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 particular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments, media or private groups in order to produce desired characteristics in a target population. Social engineering can also be understood philosophically as a deterministic phenomenon where the intentions and goals of the architects of the new social construct are realized.

Social engineers use the scientific method to analyze and understand social systems in order to design the appropriate methods to achieve the desired results in the human subjects.

Decision-making can affect the safety and survival of 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 and human capital 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.

R. D. Ingthorsson states that 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 product of society.


The Dutch industrialist J.C. Van Marken introduced the term sociale ingenieurs in an essay 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 came 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 into 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.[2]

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.[citation needed] The availability of which has dramatically increased within the past one hundred years. Prior to the invention of 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 unprecedented scale. Similarly digital technology has increased the variety and access of effective tools. However, it has also created questionably reliable bodies of information.

Social engineering can be carried out by any organization, without regard to scale, or sponsorship in the public or private sector.[citation needed] 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 affect the individuals and cultures within their purview.[citation needed]

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 a "social condenser" and to change personal values and private relationships. In a less positive manner, political executions (for example the Night of the Murdered Poets in Moscow in 1952), 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 include the Chinese "Great Leap Forward" (1958-1961) and "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976) programs and the Khmer Rouge's deurbanization of Cambodia (1975-1979). 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.[3]

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,[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Social theorists of the Frankfurt School in Weimar Germany like Theodor Adorno had 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 shaping 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. Discussion of the possibilities for such manipulation became especially active following World War II, with the advent of mass television, and continuing discussion of techniques of social engineering, particularly in advertising, and bias-based journalism, remains quite pertinent in the western model of consumer capitalism. Journalism, when the intent is not to report objectively, but to report with an intent to sway popular attitudes and social behaviors or to "shape public opinion", 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 by 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.

Note that social engineering practiced in exclusion of cultural elements and interacting societies has led to pogroms and to 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 rather than 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 includes 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 seizing by force of that culture raptio.[citation needed] 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[by whom?] 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".[4]

In defense of the comparison to rape, consider the 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[by whom?] in the state of Bihar, on a grander scale, to unify different castes after 2005.[5] The coherency of voting allegiances based on social extremes among upper castes and Dalits were challenged by this vote (Poll in Indian reference).[6][7][8]

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.[9]

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 continually 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.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 10, 1905, no. 5, p. 569–688
  2. ^ a b Östlund, David (2007). "A knower and friend of human beings, not machines: The business career of the terminology of social engineering, 1894-1910". Ideas in History. 2 (2): 43–82. ISSN 1890-1832. Retrieved 2016-09-05. 
  3. ^ Lange, Siri. (2008) Land Tenure and Mining In Tanzania. Bergen: Chr. Michelson Institute, p. 2.
  4. ^ Cartalucci, Tony (2015-09-13). "Social Engineering 101: How to Make a Refugee Crisis | New Eastern Outlook". Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  5. ^ "Bihar polls 2015: BJP banks on PM Narendra Modi's popularity and its social engineering experiment - The Economic Times". 2015-10-12. Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  6. ^ "Bihar, after Delhi". The Indian Express. Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  7. ^ "Nitish's dismal show a case of monumental miscalculation : Bihar, News - India Today". 2014-05-16. Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  8. ^ "Social engineering: Bharatiya Janata Party's Bihar formula to swing a vote? | Business Standard News". 2015-07-11. Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  9. ^ a b Popper, K. 1971 The Open Society and Its Enemies Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Further reading[edit]

  • "The Best That Money Can’t Buy: Beyond Politics, Poverty, and War", Jacque Fresco, 2002.
  • Peter Swirski. American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York, Routledge, 2011.
  • Charles Arthur Willard. Liberalism and the Social Grounds of Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Noam Chomsky. 1998.
  • Seeing Like a State. James C. Scott. 1999.
  • Social Engineering. Adam Podgórecki. 1996.
  • "Production as Social Change: Policy Sociology as a Public Good". Sociological Spectrum. 36 (3): 183-190. Jarrett Thibodeaux. 2016.