Dan E. Miller
University of Dayton
Late one winter evening several years ago I was rereading Frame Analysis by Erving Goffman when I realized that his theoretical approach was akin to that of Powers’ Perceptual Control Theory. Was Goffman a closeted perceptual control theorist? Were these similarities merely coincidental? But, as I began to identify his ideas as being based in the principles of Perceptual Control Theory, they made increasing sense to me. Had Goffman read William Powers’ book, Behavior: The Control of Perception? Did a connection exist between the two? And so, this journey began.
Symbolic Interactionists have mostly escaped the obsession with behaviorism shared by many proponents of Perceptual Control Theory. The reason for this is relatively straight forward; symbolic interactionism is based on a withering critique of behaviorism (Mead 1934). Indeed, an elementary cybernetic theory has been in existence for over a century in the social sciences.  For example, an early cybernetic explanation is apparent in Dewey’s (1896) critique of the reflex arc in psychology in which he argued that the neural circuitry of the reflex arc had been misinterpreted. This misinterpretation resulted in the notion of a stimulus that was separate from its response. In fact, as Dewey noted, the underlying physiology indicated a unity and continuity of coordinated action. Separate, temporally contingent, sequential events were not consistently identifiable. Rather, he noted that humans act purposively in order to solve existential problems. In doing so they must continually adjust their behavior with regard to the desired outcome in order to successfully complete the act. Dewey’s argument calls for circular (or cybernetic) logic rather than the cause – effect model of behaviorism (Shibutani 1968).
Mead’s (1934; 1938) extension of Dewey’s ideas served as the basis of a theoretical position that was later called “symbolic interactionism.” For Mead, mind and self are self-regulating processes arising through our actions in the natural and social world. Implicit in the development of his ideas is a feedback loop with a comparison process and an objective (a desired future state) – all of which he included in the process of “the act.” To Mead “the act” was what the organism was doing at the time – purposive behavior with a desired outcome. The act was all encompassing, from its impulse to culmination. The act, then, involved both perception and action in a circular process. That is, one’s actions must be carried out in a way so that the response continually acts back on the organism, who selectively perceives those stimuli that enable the continuation of the act to its culmination (Mead 1938). For Mead individuals continually adjusted their behavior as a result of an implied comparison between the present circumstances and the desired future state. Mead’s theory of the social act is an established and universally accepted principle among interactionists. It is the foundation upon which symbolic interactionism  was developed and his ideas form the basis of how interactionists think about individual and social behavior.
Mead’s ideas flourished in sociology departments and graduate programs and symbolic interaction became a major theory within the discipline of sociology with interactionists serving as critics of the more behavioristic approaches in the discipline. In other disciplines – notably engineering and information systems – cybernetics and control theory were being developed. In 1943 Rosenbleuth, Wiener, and Bigelow published their paper, “Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology,” outlining the principles of a cybernetic theory of human behavior. Wiener’s book, Cybernetics, published in 1948, further expanded the principles of self-regulating systems into the biological and behavioral sciences. As these ideas developed, and believing a major new approach to science was afoot, a series of influential conferences were held – from 1944 to 1956 – on Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems. Sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation these conferences were attended by notables including Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Gregory Bateson, Ross Ashby, Don Jackson, and the young sociologist, Erving Goffman.  William Powers’ important work developing the principles of Perceptual Control Theory began a few years later. 
The title of this paper may pose some questions to the readers of this volume. For example, “What does Erving Goffman have to do with Perceptual Control Theory or Bill Powers?” and “Who is Erving Goffman, and why should we care about him?” Goffman was, perhaps, the most well known and the most influential sociologist of the last half of the 20th Century. I have established a likely connection between Goffman and Bill Powers – maybe not the persons themselves, but their ideas. Unlike Powers, Goffman was only incidentally interested in individual behavior. Rather, like Mead he was interested in social acts constructed by people. His major concerns involved how the self and others interacted in the process of constructing and regulating the “interaction order”.
