Sociology – a PCT introduction


Sociology involves understanding how people behave in groups, including how they communicate and interact with one another. PCT provides a way to understand how people’s goals operate when in groups, and we can use computers to model how more than one control system interacts in a group setting. See the Crowd Demonstration. Each of the moving circles on the screen is an ‘agent’ who has two control systems – one to be as close as possible to its target, and another to be beyond a certain distance from other ‘agents’. Some of the demo programs online show how changing the numbers and control system settings of the agents can lead to a huge range of different social scenarios – from the classic duckling-following-parent to large scale crowd behaviour.

Clark McPhail, Kent McClelland and several other prominent sociologists have made a convincing case that PCT can be used to understand sociology. Further sociologists, such as David Heise, have incorporated PCT into ‘affect control theory’, which focuses on how people’s behaviour is a means of maintaining affect (e.g. mood) within certain reference values.

Dan Miller has written a wonderful online essay about the relationship between PCT and symbolic interactionism, as described by Mead & Goffman. Click here to read it. There are also clear parallels between PCT and the radical constructivism of Ernst von Glasersfeld, described here in a short article by Bill Powers.

Warren Mansell has produced a statement about the England riots in 2011 based on PCT. For a full PCT approach to understanding rioting, see McPhail (2005).