Conduct of Life As the Handling of Polycontexturality

Uwe Schimank


Polycontexturality occurs whenever an observer observes that his or her observation of a phenomenon is not the only possible one. This omnipresent possibility of social life happens much more frequently in modern society because several of its basic social orders – functional differentiation, cultural pluralism, and multiple inequalities – are breeders of polycontexturalities. Even more, added to the first-order polycontexturalities originating within each of these orders, second-order polycontexturalities emerge between them, for instance from the interplay of functional differentiation and multiple inequalities. From such a perspective on modern society, an individual’s conduct of life is conceptualized sociologically as the handling of polycontexturality – with the middle classes in Western modernity as the paradigmatic social milieu. At the end of the article, the question of when and how the spatial dimension is relevant is briefly touched upon.


I was asked to clarify the meaning and relevance of polycontexturality as a sociological concept. Accordingly, I will deliver a proper general sociological understanding of polycontexturality firstly, on the level of social theory, and secondly, on the level of theories of modern society. Having done this, I will illustrate the usefulness of this concept, thirdly, by discussing its application to a typical kind of biographical turning-point in a middle class person’s conduct of life where the handling of polycontexturality is required. Fourthly, I will reflect upon the spatial dimension of my argument – which constitutes the most tentative part of my conceptual reflections.

1. Mono- and polycontextural experiencing of social phenomena

Gotthard Günther (1973) coined the term “poly-contexturality” for the use in highly abstract epistemological and cosmological reflections about the conception of a multivalent logic. Niklas Luhmann introduced polycontexturality to sociology. He adopted this concept in particular to spell out a basic characteristic of modernity inherent to its functional differentiation (Luhmann, 1997, pp. 1094f; Schimank, 1998). In the following, I will build on Luhmann’s general insight – but with two important deviations from his approach:

Luhmann uses the concept of polycontexturality to highlight a specific mode of observation of social phenomena such as communications, actions, events, processes, actors, social structures, social systems or other social formations. In principle, it is always possible to observe each of these phenomena from different viewpoints. But often this possibility is not made use of; and whenever this is the case, most of the time even the existence of other points of observation besides the one actually taken is beyond the awareness of the respective observer. All taken-for-granted experiences of social life are such monocontextural observations, and routinized practices of action are based on them.

To be sure, monocontexturality is a matter of degree. Sometimes an observer has a faint sense that something might not look quite the same from a different angle, or for a different observer, but at the moment does not see any practical need to explore this notion further. Compared to such a ‘half-awake’ state of monocontexturality, its highest degree of ‘deep sleep’ is the reification of a particular social phenomenon. Reified phenomena look to their observer as if this was the one and only way how they could exist; no other possibility of their being, including non-being, is thinkable (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, pp. 106-109).

Not only cognitive but also normative expectations about the social world can be of a monocontextural mode. With regard to normative expectations, deviations from what actors are supposed to do can actually occur and be observed as such – but only as something that is forbidden and, if it happens, needs to be corrected. [1] The less the observer doubts the necessity of correction of deviant behavior, the higher the degree of monocontexturality.

In contrast to this frequent mode of an observer’s cognitive or normative experience of the social world, polycontexturality is the observation that more than one observation of a social phenomenon is possible, or actually takes place. In other words, this possibility shifts from a latent to a manifest state. Thus, polycontexturality is generated by a reflexive mechanism (Luhmann, 1966): a second-order observation of more than one first-order observations.

An observer can be confronted with polycontexturality by the second-order observation that other observers’ first-order observations differ from each other, or that its own first-order observation differs from others’ first-order observations. Furthermore, an observer can also make this second-order observation entirely on its own. The observer can realize that it now sees certain things differently from yesterday, or may anticipate at least the possibility that it might see them differently tomorrow. It can even make the second-order observation of its own simultaneous different first-order observations which may conflict with each other, up to the point of being incompatible. In the latter case, it is not clear which observation is cognitively ‘true’ or normatively ‘right’. Two or more different or even conflicting observations coexist with each other, and the observer remains unable to determine which observation is ‘true’ or ‘right’ and which one is ‘false’ or ‘wrong’. As soon as the observer acquires certainty about this, the complexity of polycontexturality is reduced to monocontexturality. But what if this reduction of complexity cannot be achieved and permanent doubts remain? And what if two or more different observations of the same social phenomenon are not incompatible with but complement each other? In both cases – uncertainty and perspectivity – polycontexturality is there to stay.

