Engineering Social Trust: What Can Communities and Institutions Do?

By Boslego, Jordan | Harvard International Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Engineering Social Trust: What Can Communities and Institutions Do?


Boslego, Jordan, Harvard International Review


A precise definition of social trust is difficult to pin down, but it has been encapsulated as an ongoing motivation or impetus for social relations that forms a basis for interaction. Social trust can entail perceived honesty, objectivity, consistency, competence, and fairness, all of which foster relationships between individuals that must be maintained by the sustained fulfillment of these standards. It has been described by several experts as a "risk judgment:" a form of cooperation that has no immediate payoff or benefit and gambles that the trusted party will act as expected. Thus in many ways, trust is a strategic game. The values that form the basis of social trust are not universal, but rather can vary among cultures, between contexts, and across time.

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It is a proven fact that social trust is important. Some scholars have compared social trust across countries, hypothesizing that social trust might foster greater levels of teamwork, knowledge-sharing, civic engagement, reciprocity, and efficiency. The existence of social trust might signify internal peace and stability and therefore could be correlated with freedom, democratization, modernization, or a number of other developmental benchmarks. It has also been shown to constrain immoral behavior, since knowing that another has placed his trust in a person can make that person feel responsible for upholding that burden. Harvard University Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam prominently used social trust in combination with indicators of civic community to create a measure of "social capital," which he used to explain the institutional performance of 20 regions of Italy over a period of 13 years.

Putnam credits social trust as fostering tolerance and community, allowing societies to overcome traditional dilemmas of opportunism and collective action by "norms of reciprocity" that serve to "reconcile self-interest and solidarity." These norms, he has written, are "likely to be associated with dense networks of social exchange," and are self-strengthening and reinforcing: "ongoing social relations can generate incentives for trustworthiness" in future exchanges. A common criticism of social capital is that it naively assumes that trust developed in so-called bonding communities (for instance, an expensive country club) will carry over to dealings with other people. But J. Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University's political science department has argued that group attachments shape trust in generalized "others." Of course, viewing others through the lens of a given group could have both positive and negative effects depending on the nature of the group. Highly cohesive ethnic groups might enforce a mistrust of outsiders, and some scholars have shown in-group trust to be inversely related to trust of outsiders. On the other hand, Wilson cited research that shows that positive interactions within groups build individual self-esteem, an attribute that has been shown to correlate with social trust.

Measuring Social Trust

But can social trust really be accurately measured, and if so, how? It is easy to imagine that social trust would be a difficult thing to measure, and comparative studies have indeed been hampered by this problem. Nearly every comparative study of social trust is based on a question from the World Values Survey that asks: "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" Researchers have considered someone who responds "They can be trusted" to this dichotomy as a person who exhibits social trust, and someone who responds "You can't be too careful" as someone who does not.

Using this question as a rubric, however, was concluded by Harvard University Professor of Comparitive Politics Pippa Norris to be highly problematic. The question offers no intermediate choice between two extremes, no context (a co-worker is more likely to be trusted than a stranger on the telephone), and it contains a double-negative that might confuse translation.

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Engineering Social Trust: What Can Communities and Institutions Do?
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