Trust Culture Research Paper

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1. The Concept Of Trust In Modern Sociology

The roots of the concept of trust are to be found in philosophy, theology, sociopolitical thought, and ethics (cf. Silver 1985, Misztal 1996). In this research paper the discussion will be limited to the domain of sociology, where during the last two decades of the twentieth century the new wave of theoretical concern with trust has emerged.

In 1979 Niklas Luhmann related the phenomenon of trust to the growing complexity, uncertainty, and risk characterizing contemporary society. For the first time, there was a suggestion that trust is not an obsolete resource typical of traditional society, but just the reverse, it gains in importance with the development of modernity. In 1983 Bernard Barber reviewed the manifestations of trust in various institutional and professional settings introducing the category of ‘fiduciary trust.’ In 1984 Shmuel Eisenstadt and Louis Roniger identified trust as a core ingredient in the patron–client relations, as they appear in various guises from antiquity to modernity. In 1988, Diego Gambetta brought together a number of authors looking at trust and distrust in various domains, from various perspectives, and later himself presented the analysis of trust in closed, exclusive communities, like the mafia (1993). In 1990, James Coleman provided an exemplary analysis of trust as a purely rational transaction, within the framework of rational-choice theory. This avenue was followed in a number of contributions in the 1990s by Hardin (1991, 1993). From a macrosociological perspective Anthony Giddens approached trust as the characteristic feature of late modernity, elaborating on Luhmanian themes of complexity, uncertainty, and risk. In 1995, Francis Fukuyama provided the comprehensive exposition of trust as an indispensable ingredient of viable economic systems, basing his argument on the experience of China, Japan, and other South-East Asian societies. In 1997, Adam Seligman presented an interpretation of trust as a specifically modern phenomenon linked with the division of labor, differentiation, and pluralization of roles and the consequent indeterminacy and negotiability of role expectations. In 1999, Piotr Sztompka offered a synthetic treatment of trust as a cultural resource necessary for viable functioning of society, illustrating his argument with the vicissitudes of trust in postcommunist societies of Eastern Europe.

The importance of trust derives from some fundamental qualities of human action. Interacting with others we must constantly articulate expectations about their future actions. Most often we lack the possibility of precise and accurate prediction or efficient control. Facing other people we remain in the condition of uncertainty, bafflement, and surprise. And yet, most often we cannot refrain from acting—to satisfy our needs, to realize our goals. Then we have to face risks that others will turn against us.

Trusting becomes the crucial strategy to deal with an uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable future. Trust consists of two main components: beliefs and commitment. Placing trust in others, people behave ‘as if’ they knew the ways in which other people will act. But trust is more than just contemplative anticipation. People must also face the future actively, by committing themselves to action with at least partly uncertain and unpredictable consequences. Thus, people gamble, making bets about the future actions and reactions of partners. To sum up, trust is a bet about the future contingent actions of others.

2. Targets Of Trust

We vest trust in various objects. First, there is trust in the members of our family, pervaded with strongest intimacy and closeness. Then comes the trust toward people we know personally, whom we recognize by name, and with whom we interact in face-to-face manner (our friends, neighbors, co-workers, business partners, etc.). Here trust still involves considerable degree of intimacy and closeness. The wider circle embraces other members of our community, known at most indirectly, by sight, and directly only through some individual representatives (inhabitants of our village, employees of our firm, professors at our university, members of our political party). The widest circle includes large categories of people, with whom we believe we have something in common, but who are mostly ‘absent others,’ not directly encountered, and constructed as a real collectivity only in our imagination (‘imagined communities’ of our compatriots, members of our ethnic group, of our church, of our race, of our gender, of our age cohort, of our generation, of our profession, etc.). Here trust in concrete persons shades off imperceptibly into trust in more abstract social categories.

The next target of trust is social roles. Independent of the concrete incumbents, some roles evoke prima facie trust. Mother, friend, doctor of medicine, university professor, priest, judge, notary public—are just some examples of the trusted personal roles, or offices of ‘public trust.’