From an actor-theoretical perspective, monocontexturality, on the one hand, and polycontexturality, on the other, correspond as modes of experience to John Dewey’s (1939) two modes of practice – “habits”, on the one hand, “inquiry”, or what Hans Joas (1992) calls “creativity”, on the other (Schubert, 2009). This pragmatist approach conceives of action as governed by “habits” and as drawing on creative solutions wherever “habits” no longer fit: “We go through life as creatures of habit until we encounter an indeterminate situation … It is then that inquiry is needed …” (Whitford, 2002, p. 340, emphasis omitted) “Habits”, as a sub-type of routines, are shaped by monocontexturality, whereas the breakdown of monocontexturality requires “creativity” which basically consists of an exploration of different readings of the respective situation – in other words, of polycontexturality.

However, this is still a one-sided view of social life. “Creativity” is seen only as a tool for the repair of broken-down routines, or as a way to replace them with new routines. This view supposes that it is always best to have routines. But “creativity” can also be used for a deliberate break with restrictive and outdated routines, to overcome them in an act of ‘emancipation’. New, innovative works of art or scientific findings which overcome a boring and no longer fruitful ‘state of the art’ constitute examples for this, as do political reforms or experiments with new ways of living. With regard to mono- and polycontexturality, this two-faced nature of routines and “creativity” means: Monocontexturality as a closure of experience and polycontexturality as its opening up can, from an actor’s point of view, be both desirable in one situation and undesirable in another (Klapp, 1978).

2. Modern society: Increasing polycontexturalities

Shifting now from social theory and the social world in general to a more specific theory of modern society, Luhmann’s well-known thesis is that functional differentiation as the distinctive characteristic of Western modernity dramatically increases societal polycontexturality. More precisely, functional differentiation multiplies sources of polycontexturality by establishing, with the various societal sub-systems, radically different observation points of the social world. Max Weber (1919, pp. 32f) expresses the same insight with the nice metaphor of modernity as a “polytheism” of “value-spheres” such as religion, politics, economics, the arts, science, intimacy, and some more. “Polytheism” means: There is no super-god who rules from a level above the flock of domain-specific gods and who is able to shape and maintain modernity as an all-encompassing meaningful unity. As a consequence of the multitude of societal “value spheres” whose guiding values are regarded as absolute by their respective protagonists, no unified substantial identity of modern society is possible. Its paradoxical identity consists precisely in its inability to observe itself as an entity with a substantial identity.

For individual persons this means that they have a role-set of multiple partial inclusions into the various societal spheres. [2] Someone is a school teacher, husband, soccer fan, visitor of art museums, consumer, voter etc.; and in each of these roles he or she adheres to the specific “nomos” (Bourdieu, 1992, pp. 360-365) of the corresponding “value sphere” as the guiding “illusio” of his or her activities. At first sight, it might seem as if each role could function as a monocontextural blinker which invisibilizes all other points of observation of the social world. However, every role is related to more than one reference group who addresses the role player with normative expectations, and any one’s reference group’s expectations differ from the others’. So, the actor is confronted with intra-role conflicts. In addition, there are inter-role conflicts, too, whenever expectations regarding one role collide with expectations the person has to comply with in another role. These are well-known polycontexturalities originating in functional differentiation. Weber (1919, p. 45) suggested a simple solution for the inner turmoil often associated with them: to choose one and only one societal sphere and its guiding value as the overriding “daemon” of one’s life. This attempt to re-establish a monocontextural relation to the social world is clearly inadequate except, perhaps, for monks and their equivalents in other societal spheres. Most individuals in modern society have found more refined ways of coping with “polytheism”. Among others, they make use of inter-role conflicts to find self-chosen balances between the demands of different societal spheres. For instance, an office worker tells his wife that his boss at work insists on him working overtime, but this is just an excuse to have a daily “time-out” (Cavan, 1966) at the bar before going home. In other situations, the office worker pretends to have marital problems so that his boss allows him to leave work earlier to spend more time with his wife. This demonstrates “the complexity of roles as a seedbed of individual autonomy” (Coser, 1975). More generally, evermore complex role-sets amount to dynamics of growing individualization of persons so that everybody has her or his own singular pattern of polycontexturality to cope with. 