Goffman did not simply describe interaction processes. Rather, he delved into the inner workings of his actors whom he characterized as purposive, self-regulating agents. For example, when reading Goffman one becomes aware that his humans are as often guided by what they would avoid than by what they would attain (Schudson 1984). His actors purposively avoid situations that would engender embarrassment, humiliation, the loss of face, a loss of poise, an interruption in the proceedings, and a failure to complete the act. In addition, Goffman’s actors help each other through those difficult situations that may end in failure or embarrassment.
Early in his career Goffman (1959) acknowledged the significance of Mead’s ideas to his own work, but then clearly stated his intention of going beyond Mead’s discussion of individual and social action. In his early work Goffman (1959; 1963) was clearly employing the ideas of control in his work. Take, for example, his concept of impression management. Actors in the process of managing the impressions that others have of self do not/cannot know with any certainty that a specific behavior will be successful. Rather, they adjust their behavior based on the perceptual input of the responses of others to their initial behaviors. Impression management is accomplished by controlling perceptual input.
As it developed, Goffman’s approach was remarkably similar to the principles of Perceptual Control Theory. It is not always easy to tell who influenced Goffman. He was stingy giving credit and citing his influences. It is clear that he wanted to be thought of as an independent and original thinker.  Goffman never named his theory or used the names of other theories for that matter. He paid no homage either to cybernetics or control theory, but the principles of self-regulating systems are evident in the work (Schweingruber 1994). Did Goffman have contact with PCT ideas? Had he read Powers’ Behavior: The Control of Perception? As a broad reader and an early attendee of the conferences in which cybernetics was developed, he almost certainly did. In this paper I will attempt to connect the dots and establish an elective affinity. I will compare Goffman’s theoretical concepts and methodological approaches with the principle elements of Perceptual Control Theory, namely control, perception, comparison, error, equifinality, the method of specimens, and the test of controllec variables.
The central proposition of PCT holds that individuals act purposively in order to bring about a desired state. This is accomplished by continually adjusting actions in order to make current perceptions correspond to a desired perceptual state or decrease error between the two perceptons (Powers 1973; 1989; 1992). More simply, people behave in order to control perceptual input to a desired end. It is the control process, how purposive action works, that is to be explained and not specific behaviors or behavioral sequences. In accordance, Goffman had no particular interest in specific behavior for its own sake. Rather, he was interested in outcomes or consequences of actions and how they were achieved. For example, in his discussion of civil inattention, Goffman does not dwell on the specific behaviors that identify the situation, but rather on how the participants in a variety of situations are aware of each other’s presence and how each participant adjusts his or her behavior in order to maintain the perception of being civilly inattentive to both self and other. Similarly, with greetings Goffman (1971) was not so interested in the behaviors that constituted a greeting, but rather with how interactants knew a successful greeting had been accomplished.
In Frame Analysis (1974) Goffman first put forward a complex and integrated theory of individual and social behavior. In doing so, his work had developed an even more distinct similarity to Perceptual Control Theory (McPhail 2002; Schweingruber 1994; Miller 1993).  As with Mead, his central concern was with “the act,” what Goffman called “guided doings.” Remember, Goffman was interested in how things get accomplished and with what people are doing by themselves and with others. For him, what people are “doing” is guided controlled with respect to the desired or expected culmination of the act. In order to carry it off, “a serial management of consequentiality is sustained, that is, continuous corrective control, becoming most apparent when action is unexpectedly blocked or deflected and special compensatory effort is required (1974, 22).” Con men do whatever is necessary to reel in a mark without spooking him. Those marks wary of the proposition placed in front of them require constant corrective control if the act is to have consequence for the cons (Goffman 1952).
Powers focus has been on the control process involved in individual behavior. Goffman, on the other hand, repeatedly claimed that while he was not interested in analyzing individual behavior, he found it necessary to do so. “I assume that the proper study of interaction is not the individual and his psychology ... None the less, since it is individual actors who contribute the ultimate materials, it will always be reasonable to ask what general properties they must have if this sort of contribution is to be expected of them. What minimal model of the actor is needed if we are to wind him up, stick him in amongst his fellows, and have an orderly traffic of behavior emerge (Goffman 1974, 2-3)?” That minimal model included a verbal approximation of the control process as described by Powers (1973).
