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Social engineering’ as key to understanding the long twentieth century: an interpretative proposal


The research proposes ‘social engineering’ as a descriptive and analytical paradigm of tensions between political and individual power that characterized the long twentieth century, understood as ‘mature’ or ‘late’ modernity. On a minimal definition, ‘social engineering’ can be understood as “arranging and channeling environmental and social forces to create a high probability that effective social action will occur” (Alexander, Schmidt, 1996 ).

The research will examine the historical periodization and operational definitions of social engineering developed by the most recent historiographical studies. A number of shared features will therefore be identified:

  • The dichotomy between utopian-revolutionary ends, on the one hand, and reformist-normalizing ones on the other.
  • The idea of the need for a new ‘artificial social order’ in response to the radical and tumultuous changes caused to society by industrial modernity.
  • The role of systematic and constant support performed at least from the end of the 1800s by the social sciences with respect to political power. The clearest demonstration of this consists in the proliferation of disciplines and practitioners that contributed to configuring the overall process of “scientization of the social” (Verwissenschaftlichung des Sozialen) theorized by Lutz Raphael.
  • The association of the phenomenon with the rise of the nation state and the expansion of its prerogatives in the twentieth century to encompass the role of actor and promoter of social policies.

The research will focus on the second part of the twentieth century, analysing the aspect that has given rise to the strongest criticism of social engineering: the self-referential short circuit generated by the position of ‘social engineers’ as participant observers. In this position, they were both devisers of overall projects for society and authors of the representation of the society on which to intervene, as well as being ultimately responsible for the necessary programmes of correction or reform. This coincidence has often been accused of generating detachment from the actual conditions of the society on which to operate; neglect of the demands spontaneously expressed by it; sacrifice of the needs of individuals to their ‘normalization’ on the basis of projections patterned on certain segments and groups determined on the basis of functional and abstract criteria; thereby unduly invading every sphere of individual and social life. On this basis it would be possible to assume that the 1960s in the West constituted the apogee of a ‘social engineering’ so pervasive and all-encompassing, notwithstanding its ‘democraticness’, that by the end of the decade it had engendered two different but converging phenomena: the protests of '68 and the rise of neoliberal and anti-statist claims in economics.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015