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Habermas’s Thesis of the Colonisation of the Lifeworld by the System

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3838 words Published: 18th Nov 2021

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In 1987, Jürgen Habermas laid out his two level model of society consisting of ‘systems’ and lifeworlds’. He argued that this differentiation had led to an uncoupling of the two whereby they are becoming increasingly specialised. However, he also argued that there was a secondary phenomenon, namely the colonisation of the lifeworld, where the rationalities of the lifeworld are being displaced by the forms of rationality that occur in systems.

In this essay I will explore these ideas presented by Habermas (1987), which have been exemplified in several ways, from new social movements (Edwards 2004, 2017) to patient and public involvement in cancer research settings (Bissell et al 2018). However, not everyone is convinced by the arguments presented by Habermas (1987).

The thesis of the colonisation of capitalism faces many criticism, for example from feminist sociologist Fraser (1985) and from sociologists such as Jutten (2011) and Craib (1992) who argue the concept of the two separate spheres of system and lifeworlds are far too absolute.

Firstly, Habermas differentiates between the ‘lifeworld’ and the ‘system’ to study the various ways social order can be supported (Ingram 1987). Lifeworlds are the world of ‘everyday life’ which social relations and community formations occur. They are coordinated via communicative rationality and language. Rasmussen states that communicative action is non-instrumental as it is a ‘’communicatively agreed achievement… that cannot be imposed’’ (1990, 27).

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The result of this communicative action is in our language, it indicates inclusivity and a social system which is democratic and based on agreements and functions to construct a moral point of view (Craib 1992). Essentially, the lifeworld is formed on mutual, rational agreement which is negotiated through language and communication. Social integration mechanisms occur in lifeworlds and are formed with normatively attained consensus (Mouzelis 1997).

On the other hand, Systems point towards bureaucratic and economic practices that typify societies. They operate through instrumental, strategic rationality and purposive interactions which are means oriented towards success. Systems often embrace institutionalised settings which are organised and include the use of rules and roles (Kemmis 2001). System integration mechanisms are found to occur in systems. These system mechanisms are founded on the systematic steering media of power and money which work to regulate actions as if they were ‘automatic’ as stated by Mouzelis (1997).

However, Edwards (2017) argues that systems and lifeworlds are not simply just about spheres of rationality or activity. She argues that they also account for perspectives in which researchers can harness that will prove to be valuable when exploring. These perspectives are similar to looking at the point of views of participants (lifeworlds) and observers (social systems).

When adopted and used together they provide a dual perspective that allows the researcher to examine subjective experiences in the form of lifeworlds and simultaneously find them objectively within larger economic and political courses in the form of systems. Therefore, systems and lifeworlds can often be seen as research oriented. Using these perspective can enable us to overcome many theoretic and problematic issues in modern society (Edwards 2017).

The differentiation of systems and lifeworlds leads to the uncoupling of systems and lifeworlds. This distinction is a product of modernity, reflecting its growing complexity and its specialisation of different elements of modern society. An example of this is how economic activity is ‘uncoupled’ when it is removed from the family-household context and instead is arranged into markets where action is coordinated by money.

The system is now functioning fairly autonomously. Habermas states that this uncoupling is a ‘’particular kind of objectification: the social system is… accessible only to the counterintuitive knowledge of the social sciences developing since the eighteenth century (1987, 173). There has been a shift from participant to observer perspective. Modern societies are showing clear distinctions between matters of the economy, politics, social and the cultural, and thus clear separations in lifeworld and systems.

Additionally, not only has there been a separation of the system and lifeworld, but the rationality of the system is trying to dislodge and undermine the forms of rationality in the lifeworld.

In modern capitalist society, the system has started to dominate areas of social life, forcing itself on people with institutional rationalisation and attempting to reorganize parts of the lifeworld as if they were system environments organised in bureaucratic ways (Craib 1992). Linguistically facilitated interactions and symbolic reproduction happening in lifeworlds are being steadily uprooted due to the diffusion of market action and the state into areas of everyday life.

