Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Social engineering

core definition

Social engineering originally mean that planned social change could be achieved by manipulation, usually by governments; it has subsequently been used to refer to internet fraud where people are manipulated to provide confidential information.

explanatory context

Social engineering refers to the idea that people can be manipulated into social structures. The idea was current in the late 19th century and early 20th century in Europe and America. It was usually linked with the idea that sociology was a new science that could be used to create a stable, less fragmented or antagonistic society.

The notion of social engineering has gradually become to be seen as a rather anti-libertarian and reactionary perspective as it implies some sort of (coercive) manipulation of social groups for the benefit of more powerful groups, whether they be capitalists, political elites or benign intellectuals. The mass media, notably television, advertisements, the internet and censoship are all tools of social engineering.

The term dropped out of sociological usage during the 1960s. The idea of social engineering was, however, revived in the late 1980s in the context of the development of a united Europe. With the advent of the open European Economic Community in 1992, there has been a concern that the development of a European free market also include a social dimension. This involved a call for a social Europe with common foreign policy, co-operative policies for expansion, economic integration, unified labour movements, industrial democracy, Pan-European workers rights, minimum health provisions, and training and education rights, as well as general cross-cultural fertilisation of ideas. Opponents on the political right (notably Thatcherist conservatives in the 1980s and subsequently the anti-Europena Union parties) deride this social element and refer to it as social engineering.


In the 21st century, social engineering has been used much more in computing , particularly in the context of computer/internet-based manipulations and fraudulent capture of personal or confidential information.

analytical review (2011–2012) states:

Definition of social engineering: Planned social change and social development; the idea that governments can shape and manage key features of society, in much the same way as the economy is managed, assuming that adequate information on spontaneous trends is available through social indicators and social trends reports. For example, the extent of women's employment is clearly determined in part by government policy to promote or impede women's paid work.

The self-proclaimed Official Social Engineering Portal (, undated) states:

Social Engineering (SE) is both incredibly complex and amazingly simple.

What really is social engineering? We define it as the act of influencing a person to accomplish goals that may or may not be in the “target’s” best interest. This may include obtaining information, gaining access, or getting the target to take certain action. It may also include positive forms of communication such as with parents, therapists, children, spouse and others.

Due to the mystery surrounding this dark art many people are afraid of it, or they feel they will never be able to accomplish a successful social engineering test. However, every time you try to get someone to do something that is in your interest, you are engaging in social engineering. From children trying to get a toy from their parents to adults trying to land a job or score the big promotion, all of it is a form of social engineering.

Webopedia (2013) states:

In the realm of computers, the act of obtaining or attempting to obtain otherwise secure data by conning an individual into revealing secure information. Social engineering is successful because its victims innately want to trust other people and are naturally helpful. The victims of social engineering are tricked into releasing information that they do not realize will be used to attack a computer network. For example, an employee in an enterprise may be tricked into revealing an employee identification number to someone who is pretending to be someone he [sic] trusts or representing someone he trusts.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Sources, undated, Official Social Engineering Portal, available at , accessed 22 April 2013, still available 28 December 2016 but copyright 2016 and content changed., 2011–2012, 'Social engineering', available at , accessed 22 April 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

Webopedia, 2013, 'Social engineering', available at, accessed 22 April 2013, still available 28 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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