But functional differentiation is not the only characteristic of modernity which brings about an increase of polycontexturality. A closer look reveals two other basic orders of modern society – cultural pluralism and criss-crossing inequalities – both of which contribute further to the increase of polycontexturality in modern society. [3] I can only briefly allude to sociologically familiar phenomena here.

Cultural pluralism refers to the fact that the culture of modernity offers no ultimate solid common ground but consists of a diversity of ideas and orientations including many incompatibilities and mutual hostilities. Some central motifs are: the multiplicity of religions – within and beyond Christianity – each claiming to be the one and only truth; atheism vs. religion; the religious world-view vs. the scientific one; other world-views such as political ideologies or ways of life of different social milieus. Polycontexturality manifests itself as cultural relativism. Only by becoming a dogmatist who does not allow her- or himself the slightest doubts about any of their own cultural orientations, one may attempt to live in a monocontextural “echo chamber” or “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011), to pick up recent terms applied to the information-seeking patterns of fanatic right-wing populists, among others. Most persons come to terms with cultural relativism by avoiding collisions between incompatible normative, evaluative, or cognitive claims, by practicing tolerance, or by negotiating conflicting orientations with oneself or others in an “arguing” mode based on empathy and the willingness of mutual learning, which may result in “creolization” (Baron & Cara, 2011).

Criss-crossing inequalities emerged when Western modernity did away with the relatively well-ordered criteria of social inequality of feudal society – social origin by birth, gender, and age plus “us” vs. “strangers” – which sorted almost every person into one, and only one, drawer of the societal order of inequality. In modern society this has been replaced by complicated figurations of social origin, educational achievements, wealth, gender, ethnicity, generation, sexual orientation and others. Sometimes there are mutual reinforcements of these criteria as is underlined by theories of intersectionality (Robinson, 2016), but in many contexts the opposite can be the case: Badly educated newly rich people, black middle classes, female CEOs or heads of government illustrate such status inconsistencies. They are reinforced by upward or downward social mobility which brings about Bourdieu’s “hysteresis” effects (Suderland, 2009): a path-dependency of one’s social origin despite educational achievements and occupational careers so that, for instance, persons now belonging to the upper middle class exhibit many lifestyle leftovers from their parental home. [4] As a result, many persons do not have one coherent story of being either relatively well-off or badly-off in all respects but present a biography which is a complicated patchwork, including many coincidences. They can try to handle this polycontexturality by burning bridges to their origin and embracing a rigid assimilation to their current social position. This would be an attempt to establish monocontexturality through an unequivocal social status. More constructive handlings of polycontexturality include the reflective setting of personal priorities which clarify a person’s self-understanding, or compromises between status inconsistencies, or a “creolization” which balances inconsistencies in innovative ways.

In sum, the omnipresent polycontexturality of social life is strongly increased by the three basic social orders of modernity: functional differentiation, cultural pluralism, and criss-crossing inequalities. First of all, there are those polycontexturalities which are generated within one of these three social orders. Secondly, in addition to these first-order polycontexturalities there are second-order polycontexturalities arising between societal orders – between functional differentiation and criss-crossing inequalities, between functional differentiation and cultural pluralism, between cultural pluralism and criss-crossing inequalities, and finally, between functional differentiation, cultural pluralism, and criss-crossing inequalities. I will present instances of such second-order polycontexturalities when I turn to conduct of life as an application of my conceptual proposals.  