What was once internal communicative action underpinned by the lifeworld has now been replaced with the external framework of the values and norms of systems (Kemmis 2001). Lifeworld actions have become increasingly saturated with ideas of roles and functionality, encouraging individuals to identify and aspire in systematic imperatives and terms. Habermas states that there is a ‘’pathological de-formation of the communicative infrastructure of the lifeworld’’ (1987; 365).

By fixing money and power in the form of media into the lifeworld and institutionalising them into different areas of the lifeworld, systematic differentiation is made possible and a capitalist route of modernisation can arise. Various features of industrialised capitalism, such as success and profitability, replace key elements of the lifeworld, such as morals and social norms. What is seen to be rational action within the system is related purely to capitalist accumulation. An instrumental rationality, relating to profitability, takes over the rationality of the lifeworld. (Sloan 1999).

Resulting from this, the material reproduction that once belonged in the lifeworld is essentially dismissed. Edwards (2017) suggests the importance of lifeworld in terms of social identity and identity politics in general but the lifeworld is greatly suffering at the hands of the system. The environments within the social system now contain private and public spheres simultaneously (Habermas 1987). Edwards’s (2017) views colonisation as a living battle between the communicative and technical logic processes. These different logics enter into a ‘battle’ of sorts, competing for superiority. She believes that this idea of colonisation being a battle is important as it allows us to view it in line with empirical questioning. It allows us to question where the line should be drawn between the system and the lifeworld, as she sees it as one which is not predetermined and is one which is of theoretical, fluid and empirical understanding.

Furthermore, Craib (1992) argues that in separating systems and lifeworlds, Habermas forms the critical functionalist basis upon which the colonisation of the lifeworld is embedded in. This occurs specifically through media and the power of money. Craib (1992) exemplifies this through the example of how power is involved in the legal system. There is a distinction between regulative law and constitutional law. Regulative law involves matters of what is occurring in the lifeworld, whereas constitutive law is what makes something happen. When two individuals break up or divorce after being in a relationship which may involve having children, this way which regulative law and constitutional law function can be see very clearly. Regulative laws regarding divorce, custody and so on are involved with the protection of all those who are affected. It works to provide insurance from injustice through rational, communicative discussion that leads to mutual agreements.

Contrastingly, constitutive law forces certain relationships and actions to happen where it would not have happened otherwise. For example, the common dispute of custody of children is an example of this where in the majority of cases the mother is awarded custody. Craib (1992) argues that large areas of personal relationships are becoming exposed to legal requirements. He believes that ‘expert cultures’ are taking over ideologies and we are all becoming more and more influenced and directed by the partial framework of knowledge which is controlled by others.

Moreover, Habermas is worried with the pathologies that appear when the lifeworld is colonised by the system and when instrumental rationalities ‘’invade areas of social life that have been or could be co-ordinated in the medium of understanding’’ (White, 1995; 8).

As a result of the material reproduction in life worlds being disrupted, there is systematic disequilibria that takes place. This disequilibria takes place in either pathologies in the lifeworld or through actual crises (Habermas 1987). These crises transpire only when economic and state performance are clearly below the established level of wanted achievement, thus negatively impacting the symbolic reproduction of lifeworlds directly. When these crises are interrupted successfully then pathologies arise within the lifeworld. In bureaucratic-socialist societies spheres of action which are reliant on social integration have been substituted for system integration mechanisms. However, Habermas (1987) argues that instead of reification occurring, there is a false communicative action in areas of pseudopolitical interactions which are applied to the public sphere.

Thus there is no straight assimilation of the lifeworld into the system but instead ‘’while the system is draped out as the lifeworld the lifeworld is absorbed into the system’’ (1987; 386).

Many different theorists have provided clear examples of how colonisation is occurring in capitalist society. These examples range from the NHS to University and education systems and even to patient/public involvement in a cancer research setting. Edwards (2017) argued that the advance of market forces into the NHS is a clear, empirical example of how colonisation is happening within public services.

