Evolution of trust and contextualized re-embedding

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-02-27

Questions such as “what is trust” and “how is trust formed” are seemingly simple but actually difficult to answer. Trust exists in intimate relationships, contractual relationships, and other social relations. Sociologists often understand trust as a phenomenon arising in social, cultural, political, and economical contexts. Examining trust along the transition from traditional to modern society may better demonstrate its significance.

From traditional trust to modern trust

Trust plays a crucial role in society, as noted by German sociologist Georg Simmel, who stated, “without the general trust that people have in each other, society itself would disintegrate.” In traditional societies, trust was primarily based on kinship and geographical proximity, expanding to circles of acquaintance with family as its starting point. It is characterized by “indirectness” in modern societies, as modernization and globalization have not only led to changes in social, political, and economic structures, but have also had a remarkable influence on people’s lifestyles.

British sociologist Anthony Giddens believes that, in modern societies, traditional intimacy based on kinship is replaced by institutional “expert systems,” namely “systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise that organise large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today.” Modern trust is arguably not “innate,” because trusting others and being trusted both require “interactive” efforts.

Trust can be categorized into two main types. The first is trust in the familiar, exemplified by personality-based trust in traditional societies. The second is trust in the unfamiliar, represented by system-based trust in modern societies. Modern people’s trust in “expert systems” falls into the second category. The production modes and lifestyles in modern societies entail frequent and multi-dimensional interactions with others. In our everyday lives, we encounter numerous strangers such as delivery workers, bus drivers, and salespersons, whom we trust abide by social norms, because we trust society members and social systems. Such trust is placed in society as a whole rather than in any individual.

De-embedding and re-embedding

While people were guided by established rules and values in traditional societies, they are de-embedded from traditions and left in uncertainty in modern societies with increasing mobility and diversity. Individuals, feeling insecure about their life and experiencing distinct or even opposing cultural values, can dispel their perplexity through re-embedding, and trust is a key element in this process.

If we acknowledge that modern de-embedding detaches people from specific spatiotemporal scenarios, re-embedding involves leveraging trust to restore normal interpersonal relationships. It should be noted that trust does not emerge automatically in an accelerated society. Trust relies on peoples’ active actions. Individuals should be encouraged to develop empathy with the surrounding world in order to be more closely connected with each other and the group. Trust in modern societies is therefore more resilient and more open, allowing individuals to pace themselves through voluntary interaction and believe that others share the same desire and expectation for interaction and exchange.

Connections between individuals have become increasingly extensive and frequent in the transition from traditional to modern society, widening social distance while also equalizing opportunities and creating more space for actions based on personal willingness. Forms of social trust are increasingly diverse, enabling individuals to access more social resources.

While trust originally stemmed from kinship and geographical proximity in traditional societies, it can also develop naturally under the circumstances of “contextualization” and “localization” within spaces of solidarity and cooperation in modern societies. Alumni associations, trade associations, and non-profit organizations can be regarded as social networks underpinned by trust. Trust is also formed in voluntary work, charitable work, and local development projects initiated by talents who have returned to their hometown.

Today, society is increasingly characterized by openness, mobility, and heterogeneity. Only by motivating individuals to actively engage in social actions and promoting contextualized and localized social interactions can we address the risks of modernity through social trust, overcome existential anxiety and alienation, and continue to build social connections and interpersonal ties.


Chen Siyu is an associate research fellow at the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor:Yu Hui

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