An even more abstract case is the trust directed at institutions and organizations. The school, the university, the army, the church, the courts, the police, the banks, the stock exchange, the parliament, are typical targets for this type of trust. An interesting variant of trust in institutions may be called procedural trust. It is trust vested in institutionalized practices or procedures. A good example is trust in science as the best method for reaching the truth, or trust in the democratic procedures (elections, representation, majority vote, etc.) as the best ways to reach reasonable compromise among conflicting particular interests.

The next important category of objects endowed with trust are technological systems (‘expert systems,’ ‘abstract systems,’ cf. Giddens 1990). In modern society people live surrounded by them: by telecommunications, water and power systems, transportation systems, air-traffic control systems, military command networks, computer networks, financial markets, etc. The principles and mechanisms of their operation are opaque and cryptic for the average user. People usually take them for granted and do not even notice their pervasive presence. And everybody has learned to rely on them, to the extent that their failure produces a major crisis.

Finally, the most abstract objects of trust are the overall qualities of the social system, social order, or the regime. Trust in them engenders feelings of existential security, continuity, and stability.

The various types of trust reviewed above operate according to the same logic. Most importantly, behind all of them there looms the primordial form of trust—in people and their actions. Appearances notwithstanding, all of the above objects of trust, even most abstract, are reducible to human actions. Ultimately we trust human actions, and only derivatively their conglomerates, effects, or products.

3. The Substance And Grounds Of Trust

The trusting expectations can be arranged along a sort of scale: from least demanding to the most demanding, and respectively from the weakest, least risky bets, to the strongest, most risky bets of trust. First, we may expect only some instrumental qualities of actions taken by the others: (a) regularity (orderliness, consistency, coherence, continuity, persistence), (b) reasonableness (giving grounds, good justification for actions, accepting arguments), (c) efficiency (competence, consistency, discipline, proper performance, effectiveness).

The second class of expectations is more demanding. We may expect some moral qualities of actions performed by the others: (a) we expect them to be morally responsible (i.e., engaging in principled, honest, honorable conduct, following some moral rules, showing integrity), (b) we expect them to be kind, gentle toward ourselves, treating us in human fashion, (c) we expect them to be truthful, authentic, straightforward, (d) we expect others to be fair and just (applying universalistic criteria, equal standards, due process, meritocratic justice). Generally speaking, betting on moral virtues of others is more risky than believing merely in their basic rationality.

We may also make the strongest bets and expect from others what Barber called the ‘fiduciary’ conduct and defined as ‘duties in certain situations to place others’ interests before our own’ (Barber 1983). This category is exemplified by: (a) disinterestedness (i.e., acting without consideration of one’s own interests or even against such interests), (b) representative actions (acting on behalf of others, displaying concern for the welfare of others, serving their interests, cf. Dahrendorf 1979), (c) benevolence and generosity (caring, helping, protecting, expressing sympathy, sensitive to the sufferings of others). This is the strongest, most risky bet because the probability that most people will be disinterested is low, and that they will take representative duties and engage in altruistic help is even lower.

There are three grounds on which decisions to trust (to place the ‘bets’) may be based: reflected trustworthiness, personal trustfulness, and trust culture.

As far as trust is a relationship with others, granting trust is based on the estimate of their trustworthiness. Trust in this case may be considered as ‘reflected trustworthiness’ of the partners: our perception of their reputation, performance, or appearance. The probability of well-placed trust rises with the amount and variety of true information about the trustee. Without such knowledge trust is blind and the chances of the breach of trust are high.

But trust is not only a calculating relationship, but also a psychological impulse (Wilson 1993). Innate trustfulness may push people to trust quite independently of any estimate of trustworthiness. This has nothing to do with knowledge about the partners of future engagements. Rather, the impulse derives from past history of diverse relationships pervaded with trust, primarily in the family and later in other groups, associations, or organizations.

People may also be encouraged to trust by the surrounding cultural rules. Normative rules may push toward trusting, defining trust as proper. If the rules demanding trust are shared by a community, and perceived as given, and external by each member, then they exert strong constraining pressure on actual acts of granting trust. They may modify significantly the rational estimates of trust, as well as inherent trusting impulses.