One must be able to act toward something in order to affect perceptual input. When two colleagues greet each other as they pass in the hall, often they will establish eye-contact and nod. They may, however, exchange “Good morning”(s). Their intended action – to acknowledge each other’s presence and attention – created a situation allowing the other to return a nod so perceived by self as a reciprocal indication of civility, neighborliness, and that everything is OK. Such greetings could involve two neighbors waving to each other over a back fence. The principle of equifinality finds that the end state of a system may be reached from different initial conditions and in different ways. Action cannot be understood simply by describing behavior; it is primarily the perceptual process of controlling a variable(s) toward some desired outcome.  It was the establishment of neighborliness and civility that constituted the projected outcome. The exact behavior involved is relevant only to the extent that it worked; it is pragmatically significant.
Perceptual control works only if a mental process comparing how the present situation looks (sounds, feels) with regard to how we want it to look (sound or feel). Behavior is continually adjusted based the error signal derived from the comparisons in a manner so that the error signal moves toward zero with the perceptual input of a successfully completed act – reaching a desired outcome. However, people seldom engage in purposive behavior that goes smoothly. Rather, actions often are disturbed or interrupted. In order to complete the act, the individuals concerned must take action in order to overcome the disturbance. For Goffman, when the interaction between two people begins to unravel – for example when a man calls his date by the wrong name – the other may act to protect the offending person’s face by ignoring the gaffe or by making a little joke of it. The issue isn’t how control is reestablished, but that it is.
Goffman was aware that accomplishing an activity requires continual attention to what’s happening now in relation to the desired situation, and that adjustments often are necessary and that these, too must be monitored in order to see if progress toward the desired state is being made.
Goffman (1974) called the cognitive organization of situations – frames. To Goffman raw experience was perceived through frames, thus transforming meaningless raw data into something meaningful and workable in terms of the present situation and the desired outcome. Frames allow people to locate, perceive, identify, and label experience. He argued that these frames were essential for successfully identifying and understanding social situations, and for the successful construction of guided doings. Not only do people learn to read situations – to know “What’s happening here?” – but also to identify the end state of the act (the desired outcome).
PCT proposes that individuals (living organisms) are composed of hierarchies of control loops – from autonomic activities like temperature regulation, to non-symbolic purposive action such as walking, to symbolic purposive action such as playing a game of chess or conversing with a friend (McPhail 2002). These hierarchies, while obviously based on the presence of complex neural networks, are built-up through the individual’s successful participation in the external environment – including, of course, the social and symbolic worlds of daily life.
For Goffman, guided doings are organized on several levels at the same time. He notes that while playing a game of chess one must manipulate the natural world, overcoming its constraints and obstacles, as one acts in “special worlds” of chess and in the specific interaction encounter – the game and opponent at hand. Here, Goffman invokes a hierarchical control structure similar to that espoused in PCT – from non-symbolic to symbolic to systems levels. One must maintain poise and “stay” in the game, observe the eyes and movements of other, carefully move one’s own chess pieces in the context of anticipating the opponent’s response and one’s subsequent move, thus presenting self as a competent and self-assured chess player. The chess player knows this is happening by monitoring the non-verbal behavior of the other. Through perceptual input one assesses the degree to which the impressions of the other have been successfully managed, and the player gains insight into the other player’s strategy as it relates to self and the game as it is presently situated.
At the top of Goffman’s hierarchy is the self, a fragile system-level process that is nearly totally dependent on how one perceives others perceiving and acting toward it. Self is that stage of the hierarchy through which symbolic behavior is orgnized, initiated, and regulated – keeping the situation organized and moving toward desired ends (1959; 1967; 1983). For Goffman (1956; 1955) people went through life trying to keep from being embarrassed, humiliated, and/or shamed. In the terminology of PCT, the absence of embarrassment and humiliation are controlled variables at the highest level of the hierarchy. Embarrassment is “the flustering caused by the perception that a flubbed performance, a working consensus of identities, cannot, or in any event will not be repaired in time (Silver, Sabini, and Parrott 1987)” and the situation falls apart. A new advertising agent gets flustered and flubs a presentation to a potential client. The situation ends with the embarrassed agent leaving the board room. Such embarrassment not only draws attention to the adequacy of self, but also the interaction has broken down with a potentially devastating effect on the relationship between the agency and the potential client.
