New Modes of Shaping Social Change?
Edited by Regine Paul, Marc Mölders, Alfons Bora, Michael Huber and Peter Münte
Chapter 9: The experimentalization of the social: activation, participation and social self-organization as scientific facts in the 1940s
The chapter considers the debate on governance and regulation from the perspective of contemporary history. It probes the applicability of these concepts, as well as that of related concepts like governmentality, as intellectual devices in the historical study of “social engineering” in the twentieth century. In doing so, three case studies on social experiments in 1940s Britain are considered. One focuses on the medicosocial Peckham Experiment in London, another on the Hawkspur Experiment, which aimed at re-socializing delinquent youth, and a third on the so-called Northfield Experiments, which established an early type of therapeutic community in a military hospital near Birmingham. In these experiments, rules and regulations structuring group-activities were abandoned, while practices of feeding back their own social tensions into these groups were encouraged, as this was generating productivity and an empowering sense of identity amongst their members. In fact, scientists involved in all three experiments claimed that many existing societal institutions – even those traditionally heavily regulated and asymmetrical, like the military, the penal system and the medical sphere – were inefficient not despite, but because of, clear chains of command. When left to their own devices, small groups evidently developed a will to self-organize, which in turn sparked individual activity and responsibility. Clearly, ideals of increasing participation and cooperation within social groups, which we tend to associate with present-day governmentality, are much older than conventional wisdom suggests. Even at the very peak of what historians have defined as high-modernist etatism, social engineers were never mere manipulators shifting gears to distribute top-down pressure. Thus, too rigid a retrospective differentiation between expert-controlled interventionism and self-organization risks overlooking hybrid forms of inducing societal change in the twentieth century. At the same time, the historical perspective evidences that what is tagged with novelty labels in contemporary regulation and governance – for example participation and self-governance – may have emerged quite some time ago as an unintended effect of social experiments.
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