Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Current Topic
Lecture Hall
Change Password
Forgot Password

Additional excerpts from "Trust, Precarious Treasure"
by Trudy Govier

Voluntary co-operation is much easier in a community that has inherited a substantial stock of social capital in the form of norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement. By "social capital" Putnam refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of a society because they make they make coordinated action easier. When a society has social capital, just about everything is easier, because people can turn to others for information and assistance. As an example of social capital and trust, consider a person beginning a new book. Suppose she has a friend who in turn has several acquaintances with knowledge relevant to the project. The writer can thus readily make connections, meeting people who provide information, tell her about sources, and themselves provide further names of people who can assist. With a single phone call the beginnings of an information network can be established. All this gets started only because the writer trusts her friend, and then trusts the introduced semi-strangers enough to meet with them and follow up on their suggestions. The same sort of story could be told of a person with an entrepreneurial interest: a new business proposition could be developed much more readily with a social network ready to offer information, suggestions, and advice.

Social capital is a moral resource and a public good, Putnam claims. A fascinating and distinctive aspect of social capital is that unlike other forms of capital, when it is used, the supply tends to increase rather than diminish: "The more two people display trust towards one another, the greater their mutual confidence." Social capital is intensely sensitive to virtuous circles (trust builds on trust) and vicious circles (distrust builds on distrust). In a rosy spiral, or virtuous circle, there is a benign equilibrium: we find high levels of cooperation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement, and collective well being. In a vicious circle there is a stagnant equilibrium: defection, distrust, shirking, isolation, exploitation, and disorder. The people of Montegrano were not irrational to distrust: they were merely functioning in a context of vicious equilibrium. It is easier to co-operate when there is social trust, and the experience of successful cooperation will make future co-operation more likely. Thus social capital tends to perpetuate itself: "Trust lubricates cooperation. The greater the level of trust within a community, the greater the likelihood of cooperation. And cooperation itself breeds trust. The steady accumulation of social capital is a crucial part of the story behind the virtuous circles of civic Italy.'35

Social trust is not blind. It emerges from experience: personal experience in friendships, and experience in the informal groups of civic life. Whether a civic association is cultural, athletic, or political, it is likely to embody norms of reciprocity (you do this and I'll do that) and may extend to networks of further social engagement. People involved in such associations are relatively unlikely to let each other down: they have an experience of reciprocal co-operative assistance and a stake in their personal reputation, which would suffer if they defected on an obligation. Civic associations not only make communication easier; they facilitate the transfer of information about the trustworthiness of individuals and make an enormous contribution to social capital. For politics, economics, and personal well-being, social trust is a valuable resource.

In "On Modern Confidence" (1982), Ann-Mari Sellerberg, a Swedish sociologist, describes a number of interviews to explain how fundamental trust or confidence is in the operations of society. Sellerberg describes trust, or confidence, as it would exist in simple village life and contrasts that with the more impersonal situation of modern urban-dwellers. She ties modern trust more to people's sense of how institutions operate than to their attitudes towards unknown individuals.

In village life in Sweden people trusted those they knew - neighbors, relatives, and a few figures of authority - but there were few bonds that would establish any basis for trust beyond this limited circle. Farmers from rural Sweden, interviewed by Sellerberg, described their pleasure in buying from dealers they knew personally and who knew them, even if the goods were not better or cheaper than what they could buy elsewhere. In urban life, however, confidence is only rarely based on personal knowledge. So far as retail sales are concerned, people in Sweden do feel confident, but they base their attitude on consumer legislation, declarations about content on packages, and a self-service system of merchandising that gives the impression nothing is hidden:

The new consumer legislation, systems of comparisons, the visibility of goods as well as the general controls of customers--constitute the "building stones" of today's confidence relations. These serve - usually without our thinking of it - as a basis for trust and consequently lead to a very important quality in modern trade transaction: The parties start out from what they experience as an initial state of confidence. "I trust the things that they sell," said a man. "I don't think that they're allowed to sell any poor stuff." 'They're under controls," said a woman."

Instead of trusting individuals, these people trust institutions, expressing confidence in the operations of law and bureaucracy. Where a person feels especially vulnerable, she may try to obtain extra confidence by personalizing a relationship: women often chat to hairdressers, for example, about personal problems and family life as a way of imitating an intimate relationship that would make their enforced physical proximity more normal. Basically, however, modern confidence or trust is depersonalized. "The retailer may now place it in technological devices, particular credit cards, etc. In various trust devices we have to trust," Sellerberg concludes.

Sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann offers a systematic account of trust in Trust and Power, originally published in German in i974. Luhmann sees trust as an attitude oriented towards the future. By trusting we are able to reduce the complexity we, do not have to take every possibility into account; trusting, we assume that an indefinitely large range of harmful and dangerous things will not happen. Under normal circumstances we do not take into account the possibility that there is an underground lake corroding the road, that a piece of our mail will contain a bomb, or that the milkman is scheming to use members of our family in a political plot to assassinate the prime minister. Not having to consider such possibilities does simplify life! Trust emerges as our way of dealing with the complexity that enters the world because other human beings act in ways we cannot (usually) predict; they are free agents who may do things we do not expect them to do. Trust is based on a blend of knowledge and ignorance; we know something about other people, but we do not know just what they will do next. Trusting, we generalize from our limited experience, extending it to what we assume will be similar cases. Such generalization is made possible by the operation of social systems and systems of representation, which are selective; we do not attend to everything. In families, Luhmann says, we learn not only trust but how to learn trust - how to generalize from a range of experience involving other selves who are free agents.

Because the basis for trust is often slender, trust tends to be precarious. Often, when we cannot comprehend something, we have to trust others, and we know that we are vulnerable. In such cases we tend to take very seriously even marginally relevant evidence that the "mediating agent" is not reliable. Consider, for example, our attitudes to political representatives. We often find ourselves in the position of having to believe political figures who seek to inform us about such matters as interest rates, unemployment, and foreign policy. For many of us such complex matters are barely comprehensible; even those who could comprehend are often preoccupied with other things and have no time to collect current information. To believe political leaders, we have to rely on their word. How can we reasonably rely on their word? We must trust that they are sufficiently competent to know what is going on and sufficiently honest to tell us the truth about it. Notoriously, political leaders are often not competent and honest, and equally notoriously, people often do not believe that they are competent and honest. But often we are dependent on their word. (How large is the deficit? Was there information indicating that a riot was about to occur?) When such representatives lie to us, make ignorant remarks, indulge in sexual affairs, or seem in other ways to be irresponsible, we easily lose what trust we might have had. Even though personal peccadilloes and verbal faux pas may have nothing to do with the subject at hand, we are vulnerably dependent on these people, and we will take seriously any evidence that they are care- less, immoral, dishonest, or incompetent.

In complex societies we need to trust many other people. The modern world is not the traditional small village, and we are unable to know most of these people personally: "it is all too obvious that the social order does not stand and fall by the few people one knows and trusts. There must be other ways of building up trust which do not depend on the personal element. But what are they?" Luhmann's answer comes in three surprising parts: money, truth, and legitimate political power. What these have in common is their role in reducing the complexities of a life in which innumerable free human agents are interdependent. There is an inevitable reflexivity in the phenomena. These devices, which for Luhmann form the basis of social trust, also require trust. There is a circle here. Money, for instance, solves problems of trust, but we would not use money had we no trust in other people and in the relevant financial institutions. We can use money to address certain problems of trust, but then the very use of money presupposes that certain other problems of trust have been solved. Truly, there are webs of trust.

In Western industrialized countries people typically have confidence in accepting and using money because of a kind of "system trust." Using money, we have confidence in its continuing exchange value, which means, in effect, that we trust implicitly financial and governmental institutions and other people who use the same currency. We exchange dollars instead of working out a basis for trust in particular individuals (bartering carrots for singing lessons, for instance) with whom we are involved in countless unrelated transactions. Political and social problems can make @ currency unstable and, in extreme cases, affect the use of money. On a recent trip to Russia my family and I experienced a mild version of this instability, which may serve as an illustration. The ruble, officially now a convertible currency, was subject to some devaluation because of inflation. Because of this, vouchers for our train tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railway, paid for in Canadian dollars, were not exchanged by Intourist personnel until the last possible moment. Sometimes this was only an hour before the departure of our train. We never missed a train, but we nevertheless found the practice inconvenient and slightly nerve-wracking. The Intourist personnel were reasoning that, with the ruble diminishing in value, they could hope to obtain more rubles for the tickets by waiting until the last moment. Their lack of confidence in the ability of the ruble to hold its value directly affected their behavior and our ease of travel. The somewhat unstable nature of Russian political and economic life affected international confidence in Russia, which in turn affected the value of the ruble; that affected the behavior of Russian staff, whose confidence was lowered due to the relatively low international confidence. Their behavior in turn affected our confidence about being able to board the train on time.

In our normal use of money, outside inflationary contexts, people assume that the money will retain its value and that differences of a few days or hours are not financially significant: one hundred dollars today will be worth one hundred dollars tomorrow. In a reasonably stable society we can assume that a system is functioning to make the currency reliable. With money, our trust is placed in the system and not in individual people. It is on this basis that Luhmann argues personal trust yields to system trust. What is at issue in most currency transactions is not the individual trustworthiness of one agent but rather the stability of the society in which the currency is based. When a currency such as the ruble is decreasing in value, it does so because influential people somewhere have less confidence in the system.

As for truth, to deal with others we must have a common basis of beliefs. This means that people have to establish common meanings; trust is possible only if we are able to reach agreement about what is going on in the world. For example, Allan can trust Juan to look after his cottage only in so far as he and Juan share beliefs about where the cottage is and how it should be looked after. To do this, we depend and rely on the way other people process information:

Behind every experience of objects there are possible statements and ... behind every statement there lie processes by which information has been worked on and worked put by people - not some immutable Truth of Being. ... Does one trust the chemist or his assistant or the doctor, or is it medicine, science, or technology?

Luhmann's answer is: all of the above. Of course the trust needed to come to a consensus on the truth is diffuse: we do not need to be personally acquainted with all the people who have worked out this knowledge.

As for political power, the methods for establishing its legitimacy are unclear. Voting presupposes some degree of trust. Minimally, we must be confident that the candidates are reasonably decent and the votes will be counted fairly. It is to no avail to imagine that a social contract was established at some time in the actual or hypothetical past. Luhmann suggests that confidence in political legitimacy arises incrementally, emerging from many small actions and decisions. The political process is made trustworthy because it is reached after going through many small stages and is open to new information at each stage.

Luhmann argues that in the modem world it is system trust, not personal trust, that is paramount. Personal trust cedes to a kind of trust in the ability of systems to maintain conditions of performance. Like the Swedish shoppers interviewed by Sellerberg, we implicitly trust large organized systems that regulate things or process information. The aims of these systems are not the aims of the people who work within them. Social trust is an intricate, tangled web. We must trust ourselves, trust that others trust us, and trust that others will trust third parties in about the same ways that we do. It may even be said that we must trust our own trust; when, on reflection, we realize that we are trusting in all these ways, we must be willing to judge that our trust is all right, on the whole, that it has worked for us in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Usually, all this is implicit; we do not reflect on it and are not even aware of it. People tend to be more willing to trust if they are self-confident and secure enough to cope with disappointments and adapt to changing circumstances. Luhmann does not deny the existence of interpersonal trust or denigrate its importance. Such trust is fundamental in the family and with colleagues and friends, and it provides a necessary basis for social trust. But in the modern world it will never be enough. To live in a complex society without going mad, we must have trust in systems too.

Berkman Center for Internet & Society