Social Engineering

views updated May 17 2018


Social engineering occurs in two forms: large scale and small scale. The debate surrounding these two approaches to the design of social institutions constitutes a fundamental issue in the ethics of science and technology. To what extent is it possible and legitimate for scientific expertise to serve as the basis for social policy and action? Can humans use science to rationally design and successfully implement an enduring society? Different concepts of scientific knowledge and technological action supply different answers to these questions and variously support large scale versus small scale engineering efforts.

Large Scale Social Engineering

Large scale efforts to improve the human condition are a modern phenomenon. Such endeavors require technical knowledge, political muscle, and economic resources. In supporting these claims, James Scott (1998) characterizes the rise of high modernism in social-political, agricultural, industrial, and architectural contexts during the last two centuries. High modernism encompasses a quest for authoritarian control of both human and nonhuman nature, a belief that carefully crafted social order surpasses happenstance, and a confidence in science as a means to social progress. Once the improvement of humanity becomes a plausible state goal, the convergence of rising social science, state bureaucracy, and mass media undergirds five-year collectivist plans, colonial development schemes, revolutionary agricultural programs, and the like, often under the control of a single planning entity.

In urban planning, for example, Scott details the designs of the Swiss architect, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, (1887–1965), known professionally as Le Corbusier. For Le Corbusier, urban design expresses universal scientific truths. His geometric symmetries often structured human activity, as inhabitants conformed to the design rather than vice versa. This approach applied to entire cities as well as individual homes ("machines for living"). Le Corbusier's formulaic concatenation of single function components produced simplicity via widely separated spaces for living, working, shopping, and recreating. Defining the good of the people, often the working poor, in terms of detached, scientific principles and their authoritarian imposition is, according to Scott, emblematic of high modernist, large scale attempts at social engineering.

Small Scale Social Engineering

In conceiving the perfect, nondecaying state, Plato envisions a radical departure from existing society. Marxists, too, as self-described social engineers, use historical interpretation in aiming for revolutionary, holistic change. The Anglo-Austrian Philosopher, Karl Popper (1902–1994) contrasts these utopian endeavors with "piecemeal social engineering." When society needs reforming, the piecemeal engineer

does not believe in the method of re-designing it as a whole. Whatever his ends, he tries to achieve them by small adjustments and re-adjustments which can be continually improved upon. ... The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he knows. He knows that we can learn only from our mistakes. Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unavoidable unwanted consequences of any reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which make it impossible for him to disentangle causes and effects, and to know what he is really doing. (Popper 1957, pp. 66–67)

These claims resonate with Camus's (1956) distrust of ideologically calculated revolution and his preference for limited but inspired rebellion. In Popper's view, mistakes are inevitable, and more radical innovations produce more mistakes. Because foolproof social forms are unattainable, some mechanism for identifying needed improvements must be an integral part of a necessarily gradual implementation process. This view contrasts with that of large scale social engineering on several dimensions and highlights multiple points of contention.

Spontaneous versus Consciously Controlled Change

Popper's (1972) concept of evolutionary epistemology supports not only the idea that advances are slow and piecemeal but also that they are guided by no overarching plan. This view resembles that of the twentieth-century British economist Friedrich Hayek (Nishiyama and Leube 1984). Hayek (1967) emphasizes the view that significant social phenomena emerge spontaneously via the unintended effects of individual actions, and he finds support for the benefits of this process in the ideas of the British political economist, Josiah Tucker (1711–1799), and especially the Austrian economist Karl Menger (1840–1921), that social institutions compete with one another in a kind of survival of the fittest. Because knowledge required for large-scale planning is widely distributed among many minds and cannot be narrowly concentrated, Hayek rejects centralized planning. Popper (1963a) advocates "negative utilitarianism," the view that proposals for reform should be judged by how little suffering is caused. Government should thereby ameliorate enduring social ills (such as poverty and unemployment) and leave efforts to increase happiness to individual enterprise. These views shape the method (monitored, incremental change) and the goals (amelioration) of social engineering.

The nature of social reform is also examined by the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859–1952). But when Dewey speaks about the need for liberalism to advance beyond its early gains in securing individual freedom, his vision is incongruent with that of Hayek and Popper. For Dewey, liberalism should advance a social order that "cannot be established by an unplanned and external convergence of the actions of separate individuals, each of whom is bent on personal private advantage" (Dewey 1963 [1935], p. 54). This social reform must be thoroughgoing in its quest for institutional change.

