Social engineering (political science)

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This article is about influencing society on a large scale. For use as an information security concept, see Social engineering (security).

Social Engineering is a discipline in social science that refers to efforts to influence popular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments, media or private groups. Social Engineering can also be understood philosophically as a deterministic phenomenon. As Dr. R. D. Ingthorsson alluded to, a human being is a biological creature from birth but is from then on shaped as a person through social influences (upbringing/socialisation) and is in that sense a social construction.

A social engineer is one who tries to influence popular attitudes, social behaviors, and resource management on a large scale. Social engineering is the application of the scientific method for social concern. Social engineers use the methods of science to analyze and understand social systems, so as to arrive at appropriate decisions as scientists, and not as politicians. In the political arena, the counterpart of social engineering is political engineering.

Decision-making can affect the safety and survival of literally billions of people. The scientific theory expressed by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies in his study The Present Problems of Social Structure,[1] proposes that society can no longer operate successfully using outmoded methods of social management. To achieve the best outcomes, all conclusions and decisions must use the most advanced techniques and include reliable statistical data, which can be applied to a social system. According to this, social engineering is a data-based scientific system used to develop a sustainable design so as to achieve the intelligent management of Earth’s resources with the highest levels of freedom, prosperity, and happiness within a population.

As a result of abuse by authoritarian regimes, and other non-inclusive attempts at social engineering, the term has in cases been imbued with a negative connotation. In British and Canadian jurisprudence, changing public attitudes about a behaviour is accepted as one of the key functions of laws prohibiting the behaviour. Governments also influence behavior more subtly through incentives and disincentives built into economic policy and tax policy, for instance, and have done so for centuries.


The term sociale ingenieurs was introduced in an essay by the Dutch industrialist J.C. Van Marken in 1894. The idea was that modern employers needed the assistance of specialists—"social engineers"—in handling the human problems of the planet, just as they needed technical expertise (ordinary engineers) to deal with the problems of dead matter (materials, machines, processes). The term was brought to America in 1899, when the notion of "social engineering" was also launched as the name of the task of the social engineer in this sense. "Social engineering" was the title of a small journal in 1899 (from 1900 named "Social Service"), and in 1909 the title of a book by its former editor, William H. Tolman (translated in French in 1910), marking the end of the usage of the terminology in the sense of Van Marken. With the Social Gospel sociologist Edwin L. Earp's The Social Engineer, published during the "efficiency craze" of 1911 in the U.S., the usage of the term was launched that has since then been standard: the one building on a metaphor of social relations as "machineries",[2] to be dealt with in the manner of the technical engineer.[3]

A prerequisite of social engineering, is a body of reliable information about the society that is to be engineered and effective tools to carry out the engineering. The availability of which has dramatically increased within the past one hundred years. Prior to the printing press, it was difficult for groups outside of the wealthy to gain access to a reliable body of information as the media for conveying the information was prohibitively expensive. With the rise of the information age, information can be distributed and produced on an un-precedented scale. Similarly digital technology has increased the variety and access of effective tools. However, it has also created questionably reliable bodies of information.

While social engineering can be carried out by any organization, without regard to scale, or sponsorship in the public or private sector. Some of the most comprehensive, and most pervasive campaigns of social engineering are those initiated by powerful central governments with the systems of authority to widely effect the individuals and cultures within their purview.

Extremely intensive social engineering campaigns occurred in countries with authoritarian governments. In the 1920s, the government of the Soviet Union embarked on a campaign to fundamentally alter the behavior and ideals of Soviet citizens, to replace the old social frameworks of Tsarist Russia with a new Soviet culture, to create the New Soviet man. The Soviets used newspapers, books, film, mass relocations, and even architectural design tactics to serve as "social condenser" and change personal values and private relationships. In a less positive manner, political executions, e.g. Night of the Murdered Poets, and arguably fear of becoming a victim of mass murder with the Mass killings under Communist regimes, played an influential role in the social engineering frameworks in Soviet Russia. Similar examples are the Chinese "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution" program and the Khmer Rouge's plan of deurbanization of Cambodia. In Singapore, the government's housing policies attempt to promote a mix of all races within each subsidized housing district in order to foster social cohesion and national loyalty while providing citizens with affordable housing.[citation needed] In Tanzania in the 1970s, the government pursued a policy of enforced villagisation under Operation Vijiji in order to promote collective farming.[4]

