Irritated and stimulated by an article on trust research

Bachmann’s article “At the crossroads: future directions in trust research” is useful in that it challenges our premise that trust emerges from interpersonal interaction. It also warns us to take the institutional context of such interactions into account. But I did find the article highly irritating for a number of reasons:

  • It polarises the subject into two extremes: either one studies interaction-based trust or one studies institution-based trust, whereas I would say that we might take both into account and they aren’t really separate in practice, only conceptually.
  • Bachmann never spells out what he means by the “institutional arrangements” that must be in place if people are to trust “unknown collectives” like banks, retailers, doctors, police and so on. The furthest he goes is to say that we only trust these collectives if there are “rules and norms” in place. (When I think about my relationship with representatives of these collectives, I think rules are a necessary but not sufficient condition for trusting them.)
  • He gives no detailed examples of “embedded social actors” deciding to trust one another “in the light of specific institutional arrangements” (page 207).
  • Complexity thinking is clearly not on the author’s radar screen. For example, he suggests that interaction-based approaches are about “an attitude or state of mind of an isolated individual” (page 207). There is no sense of the social or of intersubjectivity in this description.
  • In critiquing the “micro-perspective on trust” he gives three examples. These are approaches that rely, respectively, on: (i) psychological factors, (ii) game theory or (iii) moral issues. I think our complexity-inspired approach goes beyond these.

Despite feeling irritated, I can see that we do need to be able to make sense of how people come to trust whole institutions, or representatives of those institutions. This is particularly important given that people often have no face-to-face contact with those they need to trust (though, in my experience, people do seem perfectly capable of developing trusting relationships via telephone, internet and letter writing.)

I also accept that institutional arrangements play an important part. But who establishes these arrangements, if not human beings interacting with one another? These may be committee members, senior managers, policy makers, ministers, etc. etc. At least in the following sentence, Bachmann does hint at an intersubjective view (page 208):

“In our view, institutional-based trust develops in concrete relationships between two actors who not only unavoidably orient their behaviour to the relevant institutional arrangements but also enact and constantly reproduce the meaning, power and legitimacy of the institutional order in which their decisions and actions are embedded (Giddens, 1990; Kroeger, 2011).” (Bachmann 2011, my emphasis)

Alison Donaldson

Reinhard Bachmann (2011) At the crossroads: Future directions in trust
research, Journal of Trust Research, 1:2, 203-213.

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