In the third part of the Trust in Me series, Ave founder Ellie Thompson investigates the relationship between trust and social capital in the context of charitable giving.

The presence of trust between individuals in social groups and communities serves as a mechanism to incite actors within relationships and networks to undertake specific actions through the generation of social capital. From an economic perspective, trust has been generalised as the collective values, social networks and cultural ethics that form the buttress of a stable economy, facilitating growth and stability. Scholars writing within the discipline of sociology discuss different forms of trust. ‘Strategic’ trust is knowledge-based and aids the willingness of two known actors to participate in an exchange. ‘Moralistic’ trust has a more macro application built on the belief that the majority of the public share the same fundamental values and morals.

Pierre Bourdieu discusses social capital as the number of connections within an actors’ network that can be expanded and actively maintained in order to be reducible to profit. Social capital is said to be a form of class reproduction within a social space that fuels inequality by being “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition”. It is because of this that the social classes perceived to be most powerful can perpetually exclude other groups to maintain their social position.

Bourdieu describes social capital as a construct through which actors can be productive, and is instrumental as a collective system that perpetuates public good. This is substantiated by Robert B Putnam’s discourse, which takes a neo-Tocquevillian stance, believing that social capital is found within the “trust, norms and networks” of social organisation that coordinate mutually beneficial action. Putnam’s view is that social capital is constructed via voluntary bonds through which levels of trust are manifest and transmitted within the culture of contemporary society.

Putnam goes on to suggest that the presence of strategic trust is essential in solving collective action problems and encouraging civic engagement; what he describes as the “virtuous circle”. He claims that when it comes to philanthropic behaviour the most consistent predictor of donation is “involvement in community life”, within which strong bonds of trust, altruism and reciprocity are present. Peter Hall progresses Putnam’s ideology forensically and states that one of the critical results of social capital is “the trust the individuals feel towards others in their network”, which in turn encourages repeat behaviour. Individual actors therefore are seen to consistently undertake charitable activities and donations in pairs or groups because they trust their action will be acknowledged positively in a social context.

Putnam’s view has received criticism for neglecting to acknowledge that networks can be both horizontal and vertical; the former affected by type, scale and value of resources available and the latter depending on the actor’s location and aggregation. In addition, Eric Ulsaner challenges Putnam’s stance that strategic trust can lead to increased civic engagement. This is because its presence is only tangible within actors who know each other and therefore can only resolve problems within smaller, localised, groups of people. Uslaner instead proposes that it’s the presence of moralistic trust that incites community engagement, as it’s an ethos that people should behave by on a larger societal level.

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