Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Trust and Society: Suggestions for Further Development of Niklas Luhmann's Theory of Trust

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Trust and Society: Suggestions for Further Development of Niklas Luhmann's Theory of Trust

Article excerpt

SINCE THE 1990s, THE ISSUE of trust has attracted considerable scientific attention, to the point of becoming a buzzword since the new millennium in such areas as economics and organization theory, in education and psychology, in philosophy and political science, and in sociology (see Arnott 2007; Ebert 2007).

This increasing interest stands in contrast to the trajectory of Niklas Luhmann's systems theory. Trust is a central topic in Luhmann's early writings, including an entire monograph (first translation published in English in 1979, revised in 2017). His interest was already declining by the 1980s, despite a shorter essay on the subject (Luhmann 1988) and a subchapter in the book Social Systems (see Luhmann [1984] 1995:127-29; for an account of this period and the role of trust, see Jalava 2003). In Luhmann's late period during the 1990s, beyond sporadic remarks and footnotes, the issue had almost completely vanished (see Watier 2002). The term trust was never fully reworked to address Luhmann's later theoretical developments. Social Systems (Luhmann [1984] 1995), which set the benchmark for terms like communication and autopoiesis, sought to combine trust with the problem of double contingency, but no integration of trust can be found in Luhmann's subsequent works.

On that basis, this paper will explore whether Luhmann's earlier conception of trust can be reformulated and integrated into his later work. However, this exploration will deviate slightly from traditional exegesis, in that attempting to identify and link earlier writings to related ideas in his later work would gloss over a range of conceptual problems in Luhmann's early book on trust. That would also be to ignore how the changing structure of his theory related to a shifting conception of the structure of society and therefore the role of trust. Finally, a literal exegesis is likely to yield a relatively dry account that fails to demonstrate the consequences of such a conceptual shift or its relevance for further research and debate.

As a consequence, this reconstruction begins with something of a detour. In identifying some core ideas of trust as in Luhmann's early phase, these ideas will not simply be summarized. Such a rereading already entails some degree of foresight, as the identification of core ideas will appear conceptually problematic from Luhmann's later perspective. In the middle part of the paper, identifying some key theoretical vocabulary that Luhmann developed in his later phase, particular attention will be paid to the idea of connection medium. Trust will be discussed as a possible candidate, along with values and feelings. Following this reconstruction, the theoretical vocabulary is further stretched in outlining some consequences for further research in this area. The paper, then, seeks to advance knowledge of trust with regard to three issues:

1. What are the core theoretical arguments in Luhmann's early writings on trust?

2. Can trust be conceptualized as a connection medium?

3. What are the consequences of these theoretical changes for the distinction between personal and system trust, for differentiation among cultures of trust, and for conceptualizing the crisis of trust?


In Luhmann's early theory, trust was bound to the phenomenological concept of meaning and to the cybernetic concept of complexity. For Luhmann (1990a), meaning is the central ordering device of any human experience as characterized by a dual structure: "... the momentary given that fills experience at any time always and irrevocably refers to something else" (p. 25). The basic problem of all meaningful experience and action derives from this structure; how can these experiences be permanently integrated despite their temporality and range of other possibilities? This question is developed in a central concern of Luhmann's earliest version of systems theory: how the complexity of these vast possibilities can be reduced to a manageable level. …

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