Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Trust: Why and How Historians Should Study It

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Trust: Why and How Historians Should Study It

Article excerpt

Respondents to surveys in Western democracies are increasingly inclined to say that they no longer trust their elected representatives; that politicians are motivated only by self-interest and are all equally contemptible. (1) Contrary to popular wisdom, such cynicism is not a new phenomenon: citizens have long suspected the motives of those seeking public office and criticised their ability or willingness to deliver on promises. Nevertheless, this present cynicism is attracting an unprecedented degree of attention from both the media and the academy; many are genuinely concerned about the future of democracy. A feature of the concern is nostalgia for a Golden Age of trust; a time in the mythical past when politicians were trustworthy, a pre-spin paradise in which elected leaders were accessible, spoke frankly and enjoyed respect.

Analysts became interested in the role of trust as an aspect of the operation of the market in democracies during the 1990s. Francis Fukuyama argued that the economic success of some countries and the economic failure of others could be explained by the degree to which communities in these countries bound people into networks of trust. (2) According to Fukuyama, trust is a purely cultural phenomenon that is inherited from "pre-existing communities of shared moral norms or values": "trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, cooperative behaviour, based on communally shared norms, on the part of other members of that community". (3) Rational choice theory has been influential in developing understandings of how trust relationships operate. (4) Advocates contend that the political realm is analogous to the market place, and that political behaviour can be best explained by the rational self-interested behaviour of the actor/voter but some theorists question this explanation. (5) For example, Patrick Dunleavy queries two key assumptions from which rational choice advocates proceed: that political actors are fully informed about their political choices, and that their preferences remain fixed through the political process. (6)

On Trust

Most theorists agree that there are two kinds of cultural trust in persons: particularized trust, which is reserved for members of the same family, clan or group, and generalized trust, which extends to strangers. (7) Societies with strong particularized trust and weak generalized trust are defined as "low trust" societies; those with strong generalized (or social) trust and weak particularized trust are defined as "high trust" societies. (8) The economic success of countries such as Japan, the United States of America and Germany can be explained by their relatively high levels of generalized trust, which are demonstrated by their willingness to extend trusting economic networks beyond the family unit. Societies that combine low social trust with strong family networks--for example China and southern Italy--have been historically less successful in their economic performance. (9) Fukuyama applies this theory of high trust and low trust societies to democracy. Democracy requires a high-trust environment: a strong reservoir of "stranger" trust on which to draw, but increasing individualization (due to the "rights revolution" of the second half of the twentieth century) is eroding this reservoir of trust. A strong state might step in to fill the gap created by the absence of trust, but this only further weakens generalized trust.

Much of the sociological scholarship on the relationship between interpersonal trust and institutional trust contradicts Fukuyama's negative assessment of the state's role in strengthening generalized trust in a society. Eisenstadt and Roniger argue that interpersonal trust and institutional trust are in fact engaged in a dialectical relationship. The structuring of interpersonal trust is closely connected to the conceptions of personal identity that are prevalent in a society, especially that of the relation of personal significance to collective values and collective identity. …

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