This article is concerned with the question of what we mean by contextualizing a literary text in terms of social history. What are we setting a text in relation to if we assign ›society as a context‹ to it? And what is the nature of this relation? An attempt is made to answer the first question by defining society as communication. The article teases out the forms of communication that can be understood as a ›text‹ and those that can be understood as a social ›context‹. The second question picks up what is known as the Vermittlungsproblem (correlation problem) – that is, the problem, for which a solution is not believed to have been found, of how to theoretically model the relationship between text and context. In the final part of the article, this problem is steered toward a conceptual solution by distinguishing between different kinds of context (communication setting, the problem at stake, cultural knowledge, communication situation). The article begins with a brief historical outline of the field, which takes us back to the origins of the concept of »social history« in the history of scholarship. The characteristic innovation of the sozialgeschichtliche Literaturwissenschaft (sociohistorical literary studies) advocated in the 1970s and 1980s is identified as its attempt to arrive, drawing on contemporary models of structural sociology, at a more complex social theory than had been used by the earlier sociology of literature shaped by Marxism and ideological criticism. This led to two problems that were still to be satisfactorily solved in the 1980s. First, it seemed as though the sociological models could be used to describe only ›literature as social system‹, but not ›literature as symbolic system‹, because the sociological concept of action was unable to capture the special features of literary activity. Second, the starting point for theoretically conceptualizing the relation between literary ›text‹ and social ›context‹ was the special historical case of an autonomous system of art in a society where it was functionally distinct, which meant that the scope of the sociohistorical paradigm was confined to literature from the modern period. Both these problems, the present article suggests, can be solved by applying the model of sociocultural evolution that was developed above all by Niklas Luhmann and following it through to its logical conclusion. The first stage in showing this more clearly is to provide a vertical outline of literary communication, in other words to ask how, out of the totality of social communication events, particular communications can be identified as potentially relevant for the interests of research in literary studies. In a first step, a special type of communication distinct from normal communication is identified. It is marked by a characteristic embedded communication structure which we can describe as objectification or metalinguistic referentialization . An embedded structure of this kind is present if a given communication (e. g. »once upon a time a horse …«) is metalinguistically referred to by other communications (e. g. »tell me the story about the horse«). The basic concept of literature defined in this way is very wide-ranging and does not consider any criteria of the ›literary‹ in the sense of a certain quality of the text; instead, it is based solely on the criterion of ›textuality‹ (as a result of communicative objectification). Any further restriction ›above‹ this basic concept can be carried out only in a historically empirical manner, that is, by analysing the objectified communications themselves and the adjoining communications that are centred around them. That is the second step in narrowing things down. On the basis of the elements that recur in such communication settings, it is possible to identify structures of expectation that have become stably established in communication and together form a particular (e. g. ›literary‹) semantics . By »semantics«, Luhmann, following Reinhart Koselleck, understands a cultural repository of rules for processing meaning. Talking in rhymes, or cultural concepts such as ›novel‹, ›fictionality‹, ›author‹, are examples of such rules for processing meaning in the literary domain. They are, that is, part of various historically specific literary »semantics« or »symbolic systems« of the literary. Such structures have been stably established to a high degree in literary ›genres‹, which have already been described by Wilhelm Voßkamp as »socio-literary institutions« along these very lines. In a third step, the degree to which such developments in literary semantics are separated from other semantics that structure social communication is considered. The article argues against the assumption that there is a system of high literature that has been established as distinct since the transitional time between the early modern and modern periods, and puts forward instead a bottom-up model of literary microsystems, each of which may become stably established, that do not necessarily form part of an overarching social system of ›literature‹ but can enter into historically variable combinations with other communication contexts. As can be seen from the longevity of the old concept of literature in the sense of the totality of learned tradition ( historia litteraria ), large fields of literary communication in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, are closely intertwined with other social discourses of knowledge in what has, in the sense of this broad concept of literature, been described by Peter Uwe Hohendahl as a literarische Öffentlichkeit (literary public sphere). Whether a particular area of literary communication under consideration can be treated as a communication system that operates as a closed system, can in turn be determined only by analysing its historical and empirical processes of communication. Of crucial importance is the fact that the communication settings involved form such a high level of recursiveness and self-referentiality that they develop an understanding of themselves as distinct from their surroundings . Historically variable processes of system formation of this kind are part of structural change in society as a whole, and a more detailed analysis of such processes of change in the domain of the literary in relation to the rest of social communication could, in the long term, lead to more appropriate periodizations of literary history. After this outline of literary communication, we return to the problem of contextualization in literary studies. If literary communication is, as described, understood as dynamic subfields of social communication, four different concepts of context can be distinguished: ›Context‹, in a basic sense, means the place of literary communication in general social communication, that is, other communication events that are close to it in time . ›Context‹, in the sense of a literary studies that seeks to explain, often means the historical problem at stake , the solution to which is treated as the function of a particular structure of literary communication. In addition, other (non-literary) semantics ( cultural knowledge ) of the time are often referred to as ›contexts‹. ›(Real) historical context‹, often used synonymously with ›social context‹, encompasses not only the social but also the non-social – that is, for example, physical, biological, or psychological – surroundings of literary communication, and is terminologically accounted for here using the linguistic concept of the communication situation . With the help of this differentiation, the particular kind of contextualization that sociohistorical literary studies aims to provide can be described as follows: sociohistorical literary studies examines the embedding of ›textual‹ acts of communication in larger communication settings that are connected with them in the manner of adjoining communications (context1). It does so in order, first, to determine more precisely the nature of such communication settings (structures, level of stability, self-description) and, second, to identify, through the functional analysis of the semantics they use, relevant problems at stake (context2) and cross-discourse referential structures (context3). The focus in the process lies on socially conditioned problems at stake (economics, politics, culture); non-social aspects of the literary communication situation, which are, moreover, present in context4, lie outside the sociological descriptive remit of this form of literary studies.