4. Trust Culture

Trust culture is a system of such rules—norms and values—regulating and granting trust as well as reciprocating trust. There are the normative obligations to trust and there are the normative obligations to be trustworthy, credible, reliable. One locus of both types of obligations is the social roles. There are social roles that refer to trusters and include a normative imperative to trust others. This is true of ‘helping professions’: the doctor of medicine, the defense counsel, the social worker, the priest, etc. There are other social roles that refer to trustees and place strong emphasis on trustworthiness (the demand for meeting trust, i.e., acting reliably, morally, caringly). For example, university professors are expected to be truthful and responsible for their words, judges to be fair and just in their verdicts, football referees to be impartial. The more general rule of ‘noblesse oblige’ demands exemplary conduct from those who have attained elevated positions in social hierarchy endowed with high esteem.

All those are role-specific rules of trust. But there are also more diffuse expectations to trust, which become pervasive in some societies at some periods of time. Fukuyama (1995) makes a distinction of ‘hightrust cultures,’ where he includes several countries of the Far East, and ‘low-trust cultures,’ where he includes some countries of the West. Putnam and Stivers complain about the demise of high-trust American culture of the nineteenth century and the emergence of the culture of cynicism in our time (Putnam 1995, Stivers 1994).

There are also culturally diffuse rules demanding and enforcing general trustworthiness. Mediaeval guilds, firms with long tradition, famous corporations, gold and diamond dealers, elite newspapers and journals, established publishing houses, etc, put great emphasis on fulfilling the obligations and meeting the trust of their clients. The ‘pride of the profession’ or the ‘honor of the firm’ become general normative guidelines embracing various sorts of activities.

Once the trust culture emerges and becomes strongly rooted in the normative system of a society, it becomes a powerful factor influencing decisions to trust, as well as the decisions to reciprocate trust. It may become the strong stabilizing force guaranteeing persistence and continuity of trust.

5. The Etiology Of Trust Culture

Several macrosocietal circumstances may be postulated hypothetically as conducive to the emergence of a trust culture. The first is normative coherence, as opposed to normative chaos, or anomie. The norms—of law, morality, custom—provide the solid skeleton of social life and their effective enforcement assures their binding nature. This makes social life more unproblematic, secure, orderly, and predictable, as there are fixed scenarios indicating what people should do and will do. Such normative ordering of social life raises the likelihood that other people will meet our expectations. The resulting feeling of existential security and certainty encourages the bets of trust. But apart from that there are enforceable norms more immediately relevant for trust, demanding honesty, loyalty, and reciprocity. Their presence raises the likelihood of such conduct, and assures us that our partners will fulfill obligations and extend mutual trust.

The second structural condition is the stability of the social order, as opposed to radical change. If the network of groups, associations, institutions, organizations, and regimes is long lasting, persistent, and continuous, it provides the firm reference points for social life, a feeling of security, support, and comfort. Repeated routines which people follow allow us to predict their conduct. Similarly, meeting obligations and reciprocating trust becomes not so much a matter of duty, but rather an unproblematic, habitual response (‘second nature’). People simply do not entertain the possibility that one could act otherwise. Trust may therefore be more easily offered, as the chances that it will be met, repaid, or mutually extended are high. By implication, social change is compatible with trust only if it proceeds gradually, regularly, predictably, in a slow rhythm, and consistent direction.

The third contextual, macrosocietal factor relevant to the propensity to trust is the transparency of the social organization, as opposed to its pervasive secrecy. The easy availability of information about the functioning, efficiency, levels of achievement, as well as failures and pathologies of groups, associations, institutions, organizations, and regimes provides the feeling of security and predictability. People are apt to relate to them with trust, because they are assured about what they may expect.

The fourth factor is the familiarity or its opposite the strangeness of the environment in which people operate. We mean by the environment the immediate ‘life-world,’ natural, technological, and civilizational milieu which surrounds the people. It includes various components: landscapes and topography, architecture, interiors, designs, colors, tastes, smells, images, etc. This factor, like the earlier one, has to do with accustomed routines. The experience of familiarity provides one with the feeling of security, certainty, predictability, and comfort. In effect, it produces a trust-generating atmosphere, where it is easier to believe that trusting predictions will be borne out, that entrusted values will be cared for and returned, and that others will reciprocate with mutual trust.