Goffman felt that interaction participants were morally obliged to look out for each other – to do one’s part to control the variables that may lead to embarrassment and the breakdown of order. This “golden rule” of interaction was necessary for survival of the social order and preservation of self. Therefore, commitment to a working consensus in social situations has moral dimensions. This commitment is to the interaction order, that fragile and mutable boundary between chaos and survival and to the mutual protection of self. In the interaction between the advertising agent and client, the client could have helped the agent by initiating a course of action that would put the rookie agent at ease, helping her save face and keeping the sales interaction moving along. By controlling perceptual input – the poise of the agent and the sense that the social act is progressing toward completion – the interaction order is sustained and selves protected.
Embarrassment stems not from a flubbed performance, but rather from the responses of others as perceived by self. It is not our behavior that embarrasses us. Rather, it is our perception of how others see us as the kind of person who flubs his performance and fails to maintain poise in a deteriorating situation. Goffman suggests participants in interaction have a moral obligation to sustain their own and each other’s claims to relevant identities and that embarrassment emerges if expressive facts threaten or discredit the assumptions a participant has projected about his identity. That is, we are obliged to help each other overcome disruptions and maintain the interaction order. We may fumble all over ourselves in our negotiations with potential business partners, but unless the fumbling is perceived or perceived as troublesome, no damage is done. The negotiations proceed. Indeed, “face-to-face interaction requires just those capacities that embarrassment may destroy (Heath 1988, 138).”
How do perceptual control theorists know when individuals are controlling a particular perceptual variable? They have devised a test. By disturbing/disrupting an individual’s behavior it is possible to witness (observe and measure) “compensatory actions taken by the individual allowing him to continue his original line of action.” The disruption makes public and observable the act of control as well as the variable(s) being controlled. Goffman’s approach to the test has been called the method of revelation through disruption (Collins and Makowski 1989). Clearly interested in the disruptions, flubs, gaffes, and muffs that momentarily stop or disrupt the flow of face-to-face interaction, Goffman focused on how such breaches are repaired – in how perceptions of order are re-established, “by what compensatory methods the interaction was remediated (1974, 3).”
In order to understand the routine competence and taken-for-grantedness of interaction Goffman looked to situations in which interaction was breached.  For Goffman breached interaction was a significant method of data generation “because we [the participants] are gleaning one another’s intentions and purposes from appearances in interaction. We are constantly in a position to facilitate this revealment, to block it, or even to misdirect our viewers (Goffman 1983, 3).” By studying face-to-face interaction, the disruptions can help the analyst identify which variables are being controlled (or temporarily not controlled). Also, by creating a disturbance in social situations it is possible to gain critical insight on how organized social activities are constructed and maintained by their participants. The public nature of the disorganization and subsequent reorganization provides the researcher with data pertinent to the question addressed.
As with “the test” in PCT, breached interaction may deflect one or more people away from their purposive activity and instead lead to a new course of action or interaction. For example, panhandlers take on a difficult task. They must disturb the on-going behavior of a person walking down the street, gain his attention, introduce the topics of money and need, and convince the person to fork over a reasonable amount. The accomplished panhandler does not rely on a script or a stepwise recipe. Rather, he will take his cue to pursue a person given the slightest indication of connection – a break in formation, eye-contact, a slowing down – and continually adjust his behavior to the attention and responsiveness of the mark, behaving in a way to maintain a level of interrelatedness that will lead to getting some money. Here we can witness the successful completion of a social act – and most certainly we can witness unsuccessful social acts that breakdown
The principle approach in Perceptual Control Theory to the study of human behavior is to construct computer models and demonstrations. On the other hand, Goffman was a naturalist and a radical empiricist. He observed from the standpoint of a detached but present and (perhaps) reluctant participant. He wrote from that perspective, a habit that often obscured the control being exhibited by those he was observing. Goffman’s practice was to take copious notes of a wide variety of situations, actions, and encounters. In addition, he gathered and collected written accounts of social situations and the thoughts and perceptions of actors within them. Goffman did not gather large, representative samples of situations and interactions. Rather, he gathered diverse specimens (Runkle 1990) of situations and interactions which he, then, described in great detail.
