Social engineering (political science)  

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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 1905 study The Present Problems of Social Structure, 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.

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 affect the individuals and cultures within their purview. 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.

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.

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.

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 (de) introduced the term sociale ingenieurs ("social engineers") in an essay in 1894. The idea was that modern employers needed the assistance of specialists in handling the human challenges, just as they needed technical expertise (traditional engineers) to deal with non-human challenges (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 (renamed "Social Service" from 1900), and in 1909 it was the title of a book by the journal's former editor, William H. Tolman (translated into French in 1910). This marked the end of the usage of the terminology in the sense created by 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., a new usage of the term was launched that has since then become standard: "Social engineering" came to refer to an approach of treating social relations as "machineries", to be dealt with in the manner of the technical engineer.

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 such information 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.


Radical social engineering campaigns occurred in countries with authoritarian governments, while non-authoritarian regimes tend to rely on more sustained social engineering campaigns that create more gradual, but ultimately far-reaching, change. 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.

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 the Russian Empire 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, 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 Ethnic Integration Policy attempt to promote a mix of all races within each subsidized housing district in order to foster social and racial cohesion while providing citizens with affordable housing.

In the United States, cases of social engineering include the "War on Drugs", 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.

In British and Canadian jurisprudence, changing public attitudes about a behaviour is accepted as one of the key functions of laws prohibiting the behaviour.

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 in the 1920s. These theorists left Germany around 1930 due to the rise of the Nazi Party, and many of them became connected with the Institute for Social Research in the United States. After Nazi Germany was established, the new government also made use of methods to influence political attitudes and redefine personal relationships. The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels was a synchronized, sophisticated and effective tool for shaping public opinion.

In Greece, 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).

In Tanzania in the 1970s, the government pursued a policy of enforced villagisation under Operation Vijiji in order to promote collective farming.

In Egypt, social engineering is being practiced by the current authoritarian regime and by the media controlled by the Egyptian Intelligence, Military since 2013 coup d'état to overthrow the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Since then, Sisi has been using social engineering by controlling the media and Internet providers.

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

Karl Popper

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.

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.

See also

Further reading

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