For the gulf between what the actual situation makes possible and the actual state itself is so great that it cannot be bridged by piecemeal policies undertaken ad hoc. The process of producing the changes will be, in any case, a gradual one. But "reforms" that deal now with this abuse and now with that without having a social goal based upon an inclusive plan, differ entirely from efforts at reforming, in its literal sense, the institutional scheme of things. (p. 62)

Dewey sees the necessity of early planning in his thinking about social reform (Geiger 1971 [1939]), and while it is clear that Popper restricts not planning per se but only its scope and method, Dewey projects a wider, more vibrant use of planning in achieving social renovation. Education, science (the method of intelligence), and well-designed government policy are keys to social improvement.

The Nature of Scientific Knowledge

Any call for social engineering requires some clarification of the relationship between science and engineering. Popper differentiates natural and social science in ways that Dewey does not. In natural science, Popper's realist perspective dictates that theories make claims about unobservable realities responsible for observed regularities. These claims are tested by means of controlled experiments. In contrast, Popper construes social science as producing low-level empirical laws of a negative sort ("you cannot have full employment without inflation"), which are tested through practice in social engineering. This amounts to a narrow view of social science and contributes to the contrast between his scientific radicalism, which focuses on natural science, and his engineering conservatism, which is linked to social science. The contrast between Dewey the pragmatist and Popper the realist is instructive here. From Dewey's pragmatic perspective, "the ultimate objects of science are guided processes of change" (Dewey 1958 [1929], p. 160). Both natural science and social science provide an illustration of this concept (Dewey 1947). Popper's general aversion to abstract theories in social science may be linked to his desire to reject certain theories, such as that of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, on the basis of unfalsifiabilty. Dewey's acceptance of a wider range of theory plus empirical law in social science allows for testing to occur in a greater range of circumstances, not only in practice (which is often problematic: even piecemeal change simultaneously introduces multiple causal factors) but also in controlled, even laboratory, settings. Contemporary studies in social science embrace such methods, including those of simulation (Liebrand, Nowak, and Hegselmann 1998; Ilgen and Hulin 2000). Moreover, when guided by theory and experimental tests, changes introduced into practice need not be small scale. Large-scale changes may be introduced for larger scale problems (such the Great Depression or disease epidemics). Linking Science to Practice Popper and Dewey differ when relating science to social engineering. In disputes with the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), Popper emphasizes the value of critical and revolutionary action (bold conjectures and severe tests) over and above the uncritical plodding of normal science (Popper 1970). This contrasts with his recommendations for social engineering where action should be piecemeal. This contrast, acknowledged by Popper (1976) himself, may arise from the use of the scientific community as a model for society at large. Nevertheless, the degree of openness and fruitfulness of criticism differs significantly within these two realms (Burke 1983). Robert Ackermann proposes that an explanation "of the relative isolation of theoretical scientific knowledge from practical concerns is required to explain how a form of social conservatism can be held consistently with a form of theoretical radicalism" (Ackermann 1976, p. 174).

Such concerns are related to Scott's analysis of why large scale schemes have often failed to improve the human condition. Scott sees knowledge of how to attain worthwhile, sustainable solutions as being derived not from scientific theory, nor from the low level empirical laws cited by Popper, but by a form of know how (metis, from the ancient Greek) rooted in localized, cultivated practice. Like Dewey's conception, which builds an inherent normative element ("guided processes") into knowledge itself, there is no need to search for means of effective "application." The implication is that useful knowledge springs from contextualized activities, not from using local conditions to fill in the variables of general principles. This view raises serious doubts about the practical relevance of scientific expertise, in the modern sense, and its ability to produce sustainable solutions to social problems. Indeed, some have suggested that such limitations exist not only in large scale enterprises but also in small scale efforts involving more narrowly focused problems (Hamlett 1992, Winner 1992). A narrow focus can undermine the need to address larger issues and long run concerns and can mire the political process in gridlock. From these considerations, it should be clear that small scale engineering offers no panacea and that different concepts of small scale enterprise point the way in somewhat different directions.

Impact of the Social Engineering Issues

Questions concerning appropriate scale and the interaction of social science and social engineering have wide impact. An entire school of social scientists use Popper as a guide in trying to design effective social policy. The works of the incrementalist Charles Lindblom (The Intelligence of Democracy; Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving; Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society; etc.) provide, by title alone, some measure of the impact of Popper and Dewey and of social scientists' pursuit of social engineering. Moreover, differences between planned, rule-governed (top-down) versus unplanned, evolutionary (bottom-up) approaches inform methodologically diverse explorations within social science itself (Banathy 1996, Read and Miller 1998). Whether or not humans can effectively design social systems is essentially a question concerning human intelligence, and efforts to build automated intelligent systems confront the same methodological controversy concerning rule-governed versus connectionist, evolutionary designs ("Sackler Colloquium" 2002). Finally, controversies over the promises of planned societies continue to echo the dispute between Popper and Marxists over the true nature of social engineering (Cornforth 1968, Marquand 2000, Notturno 2000, Postrel 2001).


