Definition and operationalisation

Trust is a tricky concept, but we do not need to go into detail about its subtleties and complications here. It is sufficient to offer a working definition of trust as the belief that others will not, at worst, knowingly or willingly do you harm, and will, at best, act in your interests.1 It is, however, important to emphasise that we are concerned with social trust - that is interpersonal or horizontal trust between citizens, rather than vertical or political trust between citizens and political elites, or citizen confidence in political institutions.

In the ESS survey, the concept of social trust is measured on an eleven-point rating scale with the standard survey question: "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" Those who say that most people can be trusted are given a score of 10, and those who say you can't be too careful are scored 0.

Figure 1.1. Frequency table: "Most people can be trusted or you can't be too careful2

There are two broad schools of thought about trust. The first takes the view that trust is an individual property and that it is associated with individual characteristics, either core personality traits, or individual social and demographic features such as class, education, income, age, and gender. The second argues that social trust is a property not of individuals but of social systems. According to this view the study of trust requires a top-down approach that focuses on the systemic or emergent properties of societies and their central institutions.

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