In a broad sense, any social change brought through deliberate efforts by government (i.e., all laws and policies) that have the effect of changing behavior and characteristics of a society can be labeled social engineering. In its standard usages, the term has rather a negative connotation. The development of modern communications technology, administration, technical and managerial resources, and the media provided the tools through which social engineering could be carried out. Relevant for the modern history of the concept is Karl Popper’s distinction between piecemeal and utopian or holistic social engineering, or what we would call the difference between reformist and revolutionary solutions. For Popper (1971), the former is the only form of social engineering that can be rationally justified—one that is small-scale, incremental, and continuously amended in the light of experience and aimed at reducing human suffering. In political discourse, the term is generally used in three different contexts.
- Ideologically based policies and techniques aimed at a radical change in the makeup of a society. Typical examples are totalitarian political systems, which usually engage in visions and pursuit of grandiose social engineering schemes that more often than not involve the thorough remaking of the population, with the goal of creating the desired or “perfect” society. In the 1930s, in Nazi Germany, the idea of the pure Aryan bermench was to be achieved by using selective methods of human reproduction and eugenics. In the 1920s, the revolutionary government of the Soviet Union embarked on a project aimed at remaking class structure to obtain the so-called classless society by eliminating the “exploiting classes” and to create the New Soviet man. Other similar examples are the Chinese Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution programs (in the 1950s and 1960s) and the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal plan of deurbanization of Cambodia (1970s).
- Accusation against any policy or theory that advocates changes from above in the characteristics of a society. It is employed often by the political right as a charge against those who propose to use legislation and policy to change existing social relationships (e.g., between genders or ethnic groups), even if no violence and brainwashing are involved. (Also, political conservatives in the United States have accused their opponents of social engineering because of their promotion of political correctness, insofar as it may change social attitudes by defining “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behavior or language.)
- A practical approach or science to solve various problems in the society. Interestingly, social engineering has been an official field of study at the Tokyo Institute of Technology since 1966. According to the institute’s official website, the discipline has the goal “to solve various problems in the society through practical approaches.”
At the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries, the idea of social engineering influenced the political thinking and policies in many countries. In the United Kingdom, the Fabian Society tried to establish an association for social engineering, especially to reform social conditions of the working class. In the United States, the idea for a time attracted many intellectuals, including Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Walter Lippmann, and inspired the establishment of such institutions as the Institute for Governmental Research (1916) later the Brookings Institution; the New School for Social Research (1919); and others.
Many critics of social engineering argue that in a democratic polity, it is assumed that society, and especially its founding elements, the citizens, are already evolving independently. They direct and determine government and politics through elective representatives and would resist attempts for radical programs for societal change.
- McClymer, John F. War and Welfare: Social Engineering in America 1890–1925. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.
- Podgorecki, Adam, John Alexander, and Rob Shields, eds. Social Engineering. Ottawa, Ont.: Carleton University Press, 1996.
- Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.