trust and distrust

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trust and distrust A strong tradition in sociology argues that stable collective life must be based on more than mere calculations of self-interest and that, even in a business situation, an element of trust is essential. Émile Durkheim's celebrated phrase that ‘in a contract not everything is contractual’ states this position most succinctly.

One of the most influential recent discussions of trust ( A. Giddens , The Consequences of Modernity, 1990
) defines it as ‘confidence in the reliability of a person or system’ and provides a useful summary of the chief issues which are raised by this concept. Giddens observes that some properties of trust apply regardless of the type of society under discussion. The human condition is essentially uncertain and threatening, but for day-to-day purposes, the upbringing of most members of society protects them from deep-seated anxiety by the development of ‘basic trust’ in others and in ‘taken-for-granted’ ways of living. Several traditions in psychology and psychoanalysis ascribe bizarre, aggressive, and disturbed behaviour to the failure of parents to transmit a sense of basic trust to their offspring, with the result that both the inner self and the external environment are perceived as unreliable and hostile.

That the onset of modernity fundamentally alters both the sources and the objects of basic trust is suggested by the classical and more recent writings alike. The broad consensus of this work is that modernity undermines the salience of kinship ties, breaks the hold of the local community, and questions the authority of religion and appeals to tradition. Giddens attributes these effects to various ‘disembedding mechanisms’ which detach social relations from local contexts and ‘restructure them across indefinite spans of time and space’. There are two classes of such mechanisms, both of which require a more abstract form of trust than in pre-modern circumstances: namely, symbolic tokens (the prime example being money), and expert systems (where trust is placed in a body of reflexive knowledge). The distancing of social relations in time and space, however, requires a learned ability to maintain trust and simultaneously tolerate absence. Modernity is therefore double-edged, since it threatens our ‘ontological security’, that is, our confidence in the continuity of personal identity and in the social and material environment. It also increases the likelihood of risk and anxiety as well as demanding trust in abstract systems.

Arguably, trust is a neglected and underdeveloped notion in sociological analysis, although there are clear signs of an awakening of interest (see, for example, D. Gambetta ( ed.) , Trust, 1988
). In this newer literature, issues of trust tend to be linked to wider discussions of rational action theory (see EXCHANGE THEORY) and game theory. To date, however, the main usage of the concept in a substantive research context has been in the comparative sociology of labour relations and management. For example, Alan Fox (Beyond Contract, 1974) proposed a distinction between labour-management systems with a low-trust and a high-trust ‘dynamic’ (ethos and methods of control), arguing that it could be applied to differences in both individual organizations and national bargaining structures. The amount of discretion allowed to the worker is related to remuneration and working conditions, job security, supervisory style, policy towards collective bargaining, and so on. Whereas British and American management styles historically have tended to reflect a low-trust dynamic, Germany and Japan are cited as examples of high-trust industrial cultures. It is important to note, however, that high-trust methods may be adopted by industrial management for calculative reasons, and may in the longer term be perceived by the workforce as manipulation, or the attempt to manufacture consent.

Fox's dichotomy has been rediscovered (and relabelled) by several later authors. For example, Andrew Friedman (Industry and Labour, 1977) contrasts managerial strategies of ‘direct control’ (close supervision, minimal worker responsibility, use of coercive threats), with those of ‘responsible autonomy’ (encouraging workers to identify with the goals of the enterprise, and to police their own efforts, by granting them authority, status, and responsibility). However, regardless of the terminology in which the contrast has been presented, it is vulnerable to the criticism that patterns of managerial control in the real world are more complex, and cannot be reduced to any dualist view of strategy.