988 and Louvain in 1993.
The honorary doctorate awarded to him in Trier on 28 June 1993 is Luhmann's first honorary doctorate in Germany.
Luhmann's extensive academic work began in the 1960s with works in the field of organisation and administration and increasingly shifted to the level of social theory. Apart from extensive works on general theoretical questions (above all his main work "Social Systems", published in 1984), the subjects here are initially the legal system and the political system, and later increasingly religion, the educational system and the sociology of intimate relationships.
More recent works also include works on the sociology of the economy, the environment, risk processing and the sociology of knowledge, which in recent years has led to a new theory of knowledge based on systems theory and a sociology of science developed on this basis.
Following on from the social and political science approaches of Talcott Parsan, Luhmann's theory seeks above all to make use of more recent developments, as they have been elaborated partly in individual disciplines such as biology, economics or psychology, but above all in overarching constructs such as general systems theory or cybernetics.
Luhmann's work is one of the major theories currently at the centre of the social science debate, also internationally. There is hardly a recent publication on sociological problems that has not borrowed directly or indirectly from Luhmann on a massive scale or that has not made him visible as a stimulus in one way or another. The same applies to the impulses that Luhmann's work has had on other social sciences: For example, Luhmann's name has become indispensable both in jurisprudence and in numerous debates in organisational science and economics in general.