Prior to World War II and dating back to the 1890s, the phrases “social technology” and “social engineering” carried strong connotations of central planning. This became particularly true in the Soviet Union, where the terms appeared in various tracts. Some tangentially related usages appeared in the West, in treatises of applied psychology and social work.

Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957) carefully substituted an opposite meaning to “social technology.” (He credits a correspondent with introducing him to the phrase.) Writing in the immediate post-war period, Popper took a passionately anti-totalitarian stance. He advocated an engineering approach – as opposed to a theoretical or Utopian one – to social amelioration, an approach that relies on (in his now-famous phrase) piecemeal social experiments. The phrase implies that top-down social planning is doomed to failure, whether instigated by the political left or right, and that what works in one place and one instance may not work in another. Popper respected the intellectual standards of the engineering discipline; his use of the word “engineering” did not in any way imply “empiricism run wild.”

Popper’s view was influenced by Hayek and Hume. His mention of evolutionary forces, and of institutional change, presages the work of Nelson (2005).

Popper’s view has been criticized but has largely stood the test of time. Not everyone is persuaded, however. There is still tension, for instance in business schools, between scholars pursuing social science theories of the firm, and those using engineering tools (for example, operations research methods) to improve organizations. (See Charnes et al 1985; Learner and Phillips 1993.)

Popper’s philosophy is still valuable in local and multi-local situations (Phillips 2012). However it now faces new tests, as problems such as climate change are undeniably global. How will piecemeal experiments perform against systemically global problems? Popper favored piecemeal social experiments because they were the course of action least likely to cause harm. In many of today’s environmental or human rights crises, great harm has already been done. It is not clear how Popper’s Hippocratic principle will serve.

Olaf Helmer (1966) believed the epistemological basis of the social sciences differed sharply from that of the physical sciences. Though that proposition is arguable, it led to his very precise view of social technology. The attempts of social scientists, as well as those of engineers to emulate the ideal scientific method of the physical sciences, he said, “has led to unnecessary frustration.” In engineering, too:

... it was only under duress that a perfectionist image of required scientific procedure was reluctantly abandoned. The exigencies of... World War II brought on an effort, known as operations research, that has... become a widely accepted tool, not only in the peacetime management of military affairs, but throughout commerce and industry.

The operations researcher...

is, of necessity, a pragmatist, interested primarily in effective control of his surroundings and only secondarily in detailed understanding of all the underlying phenomena. Thus, both the exact scientist and the operations analyst [use mathematical models], but though in the case of the exact scientist such a model is apt to be part of a body or well-confirmed scientific knowledge, an O.R. model is usually of a much more tentative character.... As further insights accrue and more... data become available, the O.R. analyst [is] prepared to discard his first model and replace it with an improved one.This tentative procedure, dictated by pragmatic considerations [of the urgency of an ameliorative measure and the lack of applicable theory], is thus essentially one of successive approximation.

How can we assess the validity of these approximations? Like many of today’s operations researchers, Helmer thought it only necessary to note that “the results... have been spectacular,as evidenced by improved manufacturing processes,... better market forecasts, and so on.”

Agreeing with Popper that the physical sciences themselves started with trial-and-error, Helmer concludes that the social sciences must emulate “not physical science, but physical technology,” i.e., engineering. The last-quoted phrase gives rise to Helmer’s use of the term social technology, which is nearly congruent with Popper’s.

Nelson and Winter’s 1982 book put a spotlight on technology’s role in institutional economics and industry structure. It does not contain the phrase “social technologies.” The term is taken up in Winter (2003) and explored as a consequence of the ideas in the1982 book: “... what we call social technologies are associated with effective structures for division of labor, and procedures for task coordination and management.” That is to say, Winter agrees with Helmer’s equation of social technology with management science / operations research. Talking machine

However, Winter also uses social technologies in a related but slightly different meaning, namely, the set of evolving institutions that facilitate our social, political, and economic functioning. He writes, “... the driving force behind economic growth has been the co-evolution of technologies and institutions.... The processes that improve technologies are much more effective at making progress than the processes through which institutions are changed and new ones introduced.”[1] All the writers cited above would agree that, as human artifacts, political and economic institutions serve much the same roles in human progress as the hard engineering technologies.[2] However, problems arise because physical and social technologies evolve at different speeds.

Today “social technologies” has taken on a narrower meaning, pertaining only to Web2.0, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Coders use “social engineering” to mean the planting of cues that induce certain behaviors in others, or reserve certain privileges for the programmers themselves. Though apt, the new usages rob the terms of much richness and history.

Many Science2.0 writers have implied that “social science” is an oxymoron. I hope this article will support an informed discussion of that question. It should, as well, help those who speak of social technology and social engineering to be clear about what the hell they’re talking about.


Karl Raimund Popper, The Poverty of Historicism. 1st English edition, Routledge, London and New York, 1957, reprinted 2004.

Olaf Helmer (with contributions by Bernice Brown and Theodore Gordon) (1966). Social Technology. Basic Books.

Nelson, R. and Winter S. 1982. An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Nelson, R.R. 2003. Physical and social technologies,and their evolution. Economie Appliqué 61 (13-31); Reprinted in R.R. Nelson(ed.), Technology, Institutions, and Economic Growth. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Charnes, W.W. Cooper, D.B. Learner and F. Phillips,"Management Science and Marketing Management".  Journal of Marketing, Vol. 49, no.2, pp. 93-105, spring1985.

D.B. Learner and F.Y. Phillips, "Method and Progress in Management Science." Socio-Economic Planning Sciences, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 9-24, 1993.

Ohkawa, Kazushi and Henry Rosovsky. 1973. Japanese Economic Growth: Trend Acceleration in the Twentieth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

F. Phillips, “Social Capital, Social Engineering, and the Technopolis.” World Technopolis Review, 1(2) April 2012, 86-91.

F. Phillips, The state of technological and social change: Impressions. Technological Forecasting&Social Change. Volume 78, Issue 6, July 2011, Pages 1072-1078.

[1] This view was exactly the rationale for the founding of the journal Technological Forecasting&Social Change in 1969. See Phillips (2011).

[2] My colleagues Mei-Chih Hu and Sheng-Hsiang Wang point out that Ohkawa and Rosovsky (1973) and others use ‘social technologies’ to mean the functioning of institutions in technology-follower countries that help the countries build technological absorptive capacity and thence to ‘catch up’ with innovator countries.