Trust in a Risk Society

In “From Norms to Trust: The Luhmannian Connections between Trust and System,” Janne Jalava, of the University of Helsinki, writes,

One of the best-known early theories by Niklas Luhmann is his theory of trust. In his book, Vertrauen (1968), Luhmann presented his basic theses about trust. The function of trust is to reconstruct or to reduce the growing complexity of society. (European Journal of Social Theory, 2003)

This insightful article helps me formulate my thoughts on the trust question, although Jalava and I interpret some aspects of Luhmann’s work slightly differently.

Javala contrasts Luhmann’s theory of trust with that of Talcott Parsons, which was based on structural functionalism. In discussing Parsons’ theory of structural functionalism, Javala writes,

Structural functionalism was based on the assumption that social systems could not function and maintain themselves without a normative foundation.

This normative foundation was said to be provided by cultural patterns and shared values. Thus, culture stood hierarchically above or prior to social systems. For Parsons, trust means trust in other people, which begins in the family system.

For Parsons, trust is not a problem in familiar interactions, as among families and friends. Rather, trust is taken for granted in familiar social contexts. But trust becomes a problem in cases of hierarchy-based competence gaps.

To Parsons the problem of trust emerges in relationships between professionals and lay persons. There is a ‘competence gap’ between the expert and the layman. Because the layman cannot fully understand what the professional (for example, a doctor) is doing, there must be a basis of trusted validation of competence other than the typical layman’s personal competence to evaluate it.  (Javala)

In other words, in interactions with experts, we depend on symbols such as diplomas on a wall, professional titles,  and letters after the name. And while we do not share the expert’s professional knowledge, we may share their basic values. Thus, in this Parsonian view, in order for trust to develop between layperson and expert, they must share cultural values. 

I agree with Javala that the Parsonian view of trust has limited explanatory power in the functionally differentiated global society. Parsonian systems theory is based on human action networks, and a theory of society built on action networks will concern itself with behavioral norms, cultural patterns, and the social institutions responsible for socialization.

Luhmann’s conception of trust is different. For Luhmann, trust is a central issue in all communication. He argues that

a society that uses language and signs gives rise to the problem of error and deception, of the unintentional and intentional abuse of signs. It is not only that communication occasionally miscarries, goes astray, or takes the wrong track. The problem, since it can occur at any time, is always present–a sort of universal problem of the type discovered by Hobbes with his example of violence. With this in mind, it is understandable that society morally appreciates sincerity, truthfulness, and the like, and in the communication process it has to rely on trust. (Theory of Society, vol 1. 135)

The reference to what can occur at any time being always present is interesting. It means that risk is always present. So trust is not merely something that is needed when dealing with experts or unfamiliar people, trust is required for any communication at all. It is not the actions or potential actions of others that raise the trust issue; on a much more basic level, it is communication itself that requires trust.

But rather than thinking of trust as trust in other people, Luhmann sees trust as trust in system functions. Here is what Luhmann wrote in 1997 (English translation 2012),

Modern computer technology . . . attacks the authority of experts. In principle everyone will in the future be able to check on statements of experts such as physicians and lawyers on his own computer. . . . Although it is difficult to check how knowledge finds its way into the computer, it can at any rate not be turned into an authority. Naturally, this does not change the fact that everyone who relies on communication in one way or another has to depend on trust. But in the age of electronic data processing, this trust can no longer be personalized, no longer implemented in social status; it is now only trust in the system. (Theory of Society, vol. 1, 188)

Given that the Internet age was just getting started in 1997, Luhmann’s remarks here seem prescient. In a globalized, functionally differentiated society, communication accelerates.  And when you factor in the Internet and social media, communication really speeds up. This suggests that the capacity to trust may be overburdened. Every communicative event entails trust and the risk of deception. Thus we are living in a “risk society.”

Trust reduces complexity by relieving the social system of the task of verifying every bit of information. If the social system has to verify everything before communication happens, then communication will never happen. Trust, then, is the starting point.


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