All of these polycontexturalities affect, as ‘objective’ characteristics of societal orders, the room to maneuver of actors moving within them. Even if they do not know it, their structures of opportunity delimit what they can and cannot do. But often actors are more or less aware of the structural restrictions or options determining their action space within these polycontextural orders. What are actors confronted with, and how do they handle it? This could be asked for all three kinds of basic actors of Western modernity: individuals, organizations, and nation states (Meyer & Jepperson, 2000). As I have been doing up to this point, I confine my attention in the following to persons as individuals.

3. Application: Conduct of Life

I have already alluded to how individuals in modern society handle the polycontexturality of ‘doing their life’. The general idea is inspired by Günther’s (1973) apt expression of “life as polycontexturality”, who prefaces his article with a quotation from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Kein Lebendiges ist ein Eins. Immer ist’s ein Vieles.“ (No living being is one. It is always a multitude.) [5] This may be true for living beings in general – but it is certainly true for contemporary individualized middle class persons. Their specific conduct of life is often centered around investing in their occupational status (Schimank et al., 2014). Middle class persons have the resources to do so: disposable economic and cultural capital which provides them with chances of winning but also implies the risk of losing. For members of the upper class, in comparison, the probability of losing so much of their financial capital that they cannot maintain their economically care-free conduct of life is very low; conversely, it is much more probable that they would win even more. In contrast, persons from the lower class have no realistic chances of winning, except in cases of really good luck. Thus, middle class persons are the most interesting with regard to what difference their personal ‘agency’ makes in their conduct of life – corresponding to their individualist self-conception which emphasizes personal autonomy. They put themselves under significant pressure to achieve an upward occupational career.

I cannot explore systematically what polycontexturality means for a middle class person’s conduct of life shaped by the intersectionality of functional differentiation, cultural pluralism, and criss-crossing inequalities – roughly analogous to how the inequalities of class, race, and gender “… simultaneously reinforce and constitute one another …” (Robinson, 2016, p. 478). Instead, I will give an example which shows the heuristic power of looking at a well-known ‘challenge’ as an instance of polycontexturality.

My empirical case is a female middle manager in a Germany-based multi-national company in her mid-thirties, married to a man who pursues his own occupational career as a school teacher, and mother of two young children. Her social origin is rather low, her mother and father being unskilled workers with a migrant background, and she is the first with a university degree in her extended family. The company offers her a next career step in the East-Asian branch in Seoul – a sign of confidence in her which promises very good further career prospects. Still, the decision whether to accept this offer or not is rather difficult – because it is a highly complex second-order polycontextural configuration of decision criteria:

Without drawing a complete picture of this woman’s “definition of the situation”, the sociological diagnosis is clear: She has to make her decision, together with her husband and in consideration of their children’s needs, in a situation which consists of a layering of contexts shaped by functional differentiation, cultural pluralism, and criss-crossing inequalities. What she will do in the final end is determined by this polycontexturality. A sociological explanation that does not check all of these and several other determinants for their relative explanatory power risks leaving out important factors and may arrive at wrong conclusions about what has driven the decision-making.

4. And What About Space?

I have not mentioned the spatial dimension of social life up to this point. This does not mean that I deny its factual omnipresence. Immanuel Kant (1781) declares time and space to be two fundamental a-priori of our experience of the world. In our mundane perception of the life-world we cannot but assign a temporal as well as spatial location to everything. But are both kinds of positioning of events always relevant in sociological analytical descriptions and explanations of social phenomena? The temporal aspect of social life seems to be relevant most of the time to understand what is going on; moreover, it is a constitutive ingredient of the concept of action as an interplay of future goals and present opportunities shaped by past occurrences. [7] The spatial aspect, on the other hand, sometimes makes a difference, but often does not. Where I meet my lover – how a group of decision-makers sits facing each other in a room – from how far away the fruits offered at the local farmers’ market come: These spatial aspects may be important with respect to certain research questions, and in that case the spatial dimension must be included in the analytical framework of description and explanation of the social phenomenon under investigation. In many other cases, however, the sociological observer can analytically abstract from the spatial dimension to give a plausible answer to the respective research question.

