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Does the social capital hypothesis offer hope for untrusting societies?

By Shaun Wilson, Toby Fattore and Nick Turnbull - posted Monday, 16 June 2003

"Restoring trust" and "building trust" are by now familiar themes, especially in the influential current of Third Way politics. Societies fearful of crime, suspicious of governments, and pressed for time are apparently much less trusting than they once were. Many argue that the problem of low trust is produced by falling social capital. Social capital is the community's stock of civic hardware - including groups, associations, and opportunities to participate and learn - that leads us to trust others and institutions, to take risks, and to develop. Advocates of the social capital idea think of it as a glue that binds us together alongside our economic and political institutions. The practical implication of the social capital idea is that building trusting communities will cure social ills. Long forgotten, trusting communities can succeed where governments are too clumsy and markets too ruthless and selfish.

However, we provide evidence that shows that we cannot assume that associational life provides a panacea to low trust. The concept of trust is more complex than social capital theory supposes. Trusting neighbours and trusting the government both involve an expression of confidence and mutual expectation but they depend on different social and political foundations. Our research shows that building trust through strengthening communities is a valuable idea but we should be cautious about over-generalising this claim.

Social capital: The 'more community!' solution to the problem of low trust


The argument goes that trust is produced by social capital. Communities that get on, know each other through groups and associations and possess a lot of social capital in turn generate a high degree of trusting interaction. The costs of low trust are substantial. Putnam cites evidence that in societies with higher levels of general trust governments operate more effectively. Francis Fukuyama has made even stronger claims, arguing that capitalism and democracy both depend on trust to be effective and high trust depends on our stock of social capital.

Whether directly stated or implied, social capital thinkers point to reviving trust in communities to soothe the ailments of weak social, political, and economic institutions. Calls for "more community" generally mean encouraging participation through greater associational membership, more opportunities for input into decisions, and greater community consultation. But will building up community associations and community life alone offer a panacea to the apparent ills of an untrusting society?

We believe that trust is a more complex concept than is often supposed in social capital theory. Forms of trust are not the same in all forms of social interaction. We would expect damage to trust in a close personal relationship or in a government, for instance, to occur along different fault lines, with different consequences and remedies. The causes of, and solutions to, loss of personal trust, trust in government, and neighbourhood belonging are not equivalent.

Is trust in neighbours, strangers, and governments the same thing?

We conducted statistical analysis on social attitude data to test three measures of trust - personal trust in neighbours, trust in other people generally, and trust in government - against a range of explanatory factors. These factors included a measure of civic association (group membership) as one of the independent variables. For the strong version of social capital argument to hold, we would expect civic association to predict trust across the three measures. Other explanatory variables included feelings of community belonging, perceptions of job prestige, confidence in public institutions, class values, and income. We found three different explanations for the three different types of trust.

The community belongingness scale best explains personal trust in neighbours. Associational membership did not predict higher trust in neighbours. This means that multiple group membership did not translate into more trust, as social capital models might predict. This suggests that the kinds of personal trust that we invest in the immediate environment might be influenced by factors other than 'community building' associational life. However, it does indicate that strong feelings of community are associated with higher levels of personal trust in others in one's community.


Confidence in public institutions and holding affirmative attitudes towards welfare help explain trust in others in general. Again, we found that the social capital scales did not explain this type of trust. Generalised trust in others is connected to our confidence in the intentions and activities of strangers and institutions, whether they are police officers or people in need.

Trust in government is best explained by both confidence in public institutions and holding a benign class worldview. Feeling confident in the performance of institutions equally confers trust in government. At the same time, the class worldview scale predicts that the more respondents perceive the world as unequal, the more likely they were to have low trust in government. Again, measures of social capital do not seem to explain trust in government.

How applicable is the 'more community!' solution?

We found a distinction in the factors that explain personal trust (trust in neighbours) and impersonal forms of trust (trust in others generally) and trust in government. Our results suggest that respondents differentiate between their local and intimate spheres and the broader world of impersonal action. Merely advocating more community may miss this complexity. We also found that people confident in public institutions are more confident in strangers and government. How can we explain this? If our experience of institutions is positive and reinforcing of trust, we are likely to grant trust. If our experience is negative, we withdraw trust. 'Insiders' with status, resources, and opportunities do not see institutional life as obstructive or untrustworthy. This is possibly because they have the most resources to benefit from institutional life in the first place. Perhaps individuals with strong class worldviews mistrust governments for the same reason: their experience of government policy does not lend itself to the view that the government is doing the right thing.

Put simply, community-building exercises promoted in political rhetoric that encourage the "third sector" or "more community!" solutions for the disadvantaged (often instead of government intervention or creating employment) may do little or nothing to change the prevailing climate of low trust and pessimism that prevails today. The "more community" option is probably not a solution to the problem of low trust because we cannot find any strong evidence that points to the density of associational life as being critical for trust, especially in strangers or governments.

We are not saying that associational membership confers no social benefits. But if the cause-and-effect involved in the social capital hypothesis is reversed, the solution is not "more community!" but more of the social resources - opportunities, income, and education - that make people willing and able to participate in public life. Resources that restore confidence in governments and communities are necessarily very wide-ranging, including viable public transport systems, countering racism and prejudice, and reducing inequality. Public institutions, including the economic system, have a responsibility to lift their own game, and not to expect that over-stretched families and communities can make up for the inequality of market distribution and the deficiencies of public programs.

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Article edited by Jenny Ostini.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited extract of a paper called ''More Community!' Does the Social Capital Hypothesis Offer Hope for Untrusting Societies?', published in Volume 3, Number 3 of The Drawing Board: An Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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About the Authors

Dr Shaun Wilson is a Visiting Fellow at the ACSPRI Centre for Social Research, Australia National University.

Toby Fattore is a Research Officer at the NSW Commission for Children and Young People.

Nick Turnbull is a Research Scholar at the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales.

Related Links
NSW Commission for Children and Young People
Shaun Wilson's home page
Social Policy Research Centre
University of Sydney
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