Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Complex Relationship between Civil Society and Trust

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Complex Relationship between Civil Society and Trust

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In this article, we argue for an institutional perspective of trust in which a strong civil society plays a core role. The basis of our argument is that the type of civil society that exists, along with its scope and organization, has played and continues to play a vital role for the high level of trust and social capital that is well documented in the Scandinavian countries. Our approach contains three vital elements. First, we believe that both the legitimacy of public institutions and their ability to deliver over time completely depend on a vibrant organizational society. Second, the organizations have independent institutional significance in their own right. Similar to other key social institutions, their functions include shaping sets of values and reducing vulnerability and uncertainty. Third, they constitute an entirely necessary infrastructure for cooperation, which makes it possible for trust to be institutionalized, reinvested and converted into action, and which also demonstrates that cooperation is rational and yields results.

We believe that this is not merely a productive approach to research on trust and social capital, but that it also helps explain some of what is unique to Scandinavia: the Scandinavian exceptionalism that is so apparent with regard to voluntarism, trust and social capital, and which is institutionally demonstrated though a unique regime of civil society and a distinctive model of the welfare state (Wollebæk & Selle 2008).The aftermath of the terror attacks in Norway in 2011 in our view demonstrated the existence of a strong civil society and its crucial role for community resilience (Norris et al. 2008) - it contributed to curtailing widespread fear, mobilizing for collective manifestations of grief and restoring a sense of normalcy. At the same time, we argue that the key role of civil society is not a permanent given. The developments we have seen within organized civil society over the past decades can change their direct role as institutions and their indirect role as premise-setters and critical-correctors, particularly in relation to the public sector. In turn, this may weaken its function as key carrier and institutionalization of social trust.

2. Civil society and trust

Our approach has developed throughout the last decade or so, first as a critique of the micro-oriented socialization perspective within research on trust and social capital in particular (Putnam 2000), but eventually also toward what we can call the state-centered and macro-oriented approach that links trust to the state's output, with specific emphasis on the degree of welfare universalism and well-functioning institutions that regulate conflict (Rothstein & Stolle, 2003, 2008).

Robert Putnam revitalized trust as a central concept in political science through his important work on social capital, in which trust is a key component. Putnam has defended a viewpoint that it is primarily through active, face-to-face participation in voluntary organizations and partly through other social networks in the local community, that one learns through experience that others are to be trusted. In a more recent book, he argues for the significance of having extensive social networks with the accompanying face-to-face contact that surrounds organized religion in the United States (Putnam & Campbell, 2011). According to Putnam, trust then arises as a byproduct of social interaction in civil society. We refer to this orientation as the socialization perspective below.

This point of view has been challenged by more macro-oriented political scientists. Empirical studies have been referred to - including ours (Wollebæk & Selle, 2002b, 2007) - that point to the weak or nonexistent effects of active organizational participation on social capital. This was interpreted as proof that the role of voluntary organizations is greatly exaggerated in the literature on social capital (Rothstein & Stolle 2003, 2008). …

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