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Social engineering is a discipline in political science that refers to efforts to influence popular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments or private groups. In the political arena, the counterpart of social engineering is political engineering.
For various reasons, the term has been imbued with negative connotations. However, virtually all law and governance has the effect of seeking to change behavior and could be considered "social engineering" to some extent. Prohibitions on murder, rape, suicide and littering are all policies aimed at discouraging undesirable behaviors. In British and Canadian jurisprudence, changing public attitudes about a behaviour is accepted as one of the key functions of laws prohibiting it. 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 practice, some (perhaps mainly on the left) would argue, whether any specific policy is labeled as "social engineering" could be considered a question of intent; others (perhaps mainly on the right) would also argue it to be a question of scale and pace. The term is most often used by, on the one hand libertarians and free-market thinkers, and, on the other, social and cultural traditionalists as a criticism of those who propose to use law, tax policy, or other kinds of state influence to attempt to modify or altogether transform existing social mores or power relationships (actual or perceived): for instance, between men and women, or between different ethnic groups. Political conservatives in the United States have accused their opponents of social engineering through the promotion of political correctness, insofar as it may change social attitudes by defining "acceptable" and "unacceptable" language or acts, and through such programs as the banning of prayers at public events. Political liberals in the United States have accused their opponents of social engineering through the promotion of abstinence-only sex education, the English-only movement, sodomy laws and state sponsored school prayer.
Before one can engage in social engineering, one must have reliable information about the society that is to be engineered and effective tools to carry out the engineering. Both of these became available only relatively recently: roughly within the past one hundred years. The development of social science made it possible to gather and analyze information about social attitudes and trends, which is necessary in order to judge the initial state of society before an engineering attempt and the success or failure of that attempt after it has been implemented. At the same time, the development of modern communications technology and the media provided the tools through which social engineering could be carried out.
While social engineering can be carried out by any organization. whether large or small, public or private, the most comprehensive (and often the most effective) campaigns of social engineering are those initiated by powerful central governments.
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. 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 the citizens with affordable housing.
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 Nazis drove them out of the country around 1930 (many of them became connected with the Institute for Social Research in the United States). The Nazis themselves were no strangers to the idea of influencing political attitudes and re-defining personal relationships. The Nazi 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, is still quite pertinent in the western model of consumer capitalism.
In his classic political science book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, volume I, The Spell of Plato, 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 reconstruction (called "piecemeal social engineering") and "Utopian social engineering".
the piecemeal engineer will adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evil 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:
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.
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