The fifth condition is the accountability of other people and institutions, as opposed to arbitrariness and irresponsibility. If there is a rich, accessible, and properly functioning set of institutions, setting standards and providing checks and controls on conduct, the danger of abuse is diminished, and the regularity of procedures safeguarded. If people can resort to such institutions when their rights are not recognized, or the obligations of others toward them not respected, then they acquire a kind of insurance or backup option and therefore feel safer. Everybody is confident that standards will be observed, departures prevented, and that even if abuse occurs it will be corrected by recourse to litigation, arbitration, restitution, etc.

6. Functional Substitutes For Trust

Trust has generally beneficial consequences for the partners in social relationships, the groups to which they belong, as well as the peaceful, harmonious, and cohesive quality of the wider social life. We may suspect that when trust is missing the resulting vacuum will be filled with some alternative arrangements providing similar functions and meeting universal cravings for certainty, predictability, and order. These will be the functional substitutes for trust.

The typical and widespread ways of coping with deficiencies of trust may acquire a normative sanction, turn into cultural rules prescribing certain conduct, or even into complex institutions. The danger is that some of these practices, strategies, and institutions may be clearly pathological. Appearing as functional substitutes to correct for the unfulfilled functions of trust, they themselves produce dysfunctional consequences for the wider society.

The first adaptive reaction is providentialism; invoking of supernatural or metaphysical forces—God, destiny, fate—as anchors of some spurious certainty. They are thought to take care of a situation about which nothing seemingly can be done. This may bring some psychological consolation, but at the social level it produces disastrous effects—apathy, passivism, and stagnation.

The second, quite perverse substitute for trust is corruption. Spreading in a society it provides some misleading sense of orderliness and predictability, some feeling of control over chaotic environment, some way to manipulate others into doing what we want them to do. The sane tissue of social bonds is replaced by the net of reciprocal favors, ‘connections,’ the cynical world of mutual manipulation and exploitation.

The third mechanism is the overgrowth of vigilance, taking into private hands the direct supervision and control of others, whose competence or integrity is put into doubt, or whose accountability is seen as weak, due to the inefficiency or lax standards of enforcing agencies. Private security forces, the walled communities with sentries, private possession of weapons, burglar alarms in cars and apartments, private agencies for debt collection—all those are clear indicators that trust has collapsed.

The fourth mechanism is excessive litigatiousness. If trust is missing, the handshake will no longer do. People will try to safeguard all relationships formally: draw meticulous contracts, insist on collaterals and bank guarantees, employ witnesses and notaries public, and resort to litigation in any, even miniscule, event of breaching trust by their partners.

The fifth mechanism may be called ghettoization, i.e., closing in, building impenetrable boundaries around a group in an alien and threatening environment. The diffuse distrust in the wider society is compensated by strong loyalty to local tribal, ethnic, or familial groups, matched with xenophobia and hostility toward foreigners. People close themselves in ghettoes of limited and intimate relationships, isolated and strictly separated from other groups, organizations, and institutions. By cutting the external world off, they reduce some of its complexity and uncertainty.

The sixth reaction may be called paternalization. When trust is missing, people seek protection in a father-like figure, a strong autocratic leader, a charismatic personality who would restore, if necessary by force, the semblance of order, predictability, and continuity in social life. When such leaders emerge they easily become a focus of blind, substitute trust. A similar craving for abdication of responsibility is also satisfied by other institutions: spreading cults, sects, ‘voracious communities,’ demanding full loyalty and total undivided commitment. They become quasifamilies, with a strong substitute father taking full care of the members.

The seventh reaction may be called externalization of trust. In the climate of distrust against local politicians, institutions, products, etc., people turn to foreign societies and deposit their trust in their leaders, organizations, or goods. Such foreign targets of trust are often blindly idealized, which is even easier because of the distance, selective bias of the media, and lack of direct contrary evidence.


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