How Famous Researchers Work: Niklas Luhmann

Famous for his unrelenting effort to develop sociological systems theory and the theory of society, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) produced several dozens of books and many more articles in his career. While that in itself was impressive, he was that prolific despite being a single parent of three after his wife died.

Although Luhmann complained about the lack of time in general, he still managed to use his available hours to the fullest. In an interview, Luhmann explained his writing habits. He obviously didn’t have a regular writing schedule. However, when he was home and didn’t have anything else to do, he was writing all day: 8:30 a.m. until lunch time; 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.; and in the evening until 11 p.m. Between the writing sessions he walked his dog, took a nap in the afternoon or did other things. While working for so many hours, Luhmann never forced himself to do anything he didn’t like. He preferred to work on things that were easy for him. As soon as he didn’t know how to proceed, he changed the task. At this point, the interviewers were curious, because it seemed that Luhmann was talking about doing things unrelated to writing. But they couldn’t be more wrong: when coming to a standstill with one text, he just switched to another one, even if that meant to beginning a new book.

Luhmann understood his strategy, which we can call patchwork writing, well. It allowed him to work on different texts in parallel, while avoiding being blocked. Although patchwork writing might not sound that organized, Luhmann knew what he was doing. Since he worked with his famous Zettelkasten (a card system or slip box), he only needed a plan for a text and to find the required cards and then write. He stated that organizing the card system and retrieving the required cards took the most amount of time; writing a book took him less. After finishing a manuscript, he usually didn’t revise it. So most of his time went into organizing the content of a text and then writing and not, as in the case of other researchers presented here, into revising a manuscript several times.

Using the patchwork writing strategy and leaving aside the revision phase might be one reason that many students and researchers have trouble reading his texts. As Hans-Georg Moeller put it, Luhmann’s texts are “extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing” (p. 10). As I will indicate for other researchers as well, the writing strategy of a researcher can have an effect on the writing style.

Luhmann represents a writer who didn’t try to seek the perfect text, as he himself said. He instead kept on writing and refining his ideas from text to text. He seemed to have understood his own habits and used them to his advantage. Writing was not a chore, he said, but rather a need to let out all his ideas. He would even have preferred to work on different things at the same time, with 30 hours a day on hand.

Luhmann, Niklas (2002): Biographie, Attitüden, Zettelkasten. Interview. In: Luhmann, Niklas: Short Cuts. Frankfurt a. M.: Zweitausendeins. 7-40.
Moeller, Hans-Georg (2012): The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press.

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