Non-authoritarian regimes tend to rely on more sustained social engineering campaigns that create more gradual, but ultimately far-reaching, change. Examples include the "War on Drugs" in the United States, the increasing reach of intellectual property rights and copyright, and the promotion of elections as a political tool. The campaign for promoting elections, which is by far the most successful of the three examples, has been in place for over two centuries. Social theorists of the Frankfurt School in Weimar Germany like Theodor Adorno had also observed the new phenomenon of mass culture and commented on its new manipulative power, when the rise of the National Socialists drove them out of the country around 1930 (many of them became connected with the Institute for Social Research in the United States). National Socialists themselves were no strangers to the idea of influencing political attitudes and redefining personal relationships. The national socialist propaganda machine under Joseph Goebbels was a synchronized, sophisticated and effective tool for creating public opinion.

In a similar vein the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 attempted to steer Greek public opinion not only by propaganda but also by inventing new words and slogans such as palaiokommatismos (old-partyism), Ellas Ellinon Christianon (Greece of Christian Greeks), and Ethnosotirios Epanastasis (nation-saving revolution, meaning coup d'état).

Social engineering can be used as a means to achieve a wide variety of different results, as illustrated by the different governments and other organizations that have employed it. The discussion of the possibilities for such manipulation became especially active following World War II, with the advent of television, and continuing discussion of techniques of social engineering, particularly in advertising, and bias-based journalism, is still quite pertinent in the western model of consumer capitalism. Within journalism when the intent is not to report objectively, but to report with an intent to sway popular attitudes and social behaviors or "Shape public opinion" it comes under the scope of social engineering. This also applies when information that would bring into question the viewpoints and social goals of a journalistic establishment is withheld in favor of other information. Within ethical journalism the knowledge of both personal and establishment/producer bias, allows the journalist to avoid social engineering by correcting it and reporting factual evidence in a way which does not promote or oppose attitudes and social behaviors, and thereby portray or deny them as the "popular" attitude and preferable social behavior by virtue of the establishment's authority or possession of a national or international platform.

It is of note that social engineering practiced in exclusion of cultural elements and interacting societies has led to pogroms, and mass murders, particularly when employed by authoritarian regimes. Often this occurs because these cultures or societies are perceived as possessing "undesirable" traits. The acting engineers have used the simple "effective" tool of violence over the difficult and time consuming methods of persuasion and logic.

Caution in social engineering methods includes consideration of the inherent incompleteness of their body of information and how it affects their utilization of tools at hand. Analysis of social engineering goals and their desirability which include the desires of the community which they desire to engineer answer the question of the ethics of disclosure. Social engineering without consent is a violation of the culture, and constitutes an assault tantamount to a rape, or siezing by force of that culture raptio. Consent, full disclosure and involvement, presents additional difficulties which help to avoid marginalization and feelings of violation within the culture. Long term attempts at social engineering in the Middle East may be considered to have extreme backlash, as a result of being non inclusive of the cultural values, body of reliable information, or utilization of effective tools. This is described in the article "Social Engineering 101 how to make a refugee crisis" [5]

In defense of the comparison to rape consider this article Raptio which describes the origin of the word which meant "seize prey, take by force," from raper, an Old French legal term for "to seize", in turn from Latin rapere "seize, carry off by force, abduct". Social engineering is an exercise of removing an attitude or behavior and replacing it with another. Which is done with force, when done without consent, that constitutes a violation through abducting an individual or societies culture and replacing it with the engineers culture.

In India, Social engineering was effectively done in the state of Bihar, on a grander scale, to unify different castes after 2005.[6] The coherency of voting allegiances based on social extremes among upper castes and Dalits were challenged by this vote (Poll in Indian reference).[7][8][9]

Karl Popper[edit]

In his classic political science book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, volume I, The Spell of Plato (1945), Karl Popper examined the application of the critical and rational methods of science to the problems of the open society. In this respect, he made a crucial distinction between the principles of democratic social engineering (what he called "piecemeal social engineering") and Utopian social engineering.

Popper wrote:

The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.[10]

According to Popper, the difference between "piecemeal social engineering" and "Utopian social engineering" is:

"It is the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which, if really tried, may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering. It is the difference between a method which can be applied at any moment, and a method whose advocacy may easily become a means of continualy postponing action until a later date, when conditions are more favorable. And it is also the difference between the only method of improving matters which has so far been really successful, at any time, and in any place, and a method which, wherever it has been tried, has led only to the use of violence in place of reason, and if not to its own abandonment, at any rate to that of its original blueprint.[10]

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