Niklas Luhmann’s sociological theory is not usually connected with empirical research. Luhmann’s radical epistemology meant he himself did not pursue empirical research on a systematic level. The academy in general has reflected this to some degree by largely limiting the application of Luhmann’s approach to the realm of theory—and this is particularly true of Luhmann’s application to legal or ‘socio-legal’ studies. This paper, however, will present the possibilities, and indeed utility, of applying Luhmann’s social systems approach for productive empirical research in law. The paper will present Luhmann’s functional method of problematizing existing social structures and constructing alternative solutions as a way of breaking frames and generating insights which can then be investigated on the empirical level. The paper will then present Luhmann’s extensive body of sociological theory as allowing for rich interpretation of the findings of such empirical research and for developing insights in such a way as to be reinvested into the further design and execution of empirical research. The paper concludes by arguing for a symbiotic and relationship between theory and method in socio-legal research, with a parity of esteem for both elements.

Mark Hanna is a lecturer in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. His current research explores the relationship between peace and globalization. He completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at Queen Mary, University of London and his doctoral research explored the functional equivalence of law and social movement organization in relation to global public goods.