Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Trust and Cooperation: The Democratic Public Sphere

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Trust and Cooperation: The Democratic Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Trust and democracy

The relationships between democracy and trust, each independently very popular topics in social science literature, have recently attracted the attention of sociologists and political theorists (Fukuyama, 1995; Misztal, 1996; Putnam, 1993; Seligman, 1997; Wolfe, 1989). Empirical research reveals a declining trust in government and in the working of democracy as the dominant feature of many countries' political cultures (Inglehart, 1999). Ironically, the present `discovery of trust' as an essential element of democratic order seems to be a classic case of Minerva taking flight at dusk. The current deficit of trust, which attracts increasing attention of social scientists, is seen as stemming from the combination of many different factors: more critical, sophisticated and disillusioned citizens, more opaque institutional norms and less trustworthy politicians. As definitions and approaches to trust increase, the research becomes more specialized, definitions more specific and now writers do not talk about trust in general, but rather about various categories of trust or about trust in different contexts, such as trust in organizations, political systems or in families (see, for example, Kramer and Tyler, 1996; Gambetta, 1988). Many researchers admit that the study of trust is fraught with problems of definition, confusion of the levels of analysis, and ambiguity in conceptualizations of the factors responsible for trust production. Despite all these difficulties, there has been an impressive proliferation of middle-range theories about trust and closely related topics, such as social capital, civil society and social cooperation (Alexander, 1998; Baier, 1986; Coleman, 1990; Edwards and Foley, 1996; Gambetta, 1988; Putnam, 1993; Seligman, 1997; Sztompka, 1996; Wolfe, 1989; Woolcock, 1998). The majority of writers focus their attention primarily on how one may set about creating and fostering trust in the context of various recent changes and tend to embed the notions of vulnerability, uncertainty and risk in their definitions of trust (Luhmann, 1988; Giddens, 1990; Mishra, 1996; Misztal, 1996; Seligman, 1997). From this perspective, trust is `the mutual confidence that no party to an exchange will exploit another's vulnerability' (Sabel, 1993: 1133). To trust others is to accept the risks associated with the type and depth of the interdependence inherent in a given relationship (Shepard and Sherman, 1998: 423). Social trust is seen as a lubricant for cooperation because it mutually reinforces expectations about reciprocity (Scott, 1999).

Despite the lack of an integrative theory of trust, the literature is united in its vision of the preferable democratic order as one rooted in trust relations and as capable of ensuring trust among its citizens. The significance of the link between trust and democracy has recently been stressed by Giddens. He argues that `the democratizing democracy' depends upon `the fostering a strong civic culture', which emphasizes trust, mutual obligation, equal worth and responsibility (Giddens, 2000: 95). This type of general support for trust relationships in the public sphere has a long tradition. The assumption that a state can only be truly powerful if it fosters trust relationships with citizens is attributed to de Tocqueville, who argued that only liberty will teach people trust (Hall, 1992). Similarly, theories of modernization link trust with stable democracy by claiming that economic development brings about changes in culture and social structure, such as trustworthy dispositions, which in turn support a well-functioning democracy. Banfield (1958), for instance, shows that interpersonal trust is essential for the cooperation with strangers, and this in turn is a prerequisite for large-scale economic organizations. The empirical verification of the relationship between democracy and trust is a result of studies of political culture which reveal that a sense of interpersonal trust is essential for healthy and stable democracy since it provides a climate of confidence and an enduring basis for mass support (Almond and Verba, 1963; Inglehart, 1999). …

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