Chapter 2: Explaining Social Trust

The study of trust is bedevilled by the problem of cause and effect. Do people become more trusting as a result of close and sustained interaction with others in voluntary organisations? Or is it, rather, that trusting people join voluntary associations and get involved with their community, leaving distrusting ones at home to watch television? Do people develop higher levels of trust because life has been kind to them, or is life kind to them because they are trusting? Many commentators have pointed out the severe chicken-and-egg problem associated with most theories and empirical findings about trust, and we are unable to make much progress with the problem here. But it is worth making two important, if preliminary, observations about cause and effect:

  1. First, we look for close associations between a varied set of independent variables and our measure of social trust. If we find such associations, then we can begin to worry about which is cause and which is effect. If we do not find close associations, then there are no problems of cause and effect to ponder on in the first place.
  2. Second, there is no general rule about how to determine the direction of causal relations, at least when one is dependent upon cross-sectional survey data. Each particular combination of figures has to be examined independently to see what causal relations are theoretically plausible and implausible. This is not a statistical matter as much as one for the social and political imagination.
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