What's Trust Got To Do With It?

Published December 14, 2017 by Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock

Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock reflects on his workshop 'Talk on Trust and Europe's Crisis of Representation'.

Why has there been so much talk on trust in recent years? Whether we speak about the economy, politics, the relations among different ethnic or religious groups, the media, Brexit, or Trump – talk on trust has proliferated across social debates. At the end of our Trust in Crisis research project at the Woolf Institute, I hosted an interdisciplinary workshop on trust talk to explore what this talk reveals about the social and political conditions of our time. The event took place on 7-8 December 2017 in the new Woolf Institute building, supported by two additional convenors: Caroline Humphrey, of King's College, Cambridge, and Jonathan White, from the London School of Economics. We had three thematic sections: 'The Changing Economy', 'Representative Democracies', and 'Changing and Diverse Societies'.

Geoffrey Hosking, a UCL professor and the author of Trust. A History. gave an inspiring keynote. He outlined how the decline of social trust was affecting two distinct spheres: money and financial institutions, on the one hand, and symbolic systems associated with the nation state, on the other. The collapse of the idea of a self-regulating economy in 2008, Hosking suggested, has undermined people's trust in the financial institutions that undergird much of contemporary economic activity. As a consequence of the financial crisis, even the citizens in advanced democracies with independent media outlets are no longer able to distinguish which banks, promises, or products can be trusted. The subsequent politics of austerity then also undermined trust in the state, which appeared less interested in providing security and protection to its citizens. This, Hosking concluded, has created a sense of alienation and despair – to which the reinvigoration of national symbols by populists has been a key response. Still, he offered as a positive outlook, democracies have historically been much better at solving serious problems than authoritarian states, even though it does take them longer to act and rebuild the relations and sentiments that glue society together – or trust.

Hosking's emphasis on the interconnectedness of social, political, and economic phenomena in analyses of trust was a key theme of the workshop. Ines Faria, from the University of Lisbon, for example, has conducted research on the blockchain, a 'co-construction between technology and society'. In blockchain transactions, participants can only know each other's' digital signatures, but never the actual persons behind them. Instead, they need to trust 'the system' and its algorithms. The willingness of many people to experiment with emergent digital technologies and economic systems, Faria's analysis highlighted, illustrates that people desire to trust, even when the object of trust is the inaccessible code developed by remote and unknowable programmers.

In her talk on US and UK survivalists, however, Susannah Crockford showed that mistrust can also be the foundation of new social forms. Crockford, an anthropologist based at the LSE, has studied so-called preppers – Americans who fear the end of the world and the collapse of the current order, and thus live in rural parts of the US preparing for catastrophe. Unlike blockchain users, these survivalists do generally not trust either public institutions or fellow human beings. They see other people who do not prepare for the end of the world as mindless zombies, and uphold an American myth of frontierism and the Wild West in their lifestyle. The basis of such prepper communities, Crockford showed, is ingrained mistrust. In turn, however, this seemingly negative attitude can also become the basis of community formation: in their shared mistrust of others, survivalists find common ground. They choose to live collectively with other preppers, with whom they constantly talk about disaster prevention and their mistrust of the outside. Trust and mistrust shape one another.

The workshop thus revealed that what we glibly refer to as 'trust' in everyday conversations remains often vague and unspecific. Taras Fedirko, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, showed that this vagueness can be intentional and purposefully mobilised, and perhaps even manipulated in order to achieve particular ends. He has conducted research with Transparency International, a well-known NGO that combats corruption. In its attempt to end corruptive practices, Fedirko showed, Transparency International operates with an abstract notion of trust, which it juxtaposes with corruption. Trust is generally considered as something that is good and important for the democratic order, whereas corruption is described in Transparency International policy documents as undemocratic – and as something that destroys trust in democracy. So, Fedirko argued, 'trust is just another entry on the list of corruption casualties'. At the same time, however, Transparency International also describes trust as the basis of anti-corruption: ‘it is an element of integrity, but also integrity's outcome'. This inconsistency regarding talk on trust is a hallmark of the concept's success: trust is one of the few abstract notions with which people generally associate very positive attributes. In our workshop, we therefore questioned how useful the concept still is for an analysis of social life, since its conceptual quality has become so compromised.

Paul Weller, a professor at Coventry University, offered a different perspective by highlighting the religious dimensions that can give meaning to trust and trusting. He went beyond the complex and messy everyday social relations, and instead emphasised how religious traditions focus on the 'horizon of ultimate concern' – a phrase he borrowed from Paul Tillich. Religions, Weller showed, can therefore bring to bear more fundamental questions about trust, and therefore remake the content of talk on trust in relation to our spiritual, ultimate future.

The two-day workshop concluded with important questions to take forward about the centrality of talk on trust in our current social lives. Perhaps, one of our conclusions went, the ubiquity of such trust talk is in itself revealing: it signals shared longing for more predictable and stable social orders, for a utopian world in which trust does not need to be talked about anymore, because it can be taken for granted.

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