SEE ALSO Dewey, John;Incrementalism;Popper, Karl;Plato.


Ackermann, Robert. (1976). The Philosophy of Karl Popper. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Provides analyses of several central concepts, including Popper's account of the social sciences.

Banathy, Bela. (1996). Designing Social Systems in a Changing World. New York: Plenum. Explains design as a collective human activity and system design as a process for addressing a wide variety of problems from a holistic, large scale perspective.

Burke, T. E. (1983). The Philosophy of Popper. Dover, NH: Manchester University Press. Critically assesses Popper's connection of epistemological concepts to issues of freedom and values.

Cornforth, Maurice. (1968). The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper's Refutations of Marxism. New York: International Publishers.

Camus, Albert. (1956). The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Articulate and inspired statement of Camus's rejection of ideology, including Marxism, and his view of where that leaves any effort to improve the human condition.

Dewey, John. (1947). "Liberating the Social Scientist: A Plea to Unshackle the Study of Man." Commentary 4: 378–385.

Dewey, John. (1958 [1929]). Experience and Nature, 2nd edition. New York: Dover Publications.

Dewey, John. (1963 [1935]). Liberalism and Social Action. New York: Capricorn Books. Classic statement on the nature of Liberalism and its promise for an improved social order.

Geiger, George. (1971 [1939]). "Dewey's Social and Political Philosophy." In The Philosophy of John Dewey, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Hamlett, Patrick. (1992). Understanding Technological Politics: A Decision Making Approach. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. Combines the strengths of theoretical and empirical approaches by analyzing the framework and consequences of particular decisions concerning technology development and implementation.

Hayek, Friedrich. (1967). Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Impressive collection of twenty five articles authored in two decades that illustrate the range and genius of Hayek's thinking.

Ilgen, Daniel, and Charles Hulin. (2000). Computational Modeling of Behavior in Organizations: The Third Scientific Discipline. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Liebrand, Wim B. G.; Andezej Nowak; and Rainer Hegselmann, eds. (1998). Computer Modeling of Social Processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. This collection explores simulations, neural networks, and data analysis methods in explaining and predicting complex social processes.

Marquand, David. (2000). "A Tale of Three Karls: Marx, Popper, Polanyi, and Post-Socialist Europe." In Philosophy and Public Affairs, ed. John Haldane. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nishiyama, Chiaki, and Kurt R. Leube, eds. (1984). The Essence of Hayek. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University.

Notturno, Mark Amadeus. (2000). Science and the Open Society: The Future of Karl Popper's Philosophy. New York: Central European University Press.

Popper, Karl. (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. New York: Basic. Contains the kernel of Popper's argument against large scale social engineering, particularly the Marxist variety, plus the characterization of piecemeal social engineering that stimulated decades of incrementalist thinking in the social science.

Popper, Karl. (1963a). Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Harper and Row.

Popper, Karl. (1963b). The Open Society and Its Enemies, 4th edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Popper, Karl. (1970). "Normal Science and Its Dangers." In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Popper, Karl. (1972). Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Popper, Karl. (1976). "Reason or Revolution." In The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, ed. Theodor W. Adorno et al. London: Heinemann.

Popper, Karl. (1983 [1956]). Realism and the Aim of Science. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Postrel, Virginia. (2001). "The Future and Its Enemies: Dynamism versus Stasis." In Competition or Compulsion? The Market Economy versus the New Social Engineering, ed. Richard Ebeling. Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press.

Read, Stephen, and Lynn Miller. (1998). Connectionist Models of Social Reasoning and Social Behavior. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

"Sackler Colloquium on Adaptive Agents, Intelligence, and Emergent Human Organization: Capturing Complexity through Agent-Based Modeling." (2002). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99(suppl. 3): 7187–7316.

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. (1974). The Philosophy of Karl Popper. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Clearly delineates the differences between small scale and large scale social engineering, with accessible examples of each, and provides helpful analyses of the differences.

Winner, Langdon, ed. (1992). Democracy in a Technological Society. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

social engineering

views updated May 29 2018

social engineering Planned social change and social development; the idea that governments can shape and manage key features of society, in much the same way as the economy is managed, assuming that adequate information on spontaneous trends is available through social indicators and social trends reports. For example, the extent of women's employment is clearly determined in part by government policy to promote or impede women's paid work. See also PIECEMEAL SOCIAL ENGINEERING.

social engineering

views updated May 11 2018

social engineering The process of gaining access to a computer or network by persuading its users to assist, usually unknowingly, for example by revealing a password, installing a trojan horse program, or performing some other insecure action.

About this article

Social engineering

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic