Sociology Of Trust Research Paper

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Trust is an expectation, a disposition, or a virtue. It is cognitive, emotional, moral, or some combination of the three. There is, in fact, no universally consensual conception, but by any definition trust involves a social relationship in which one person makes them-self vulnerable to another who can do them harm if the trust is misplaced. That second person is either trustworthy or not, and much of the literature revolves around the evaluation of the trustworthiness of the trusted by the trustor. The two terms, trust and trustworthiness, are distinct but so implicated with each other that it is impossible to consider the first without also considering the second.

1. The Term ‘Trust’

Trust is a word so common in everyday parlance that any effort to transform the term into a useful social science concept is fraught with difficulties. Yet, given the seeming importance of trust in interpersonal relations at home, at work, and on the street, in the relationships between citizens and their governors and governments, and even, possibly, among states, it is useful to clarify not only what we mean by trust but also to specify what work it actually does. To what extent trust is essential to well-ordered and productive relationships in contemporary societies is an empirical question as yet unresolved.

There are several distinct literatures on trust and several ways to categorize them. One typology differentiates trust among those who know each other intimately (personal trust) from trust among strangers or relative strangers (interpersonal, social, or generalized trust), which in turn is distinct from trust of government, firms, and other institutions (political, institutional, or organizational trust). Another involves the distinction between dyadic and embedded relations of trust. Yet another is according to disciplines, of which the most contributory to the discussion are philosophy, law, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science. There are approaches to trust that rely on rational choice, others that call upon structural functionalism, and yet others that evoke social identity theory. There are surveys of trust, experiments on trust, and formal models of trust. Yet, the concept remains elusive.

Some minimal consensus does exist, nonetheless. Trust is relational, involving at least one individual making themself vulnerable to another individual, set of individuals, or institution that possesses the potential to do harm or betray. Trust implies a judgment of risk in conditions of uncertainty. Moreover, trust is seldom unconditional; it is given over specific domains. A client may entrust a banker with money but never consider leaving a child in the banker’s care; citizens may entrust their lives to their government during wartime but not new taxes to legislators who promise improved public services.

Trustworthiness is also relational but in a more limited sense. Even when there is no call for trust, a person or institution can possess the attributes of trustworthiness, attributes that assure potential trustors that the trusted will not betray a trust. Trustworthiness has two dimensions. The first involves the commitment to act in the interests of the trustor due to moral values about promise-keeping, caring about the trustor, or incentive compatibility, or some combination of all three. When we call someone trustworthy, we often mean only this commitment, but there is in fact a second dimension, competence in the domain over which trust is being given. The trustworthy will not betray the trust as a consequence of either bad faith or ineptitude.

This minimal consensus does not resolve the conceptual ambiguity that surrounds the social science usage of the terms trust and trustworthiness. Confidence, reliance, and assurance are related concepts that some scholars conflate and others distinguish albeit in a variety of ways.

2. Research On Trust And Trustworthiness

Trust has a long intellectual history and a flourishing contemporary industry of research. In political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes argued that where there is trust, there is no reason to search for a better way to achieve a good, and John Locke emphasized the importance of mutual trust between the governors and the governed within legitimate polities (Dunn 1990). In sociology, it is a concept used by scholars as various as Talcott Parsons, Peter Blau, Harold Garfinkel, Niklas Luhmann, and Bernard Barber in their efforts to understand the construction of social order, cooperation, institutions, and organizations, and even everyday interactions. To the economist Arrow (1974), ‘Trust is an important lubricant of a social system’ because it can enhance efficiency. There are two major strands of work on trust, one that emphasizes trust as reigning where the market, contract, and modern institutions do not and the other emphasizing the underlying importance of trust in modern exchange, societal, and institutional relations. What ties these perspectives together is the recognition of trust as a means to cope with uncertainty; what distinguishes these perspectives is how trust comes about, when it should be relied upon, and what kinds of interactions it enhances.

The recent burgeoning of the social science literature on trust is a response to the perception that political and social trust is in decline and in part to an argument that trust is essential to a good society. The fact that there are now decades of responses to the same survey questions and that they indicate a reduction in both political and social trust in the advanced industrial democracies has generated an effort to explain and correct this trend. The emphasis on the importance of social capital and the claim that it, too, has decreased over time is another factor producing a focus on trust. Both Coleman (1990) and Putnam et al. (1993) included trust as a critical element in their original accounts of social capital.

Economists and organizational theorists have come to share Arrow’s and others’ view that more than formal incentives or credible commitments may be necessary to account for productive internal relationships and innovative change within firms and organizations (Kreps 1990, Miller 1992, Kramer and Tyler 1996). Social theorists attempting to explain variation in the capacity for collective action and cooperation (Gambetta 1988) and better governance (Braithwaite and Levi 1998) are also reconsidering the roles trust and trustworthiness play. And they are hardly alone in discovering, or rather revisiting, these concepts, as recent books by Fukuyama (1995), Seligman (1997), and others attest.

2.1 Motivational Assumptions About Trust

Why does someone trust? There are at least four possible kinds of motivations: dispositional, moral, social, and instrumental.

In one widespread perspective, trust is a disposition, that is, some individuals are more inclined to trust or be trustworthy than others due to factors of personality or character. A dispositional view of trust leads to investigations of variation among the population in the propensity to trust and be trustworthy. There is little agreement in the trust literature, however, on the sources of such a disposition. It could be a result of innate character, childhood experience, learning and updating, instrumental manipulation, knowledge, social networks, social bonds, or social norms. The assumption of trust as a disposition fails to capture important elements of trust: Trust always has both an object, the person, persons, or institution being trusted, and a domain, what the person, persons, or institution is being trusted to do.

By some accounts, trust is motivated by morality. Individuals are trusting because they believe trust is the act of a good person. Trust as a virtue is a very unsatisfying account of motivation, however. To trust a conman or to trust a corrupt politician is hardly virtuous by any common language sense of virtue. Trust may reflect a normative ordering that demands deference and obedience to certain kinds of authorities, but it is important to maintain the distinction between the normative features of trust and the claim that trusting behavior is either morally motivated or a moral good. What may well have moral motivation is trustworthiness, which generally implies commitments, promise keeping, and obligations. We are more likely to consider someone trustworthy, ceteris paribus, when we believe they have ethical values that make it unlikely for them to betray a trust.

A third possible motivation is social in the sense that individuals derive their identity and self-esteem from their relations to others and thus trust or are trustworthy in keeping with their sense of self or to enhance social status, or both. Although the social motivation is intentional, the end sought has more to do with identity than with the achievement of some material benefit. This leads many of the adherents of social motivation to claim that it is neither interest-based nor calculative.

A final kind of motivation is, in fact, instrumental and calculative. Trust is given when it is a means to a particular end and when there is reason to believe the trust will be rewarded. There is a positive expectation that the payoffs from taking a risk are worth the possible costs. It is easiest to trust when the risks are sufficiently low, and it may well be worth the risk when the returns are sufficiently high. There are some circumstances, however, when the cost of misplaced trust is so high that trust is rarely given or given only when there is considerable insurance. Trusting one’s child to the care of another or investing one’s life savings are two such cases.

The development of a reputation for trustworthiness can also be instrumental. The trustworthiness of an individual may enlarge her possibilities for valued exchange and cooperation, and the trustworthiness of a government or organization may enhance the voluntary compliance and consent of those subject to its rules. Trustworthiness is also likely to increase the range of discretion given to the trusted, which is an issue of particular importance to agents, be they legislators or union officials or managers, acting on behalf of principals who lack the same intimate knowledge of the situation and the alternatives.

2.2 Conceptualizing Trust

In conceptualizing trust in order to engage in empirical research, two crucial distinctions exist: cognitive vs. noncognitive trust; dyadic vs. embedded trust. There is no empty cell in this matrix; a scholar can be concerned with either of the first and either of the second.

Assumptions about motivations are closely linked to whether the conceptualization of trust that informs empirical research is noncognitive or cognitive. Those who argue for motivations based on morality or social bonds tend to have a noncognitive approach, and those who argue motivations are instrumental generally have a cognitive view. The dispositional motivation can fit with either, depending on one’s view of disposition formation.

The noncognitive conception of trust draws on the work of psychologists concerned with social identity, particularly Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner. It is advocated by contemporary social psychologists, such as Robyn Dawes, Tom Tyler, Rod Kramer, and Marilyn Brewer, and by social theorists, such as Allan Silver, who perceive trust as having a moral basis that contrasts with, although often complementing, the world of contracting and impersonal transactions. Individuals trust because of their attributions of motives to the person or institutions that must be trusted. If they attribute trustworthiness, they are more likely to trust, and they are most likely to attribute trustworthiness when there are social bonds or group identification between the trustor and the trusted. This perspective is rooted more in the emotions and morals of an individual than in her capacity to reason. It reflects personal relations and cannot be easily regulated by the impersonal relationships embodied in bureaucracy, market, or formal law. The cognitive conception of trust builds on the work of economists, political economists, and social exchange theorists, such as Kenneth Arrow, James vs. Coleman Russell Hardin, and Diego Gambetta. The act of trust, of making oneself vulnerable, requires a thoughtful assessment of risk, informed by a rational expectation or a rational belief that the trusted will be trustworthy. Such an expectation or belief is generally grounded in knowledge of the other’s past behavior or present motives and constraints. It can be affected by the existence of institutions, sanctions, and incentives that affect the probabilities that the trusted will act in the interest of the trustor.

The second distinction is between dyadic and embedded trust. Trust is relational in either case, but embedded trust permits conceptualization of generalized trust and institutional trust, and not just trust at the individual level. Dyadic trust depends upon expectations about or social bonds with a particular other. Embedded trust rests in social networks and institutional arrangements that permit expectations about or social bonds based on the social roles, categorization, and rules affecting others.

2.3 Measuring And Observing Trust

The most common methods for studying trust include surveys, experiments, and case studies, sometimes but not always informed by formal models. The surveys attempt to measure either political or social trust, but there is considerable controversy about how well they measure either. This is particularly true for the questions in the National Election Studies, which seem to be more about confidence in or positive assessment of elected officials than of political trust, and for those in the general social surveys, which seem to be tapping issues of social anxiety rather than social trust. The World Value Survey asks about both institutional and interpersonal trust, but its questions have similar limitations as the American versions. These major surveys do have the advantage of asking the same questions over the course of several decades, but there remains the issue of whether the time range covered is adequate to capture real changes in trust. Moreover, it is possible that people asked at one point in time understand a question differently than when they are asked at a later point in time. Surveys designed explicitly to capture the relationships of trust are even less likely than the major surveys to enhance understanding of changes in trust relations over time, and their questions still tend to be open to multiple interpretations.

Some survey work does offer insight into trust relations, nonetheless. For example, Toshio Yamagishi uses survey evidence, often in combination with experimental work, to provide some interesting observations on variations in trust within and across populations and countries. Comparing the United States and Japan, Yamagishi and Yamagishi (1994) conclude that the embeddedness of the Japanese, at least until recently, in such tight social networks meant that they did not need to develop the capacity for discerning who and what to trust that has long been characteristic of Americans.

Experimental work on trust has different strengths and weaknesses. At their best, experiments can control for factors that might influence or be confused with trust and trustworthiness, they can investigate choice behavior and not just the attitudes captured by surveys, and they can be designed so as to clarify the conditions under which individuals are likely to trust. There have been interesting experiments linking trust to issues of exchange and collective action, and there has been some work attempting to get at the effect of dispositional variations within a population. Most of the experiments, however, focus on dyadic relationships, although there are experiments that investigate the operation of social networks. Moreover, much of the experimental work to date has conflated cooperation and trust. For these experiments to be more compelling, they need to clarify the roles that trust plays in producing cooperation rather than assuming that where there is cooperation, there is trust.

Several other approaches to the study of trust also deserve mention. The trust game and other formal models have proved useful to organizational theorists and economic historians attempting to understand the role trust plays in the relationships between principals and agents and in long-distance trade. There have been statistical analyses of indicators of trust in order to determine variation over time, and there have been case studies that attempt to capture the attributes of trustworthy government or trust that affects economic interactions and productivity in and across firms, industries, groups, regions, and countries. However, this research, although multiplying rapidly, is still in fairly early stages of development.

3. Is Trust A Useful Concept?

There is some question of whether a concept like trust is even necessary if the purpose is to explain phenomena that rely on impersonal, multi-person, and anonymous interactions. Williamson (1993) makes a case that it is not; to him trust exists only in personal relations with incentives, interests, and institutions regulating political, market, and large-scale social interactions. Silver (1985), coming from a totally different perspective, offers a similar argument. Hardin (1998) claims that trust, as he defines it, can exist only in the rather limited set of cases where the trustor has sufficient knowledge of the trusted to believe that their incentives are compatible; he is wary of such concepts as trust in government. Levi (2000) claims that trust is not always the solution to distrust. There are, after all, numerous functional alternatives to trust that rely more on assurance or coercion than on trust, such as: third-party insurers; contracts and other legal enforcement devices; professional ethics; fictive kinship; and a variety of social networks and institutional arrangements.

The argument of the social identity theorists and those who come out of the sociological tradition of Durkheim or the liberal political tradition of Locke is that trust most certainly matters and is, in fact, essential to a well-ordered society. It is constitutive, in this view, of the moral and personal glue that enables modern societies to function. These scholars tend to decry the loss of trust and seek to halt its further decline by advocating the maintenance and creation of community, republicanism, and more personalized interactions, even in large-scale organizations. On the other hand, those relying on instrumental and cognitive theories treat the work trust does as an empirical question. Relationships of trust are but one of many means to achieve given ends, and whether they are the best means is still open to considerable research and debate.


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