The specimens Goffman collected were used to illustrate more general processes. The specimens served as evidence of more pervasive and complex processes. For example, he described in great detail how people changed their facial expressions as they came into the visual presence of others, and in doing so acted to manage the impressions the immediate others had of self. He demonstrated how such actions were examples of how people maintained civility and neighborliness. Even if a neighbor witnessed the change in facial expression of an approaching visitor from a resigned frown to an expectant smile, the neighbor would almost always act as if the warm smile was authentic. And, if the visitor was aware that the neighbor had witnessed the purposive transformation, yet acted toward the visitor as if his friendliness was authentic, he would continue the ruse unabated in controlled mutual pretense. It is clear that Goffman’s method of collecting specimens of interactions and social situations served him well. He was able to sample to his emergent theory. A representative sampling or randomizing approach would not have been appropriate to the questions he addressed, nor would these approaches to generating data have revealed the richness of detail found in his specimens. 
In Behavior in Public Places Goffman studied how people manage co-presence in social situations varying from unfocused to focused interaction. He noted that social interaction required its participants to act so that “our actions will render our behavior understandably relevant to what the other can come to perceive is going on (Goffman 1983,51).” Working consensus is developed and through past successes of working consensus individuals come to anticipate the perceptions of others and their subsequent action.
Both Mead and Goffman discuss an internalized recognition (memory) of the elementary structure of social acts from the perspectives of those involved who know what is expected of each given the social act. While socialized individuals have cognitive models of social acts successfully organized, exactly what behavior is called for is not scripted. Rather sequences are generalized as abstract categories of response. For example, with greetings, eye-contact followed by reciprocal nods is functionally identical to a “good day” – “good day” sequence. For each the issue is a successfully accomplished greeting.
When two or more people come into each other’s sensory space they establish “co-presence,” a situation in which each “must sense that they are close enough to be perceived in whatever they are doing, including their experiencing of others, and close enough to be perceived in this sensing of being perceived (1963,17).” Often, strangers in co-present situations are aware of the actions of other(s) but remain publicly inattentive to them. This civil inattention is difficult to manage, calling for attention to detail and action. One is aware that others are present and of what they are doing. The person makes it known to the co-present others that he is aware of the situation – that they are in each other’s co-presence – that they are accessible, but not available. That is, the others are not a direct focus of attention or a direct participant in the on-going line of action. This situation is managed by the participants through the control of perceptual input of accessibility without availability as acknowledged by each other.
A modestly more focused form of interaction for Goffman, a queue is “… one of the most human, most moral of all social encounters precisely because it has the least external organization and requires the purest commitment to the interactional order for its own sake (Goffman 1983).”
“For instance, a queue has a particular and characteristic spatial organization. It has boundaries, and would-be queue members must observe these boundaries, otherwise they may not hold a ‘place’ in it. If you stand too far to the side or too far back from the next person, questions may arise as to whether you are really in the queue or not. To engage in queuing, thus, participants must join in sustaining a spatial arrangement and this must be done through a kind of interaction that can in fact be said to be governed by a jointly sustained attentional focus. Such a focus is rarely formulated as such, … Nevertheless, it is something to which all members of the queue are attentive, for it is easy to observe how they co-operate with one another to keep it going (Kendon 1988,26).”
In his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association Goffman (1983) summed up his life’s work by laying out how naturalistic research on face-to-face interaction fit with the larger projects within sociology. In it he noted how his work fit and how it was to be understood. In his conclusion Goffman noted that sociology should be useful – that it should be able to help make a better society. To this end he wrote, “If one must have warrant addressed to social needs, let it be for unsponsored analyses of the social arrangements enjoyed by those with institutional authority – priests, psychiatrists, school teachers, police, generals, government leaders, parents, males, whites, nationals, media operators, and all the other well-placed persons who are in a position to give official imprint to versions of reality (1983, 17).” Goffman’s ideas along with those of Perceptual Control Theory to which I find a strong affinity are essential for such analyses.