Due to the systematic, neoliberal discourse there is now the promotion of the belief that the NHS is in need of modernisation to aid growing marketplaces by becoming increasingly cost effective and efficient. They believe that privatisation and market imperatives should be used in order to fulfil this. This clearly exemplifies how the instrumental rationality of social systems is replacing the communicative rationality of lifeworlds. Edwards (2017) also argued that in contexts such as these, it can often be seen that there are competing and opposing perspectives and pathological consequences may occur.

This is demonstrated with the fact that there has been a mobilisation of a collective movement of NHS workers, as well as ordinary individuals, who are reviving communicative action by raising moral concerns of the marketization of the NHS by demonstrating arguments that it is wrong to hold human life as less important financial benefit.

Bissell et al (2018) use the colonisation thesis to study public and patient involvement (PPI) in a cancer research setting, studying how the lifeworld experiences and understandings of those participating was formed by the health research system. Linking back to Edwards (2017) and her study on the NHS, Bissell et al (2018) similarly focus on how private sector organisations have been providing health and research and how PPI works within the context of the Cancer research network.

In this setting, the way in which PPI participants contributed with their authentic understanding of the lifeworld and how they applied it to the systematic processes was the main focus of this study. What was shown in this study was various ways in which these lifeworld offerings appeared to often be pushed aside and within the health research setting there were many issues and uncertainties when PPI participants attempted to contribute. Mishler (1984) studied the relationship between doctor and patient, finding that in most cases there is a distinction between ‘technical-rational’ and the lifeworld. The way in which language is used in medical consultations often leads to patients feeling alienated or dissatisfied. When doctors use technical rational language they often ignore or simply do not engage with the patients issues. Barry et al (2001) refers to this as ‘lifeworld blocked’.

Cases where doctors spoke in lifeworld terms resulted in successful communication and patient satisfaction. Bissell et al (2018) apply this when studying PPI participants and found that a recurring concern was the use of technical language, and the communication practices within this setting enabled mainly one-sided systematic meetings. The voices representing the lifeworld were blocked and overlooked and there was not professional attempt to understand the lifeworld experiences of the PPI participants speaking about their experiences with cancer. A requirement for the PPI participants was to be objective when speaking about their personal experience suggesting that even from the initial stages the lifeworld contributions held an indefinite and unclear status that was already largely marginalised and overlooked.

This example of PPI participation in a cancer research setting shows how even when attempted there is no ‘bridge’ between lifeworld and system action and the lifeworld is colonised by the system. Medical knowledge has become technical and instrumental, which is increasingly becoming ‘specialised’ and alienating in terms of understanding for those in the lifeworld by becoming increasingly systematic.

The idea of new social movements fit in with the thesis of the colonisation of the lifeworld. Edwards (2004) argues that new social movements are seen to be defensive reactions to the colonisation of the lifeworld. New social movements, such as feminism and environmentalism, show the change from old politics (based on security in terms of the economic and military) to new politics (based on the bettering of the quality of life and social equality) (Humphries 2005). Counter culture movements are an example of these new social movements. By offering resistance to the colonisation of the lifeworld, moral debates are raised regarding the increase of systematic influence and where the boundaries of lifeworlds and systems should lie.

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Essentially, new social movements bring back communicative rationality and action that had been previously displace by systematic rationality (Edwards 2017). Colonisation gives new causes of struggle where individuals are willing and looking to defend more traditional routines or create new lifestyles that are based on their own terms. Edwards (2014) uses the anti-corporate activity as an example of a reaction against the colonialisation of the lifeworld. The anti-corporate movement was concerned with ‘economic colonisation’ in the form of the growth of corporate power and internationally growing institutions.