Thus, first of all I reject the claim that space is a category of universal sociological relevance. On the contrary, it is a ‘sometimes useful’ category – which explicitly acknowledges that it is very useful, even indispensable, with regard to certain topics of analysis. Having said this, I now turn to the potential relevance of the spatial dimension in the polycontexturality of a middle class person’s conduct of life. Hubert Knoblauch and Martina Löw (2020, p. 281) point out a growing entanglement of actors and the intertwining of action “… in contexts on different spatial scales, dimensions, and levels”. This is an apt observation, and my middle class woman’s example illustrates it very well. Let us assume that she and her family made the decision to move to Seoul:

These are just a few quick illustrative associations originating from the brief quoted remark by Knoblauch and Löw about “scales, dimensions, and levels”. Being no expert on the spatial dimension of social life, and being no follower of the ‘spatial turn’ (as well as all the other ‘turns’ we have had in the last decades), I hope I nevertheless brought home my main points with regard to space. To begin with, the category space should not be used in a bad metaphorical manner but only when the “where in the world” (Löw & Weidenhaus, 2018, p. 217) literally and actually matters. This is sometimes, but not always the case. If it is the case, it poses an interesting question of how space is configured – and, among other things, whether a “re-figuration of spaces” (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020) occurs in contemporary society. My guess is that most of this “re-configuration” is the result of the interplay of dynamics of functional differentiation, cultural pluralization, and entangled inequalities. Thus, as well as temporal changes analyzed, among others, by Hartmut Rosa (2006), the spatial changes are mostly consequences of the dynamics of these basic structural orders of modernity. This does not at all mean that a focus on a “re-configuration of spaces” deals with questions of secondary importance. Quite often such ‘in-between’ variables are very good spots for an observation of the interplay of social structures and social interaction.


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[1] See Luhmann (1972, pp. 40-53) for the distinction of cognitive and normative expectations.

[2] See Schimank (2000, pp. 44-67) for a brief overview of role theory.

[3] See Schimank (2013) for a systematic exposition of these three ‘families’ of theories of modern society.

[4] In Gerhard Schulze’s (1992) study of the transformation of social milieus in Post-War Germany, those milieus which emerged since the late 1960s nicely illustrate this kind of polycontexturality.

[5] Incidentally, Bob Dylan’s recent song “I Contain Multitudes” (on “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, 2020), which is inspired by a poem of Walt Whitman, elaborates polycontexturality as a fundamental attitude to life.

[6] To adopt a concept initially used for inter-generational linkages (Moen & Erickson, 1995) to couples.

[7] See Alfred Schütz (1932) for a systematic investigation of these temporal aspects of action.

[8] The concept of “place” (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020, p. 275) might be used here to distinguish the place where an actor is actually positioned from other places to which he or she is related in various respects such as a home country, place of birth, places where one has lived in different phases of one’s life, favorite places for a vacation etc. 

[9] These are levels of territorially bound spatial contexts. Analogous levels can also be found in territorially open networks.  

[10] This common sociological jargon, by the way, is a good example of what Martina Löw and Gunter Weidenhaus (2018, pp. 217-220) rightly criticize as merely metaphorical ‘space talk’. Unfortunately, there is too much of it – also in Knoblauch & Löw (2020).

[11] The two latter effects occur to the degree that similar activities of many others add up to a structurally significant mass phenomenon.


Schimank, Uwe (2021): Conduct of Life As the Handling of Polycontexturality. In: (13) Ausgabe 1/2021. URL:, Datum des Zugriffs: 29.05.2024