I do not think it is an accident that those sociologists and social psychologists who were influenced by Goffman found Perceptual Control Theory. While Goffman and Powers never met, a direct linkage between them may be present. The parallels are remarkable and Goffman’s work is lovely in light of Powers writings on Perceptual Control Theory. However, this is not the end of the story. The influence of PCT in sociology continues and grows (though slowly) through the work of Clark McPhail, Charles Tucker, Peter Burke, Kent McClelland, David Schweingruber, Bob Hintz, and others. 
The movement will not be an easy one as most social scientists identify a control system as a metaphor and not as actual socio-neurological processes. As pragmatists, symbolic interactionists will not believe that perceptual control theorists have reached anything close to scientific law. Instead, the pragmatists will employ PCT as a useful approach to solving practical and theoretical problems. The approach to theory taken by symbolic interactionists and pragmatists is not accepted sympathetically by Powers and many of his followers. In fact, the pragmatic inclusion of PCT into other social scientific approaches is a matter of great concern and consternation to the principal agents of PCT who insist on a kind of “purity.”
We have come a long way since Dewey’s and Mead’s early formulations of a rudimentary perceptual control model. Powers has advanced the model of the controlled act to its present elegant complexity. While Powers’ focus was on the purposive action of individuals, Goffman focused on the purposive action of two or more individuals fitting their behaviors together to form concerted action. They didn’t know each other, but their very useful and powerful ideas mesh nicely, and those ideas are alive in the social sciences, helping us to roll the rock up the mountain.
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Dan E. Miller, Ph.D. is a professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. A past President of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction he has been actively involved in bringing the ideas of perceptual control back into symbolic interactionism.
 An early draft of this paper was first read at the Control Systems Group meetings held in Durango, CO in July of 1993. I would like to thank Clark McPhail and David Schweingruber for their incisive comments on the paper. A later version of this paper was read at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction in Chicago, 2002. Address all inquiries to: Dan Miller, Department of Sociology, University of Dayton, Dayton, OH 45469-1442.
 After World War II scientists who had been working with computers, cryptography, and game theory developed a general theory that Norbert Wiener in 1948 named cybernetics – Greek for steersman – a direct reference to the self-regulated, purposive actor.
 Symbolic Interaction(ism) was coined by Herbert Blumer in 1937. Before that the theoretical perspective was known as Social Behaviorism. We are not sure what Mead called his perspective.
 Kendon (1988) provides evidence that Goffman attended one of the last Macy Conference with Gregory Bateson. Indeed, Bateson’s influence on Goffman is evident in his work on mental illness and as an observer in mental hospital wards (Goffman 1963; 1967).
 It is clear that Powers’ ideas were grounded in cybernetics and engineering control theory and not from the ideas of Dewey and Mead. Both Mead and Powers’ ideas were sharpened by their critiques of behaviorist principles.
 Goffman did not always cite his influences. Clearly, he read voluminously, but from reading him one may draw the conclusion that he was more influenced by a spy novelist or an etiquette columnist than by a scholar whose work his closely resembles.
 “The interaction order” was Goffman’s (1983) posthumously published Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association. In it he connected his life’s work into a coherent and powerful theoretical statement that was, I believe, present in the 1974 work, Frame Analysis.
 Late in 1973 Clark McPhail suggested that my colleague Bob Hintz and I read Powers’ book, Behavior: The Control of Perception. While McPhail was one of the first sociologists to recognize the importance of Powers’ ideas, he was not alone. Powers’ book was listed in Erving Goffman’s estate.
 The concept of the breach as a methodological device for the study of social interaction was elaborated by Harold Garfinkel (1967). He defined breaching as an intrusion intended “to produce and sustain bewilderment, consternation, confusion; to produce socially structured effects of anxiety, shame, guilt, and indignation; and to produce disorganized interaction … (to) tell us something about how the structures of everyday activities are ordinarily and routinely produced and maintained (1967,38).”
 Goffman’s use of the method of specimens was roundly criticized by some sociological colleagues. Their major complaints were that his work was disjointed and nonsystematic.
 A sampling of the works based on or influenced by Powers’ ideas include McPhail (1994), McPhail and Tucker (1990), Schweingruber (1994), Burke (1999), McClelland (1994), Miller, Hintz, and Couch (1975), and Hintz and Miller (1997).