Social Engineering

Social Engineering

Social Engineering, a term apparently first used by Roscoe Pound, the American philosopher, for the manipulation of a social and economic community, or parts of it, by central or co-ordinated action for a specific purpose. A more refined definition distinguishes between what Professor Karl Popper calls 'piecemeal' social engineering and comprehensive, 'holistic' or Utopian social engineering.

Comprehensive social engineering conceives of society as a piece of machinery that can be created, guided or directed. For example, it may envisage town planning as a whole, based on social surveys of urban slums, suburban 'sprawl', traffic flows, siting of factories in relation to residential areas, shopping centres, recreational facilities and so on. It is an attempt to apply the principles of technical or mechanical engineering to human beings and their social and economic interrelationships. The aim is to anticipate needs, avoid waste and achieve desired communal aims.

The concept has critics among economists, who doubt whether economic society can be created or redesigned as a whole to satisfy the needs and preferences of the individuals who comprise it. They hold that human institutions have not been the result of conscious decision but have grown as the undesigned results of spontaneous human action co-ordinated by impersonal market relationships. Their reason is that man has only limited knowledge of social processes and makes the best decisions when confined to piecemeal alterations of the social and economic structure based on the knowledge within his personal grasp and understanding.

A subsidiary form of (comprehensive) social engineering is based on the view that the market prices on which individuals decide their economic choices yield incomplete guides to the most effective use of resources from the point of view of the community as a whole, and that therefore man must take into account social costs and benefits as well as private costs and benefits. This view derives from A. C. Pigou, who distinguished between the marginal social and the marginal private net product of economic activity. In recent years it has taken the form of social cost/benefit theory and has been applied to education, health services, transport and defence. It has been argued by several economists that these costs can be taken into account in the working of the market. There is therefore debate between economists on whether the distinction between private and social costs or benefits constitutes a theoretical case for social engineering.

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