Trust in Society

Trust in Society. Karen S. Cook, ed. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001.


Trust in Society is the second volume on trust sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation.  Whereas the first volume focused on the role of trust in good government, this second volume examines the relationship between trust in the populace and the functioning of government: Is trust required for good governance?  What leads people to trust the government?  What makes officials trustworthy?  This second volume addresses these and other questions.

The first section of the book lays out several psychological conceptions of trust as emerging out of self-interest, rational choice theory, and perceived morality.  Complementing these psychological conceptions of trust is the second section’s look at the different bases of trust and their significance in a variety of social settings: the roles of social intelligence, trustworthiness signals, social capital, and the function of family in an individual’s calculation to trust or distrust other people.  The final section investigates the role of trust in a boarder social context of deference to authority, organizational structures, and societies that experience high rates of immigration.

Hardin begins the volume by defining trust as an “encapsulated interest”: one actor trusting another to complete a specific action out of self-interest, whether it is because the actor values the other person’s welfare, closely identifies with that individual, or wishes to maintain a relationship with that person.  Whereas Hardin sees trust as a class of actions in which we choose to take or not take risks, Heimer focuses on uncertainty and vulnerability in trust relations. Using the example of the “Jane” organization set up before Roe v. Wade, Heimer examines how strategies to promote trust relations emerged out of a social context of uncertainty and vulnerability.  Mechanism such as shared information, reputational effects, enforceable contracts, and insurance schemes are used to promote trust among people in a context of uncertainty and vulnerability.

Unlike Hardin and Heimer, Messick and Krammer argue that trust is a morally motivated action, what they refer to as “shallow morality.”  The inability of an actor to fulfill his promise is a violation of ethical rules, setting a moral tone about the trustworthiness of an individual.  Because of the complexities of decision situations, we often rely on proxies and heuristics as the basis and guide for our assessment of a person’s trustworthiness.  In this sense, our decision to trust follows the same, general principles of proxies and heuristics that we use in most of our daily decisions.

The second set of essays build off the competing and overlapping conceptions of trust from the first section of the book.  Bacharach and Gambetta employ signaling and game theories to work out the specific conditions under which trustworthiness is accurately communicated and consequently justified.  Whereas Hardin focuses when it is rational to trust someone, Bacharach and Gambetta, using game theory, look at how I can convince someone that I am trustworthy.  Like Messick and Krammer, Bacharach and Gambetta apply general decision-making principles in signaling theory to answer the question of trustworthiness.  Crucial to signaling theory is identity (e.g., hometown, gender, ethnicity) as to cue a person about his trustworthiness.

Signaling theory is also incorporated in Yamagishi’s argument that high trusters are more discerning in their attitudes of others.  Instead of being more gullible, high trusters are more accurate in determining the signals when an actor will defect or cooperate.  Those who lack this “social intelligence,” low trusters, are less likely to enter into risky socially interactions, even at the price of giving up new opportunities, because of the costs of uncertainty and vulnerability.

One way to reduce the uncertainty and vulnerability is to use family relations, even extending them to those who are not blood-related.  Esminger provides such an example in her study of Orma of northeastern Kenya where hired herders were treated as sons.  In the absence of family relations, people often turn to fellow group members for support, as argued by Robert Putnam.  Stolle checks Putnam’s claims of social capital in her surveys in Stockholm, Berlin, and Philadelphia.  Length of membership is associated with greater participation, but it does not necessarily extend outside of group events (e.g., voting, civic duty) or affect a person’s trust towards strangers.  Such findings raises questions about the claims of social capitalist theorists, which longitudinal data could help resolve.  Finally, Mackie looks at the relationship between family structure and trust in twelve Western European countries from 1980 to 1996.  Relying on game theory, Mackie argue that marriage strategies, like institutions and political culture, serve as coordinating mechanisms to promote trust within society.  Over time, these various social conventions of marriage become institutionalized.

If the first section of the book tried to define trust and the second section looks at trust in a variety of social settings, the third section continues to examine trust in specific institutions, organizations, and social networks at a macro-level.  For Tyler, one of the primary effects of trust is the willingness of citizens to obey authorities they trust.  Drawing from survey data from a variety of organizations and from different cultures, Tyler concludes that social and group identification between citizens and their authorities is the “social capital” that facilitates the functioning of social groups.  Instead of focusing on trust at the societal level, Miller looks at trust in organizations.  With examples, Miller is able to show how more smoothly businesses can operate when trust is part of the profit equation.  Gibbons extends the analysis of economic transactions to the state as the producer of social order.  Using repeated-game models, Gibbons argue that individuals prefer relational contracts backed by law, which should be the primary mechanism for the state to promote trust.

But is trust required for political and economic performance in society?  Looking at a socially heterogeneous society in which there are intergroup conflict of interests, Knight argues that informal mechanisms like trust will be ineffective in resolving problems.  What is required is the intervention of institutions, especially the law, to establish a basis of cooperation.  Nee and Sanders focus on such a heterogeneous society in Los Angeles.  In their empirical investigation of Chinese, Filipinio, and Korean immigrants, Nee and Sanders show how different modes of incorporation – dependent upon access to social, financial, and human capital – are employed by various immigrant groups.  In particular, Nee and Sanders concentrate on the role of family capital in the formation of trust, especially for those immigrants who do not access to other resources.

Trust in Society is a well-organized and thoughtful book on a crucial topic for both developed and developing democracies.  For the most part, the essays complement one another in their presentation of the problems and benefits of trust in society.  The book also nicely blends both theoretical and empirical accounts of the role of trust in society and would be useful for advanced undergraduate or graduate students.  Being part of a series on trust, I hope the next volumes will be able to address and follow-up on the questions, problems, and insights that these authors have raised in this worthwhile work.


This review was originally published with the same title in The Social Science Journal 41: 2 (2004): 309-11.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science, Department Chair, and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).