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Cross-Disciplinary Pariahs


The figure below shows a simplified version of the classic engineering Feedback Control System (FCS). There are two significant features that distinguish an FCS from a typical engineering system. First, the input is not a raw signal to be manipulated in order to produce a derived output of added informational value. It is a “desiredsetpoint (or goal, or reference) to be “achieved” by the system’s design.

The second feature is the feedback loop which taps off the output signal and provides real-time evidence to the comparator of how well the output is converging to (or diverging from) the desired setpoint. For a given application, the system’s innards are designed such that the output tracks its input with hi fidelity – even in the presence of “disturbances” (e.g. noise) that infiltrate the system.

In purely technical systems (as opposed to socio-technical systems), the FCS system output would typically be connected to an “actuator” device like a motor,  a switch, a valve,  a furnace, etc that affects an important measurable quantity in the external environment. The desired setpoints for these type of systems would be motor speed, switch position, valve position, and temperature, respectively. The mathematics of how engineering FCSs behave been known since the 1930s.

In defiance of mainstream psychology and sociology pedagogy, Bill Powers and Rudy Starkermann spent much of their careers applying control theory concepts to their own innovative theories of human behavior. Their heretical, cross-disciplinary approaches to psychology and sociology have kept them oppressed and out of the mainstream much like Deming, Ackoff, Argyris in management “science”.

The figure below shows (big simplifications of) the Powers and Starkermann models side by side. Note the similarities between them and also between them and the classic engineering FCS.

  • Engineering FCS: Setpoint/Comparator/Feedback Loop
  • Powers: Reference/Comparator/Feedback Loop
  • Starkermann: Goal/Summing Node/Feedback Loop

The big (and it’s huge) difference between the Starkermann/Powers models and the engineering FCS model  is that Starkermann’s goal and Powers’ reference signal originate from within the system whereas the dumb-ass engineering FCS must “be told” what the desired setpoint is by something outside of itself (a human or another mechanistic system designed by a human). In the Starkermann/Powers FCS models of human behavior, “being told” is processed as a disturbance.

If you delve deeper into the “obscure” work of Starkermann and Powers, your world view of the behavior of individuals and groups of individuals just may change – for the better or the worse.

  1. W. Livingston
    August 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Well done.

  1. August 11, 2012 at 7:46 am
  2. August 17, 2012 at 6:03 am
  3. August 26, 2012 at 5:04 am
  4. March 18, 2013 at 5:49 am

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