Instead of discussions and communicative action, the sphere of the public has become organised by money and power. This type of colonisation can be seen through corporate advertising, the growth in branding and the increase in commercial messages filing public spaces. This can be considered a type of ‘functional rationality’ that has spread into lifeworlds. The anti-corporate protests and action revives the communicative action and raises questions of how the system is taking over the lifeworld.

However, not everyone agrees with Habermas and his thesis of the colonialisation of the lifeworld by the system. Craib (1992) criticises Habermas and his colonisation theory by stating that Habermas does not establish what the actual importance and significance of communicative action is over strategic action. He argues the importance of communicative action has not been recognised in absolute and fully comprehended terms. Craib argues that the idea of communicative action is so important due to the fact is gives us ‘’the possibility of the ideal as a critical standard, and an alternative conception of reason’’ (1992; 243). Jutten (2011) also criticises Habermas’ colonisation thesis in terms of reification.

In the colonisation thesis, as mentioned earlier in the essay, reification develops as a social pathology when the communicative and linguistic action of the lifeworld is colonised by the steering media of money and power. Jutten (2011) argues that although Habermas gives a function explanation of this, his normative critique is not fully explained or stated. Habermas never actually provides an explanation of why reification may be problematic for the individual actors whom which are impacted. Consequently, Habermas is unable to show why reification is cause by only certain forms of colonisation. If there was a more clearly defined normative critique then there would be a more refined explanation of reification.

Fraser (1985) offers several criticisms of Habermas’ theory of colonisation. Firstly, Fraser criticises the distinction between the symbolic and material reproduction of societies. Habermas argues that societies must reproduce themselves both symbolically (referring to social reproduction) as well as materially (referring to social labour). These two differences are put in place to categorise actual social practices based on what function they help. The two functions are seen to be two separate ‘’natural kinds’’. However, Fraser argues that this is inadequate and largely questionable.

If the ‘’natural kinds’’ interpretation were to be followed then childbearing would have a symbolic function whilst food and object production would have a material function. However, childbearing is a ‘’dual aspect’’ activity- it serves both symbolic and material functions. Childbearing requires socialisation but also feeding and protection from social harm, it requires the regulation of a child’s interactions with people, as well as their interaction with physical nature, and thus she believes that it is vital to a society’s biological survival.

This is also the case for instrumental activities in paid work which contribute to reproducing social identity and ‘’ culturally elaborated social relations and symbolically mediate, norm-governed social practices’’ (1985; 101). Therefore, these distinctions cannot be ‘natural kinds’ and must be used as a pragmatic contextual distinction as more often than not many functions of society, such as childbearing, are dual-aspect phenomenon’s. The line between system and lifeworld activities are not as distinctive as Habermas argues to be.

Additionally, Fraser (1985) argues that the distinction between socially integrated and system integrated action is too extreme. Almost all action context contains some form of social and systematic integration. For example, both the capitalist economy and the nuclear family have similarities. These similarities include normativity, strategicality and consentuality. The difference between social and systematic integration should be measured based on the difference of degree (Fraser 1985).

To conclude, Habermas’ theory of the colonisation of the lifeworld by the system is compelling and can be seen with various empirical example, such as that of the NHS. The lifeworld and its communicative action is increasingly being displaced by systematic, instrumental rationality especially with our society becoming increasingly modern and capitalist. However, I do agree with some of the criticisms that Habermas faces such as the fact his view of the differentiation of integration, life worlds and systems as well as the different societal reproductions is rather extreme. Many of Habermas’ distinctions are far too absolute which is not very useful in social theory as well as potentially ideological.


Barry, Christine, Stevenson, Fiona, and Britten, Nicky. (2001) Giving Voice to the Lifeworld: More Humane, More Effective Medical Care? A Qualitative Study of Doctor–Patient Communication, in General Practice, Social Science and Medicine, 53(4), p 487–505

Bissell, Paul, Thompson, Jim and Gibson, Barry. (2018) Exploring Difference or Just Watching the Experts at Work? Interrogating Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in a cancer research setting using the work of Habermas, in Sage Journals, 52(6)

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