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Building trust: A challenge in increasingly impersonal society

By Gao Xuede | 2016-07-14 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Young volunteers make a pledge when joining the Chinese Young Volunteers Association. By participating in a social organization, people can get to know, cooperate with and help each other, thus establishing mutual trust.


In the early 20th century, German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies proposed a dichotomy of social relations into two different broad types: Gemeinschaft, which means “community” and refers to close ties based on family and friendship, and Gesellschaft, which translates to “society” and refers to indirect, impersonal relationships.

The reform and opening along with the subsequent urbanization, industrialization and marketization have increased social mobility, giving people greater exposure to public space. As society increasingly becomes dominated by Gesellschaft relationships, it is imperative to seek new ways of building trust among strangers.

One approach to improving interpersonal trust is through the extension of acquaintanceship. This approach emphasizes that trust among strangers is built upon trust in mutual acquaintances. In traditional Chinese society, acquaintances serve as intermediaries, helping strangers to trust each other.

From the perspective of functionalism, a creative approach is more important because it is hardly possible or feasible to just rely on the intercession of acquaintances to elevate trust among strangers in a fast-paced modern society. Independent of acquaintance relations, this approach seeks application of other ways to establish a real relationship of trust among strangers.


Whether acquaintance trust is conducive to building trust between strangers is a matter of controversy in empirical studies. Most Western scholars, including German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), argue that interpersonal trust in China is based on blood ties, and people are hesitant to trust those outside of the family or clan.


However, many empirical studies conducted in recent years in the West and in China have revealed a person’s willingness to trust acquaintances is correlated with the degree of trust in strangers. A high degree of trust in others has been shown to be associated with an altruistic value orientation. Trust in others develops at a younger age and lasts until adulthood.

Nonetheless, further studies show that the willingness to trust acquaintances is a necessary but not sufficient condition for trust among strangers. Therefore, interpersonal trust cannot be achieved without first considering the acquaintance relationship.

To this end, we should rebuild communities based on kinship. Traditional society is family centered, and interpersonal trust is established on natural blood lineage. Also, strategies, such as inheritance, adoption, buyover and alliance, are used to turn strangers into acquaintances.

In addition, we need to build a vocational community. The aforementioned strategies to draw others to one’s side are, in essence, a process of integrating an outsider into a community.

The vocational community provides a crucial approach to such psychological identification. In the market economy, occupational groups play a significant role in promoting cooperation and maintaining social order. People who work in the same business share similar life goals, experiences, social norms and ethical principles. Therefore, the improvement of professional ethics can lend support to trust among strangers.


In modern society cooperation is vital to development, so overreliance on the acquaintance relationship can be inefficient. Establishing trust among strangers is an inevitable requirement for a sound market economic order. Only through greater trust can we evolve into a society where one’s ability to access public resources is no longer determined by one’s connections.

Above all, we should increase incomes, which can bring about a sense of accomplishment and happiness. Due to the divergence of interests that has occurred during the process of social transformation, marginalized groups lack the right and ability to safeguard their interests. Addressing this imbalance requires empowerment and the redistribution of rights.

The term empowerment refers to measures of providing resources, knowledge and skills that are designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people in order to enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way.

If people are happier, wealthier and have greater autonomy, they will feel more in control of their destinies and therefore, more willing to trust others.

As the basis for trust changes from kinship to an interest relationship, rational choice should replace affinity and affection as the force that guides the development of trust. People can gain control over their economic interests by weighing the advantages and disadvantages to lower the risks of interpersonal communication. Those who have access to resources and rights are less reliant on the acquaintance relationship and tend not to perceive strangers as a threat.


Fair system
In addition, we should establish fair and just social systems. Fairness functions as a key regulatory mechanism for an ideal social order. Studies show that in a society where interests are fairly distributed, people are more willing to trust others. Income equality and institutional fairness can help build up trust in strangers. Apart from material benefits and economic returns, the development of the market economy has widened the gap of wealth for different social groups. In this context, people especially appeal for social justice.

Fair and just resource allocation as well as honesty and credit are conducive to keeping and maintaining trust. If allocation and legal systems are inequitable and public institutions and administrative staff lack credibility, people will be more suspicious because they lack faith in the system’s ability to prevent or punish dishonesty. Conversely, if equal access to social resources or status is guaranteed, people will be able to achieve personal goals on their own without having to use connections. In this situation, people are inclined to have trust, believing others have gained resources and pursued their interests in legitimate ways as well.


Social participation
Moreover, we should encourage volunteer organizations that provide opportunities for people to participate in social activities. Only by interacting and communicating with others can the individual transform the obtained resources and abilities into a source of confidence and an incentive for trusting others.

Therefore, participation and cooperation based on social interaction play an important role in building trust between strangers. Volunteer organizations serve as a bridge for cooperation among strangers. Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, pointed out that civic engagement and social capital entail mutual obligation and responsibility for action, and that frequent interaction among a diverse set of people tends to produce a norm of generalized reciprocity. Within social organizations, people who are not familiar with or totally strange to each other will get to know, cooperate with and help each other. And the fact that they are working toward the public good also lays a foundation for mutual trust.

It should be noted that not all volunteer organizations can achieve such a purpose. Studies show that trust among members of social organizations is based on relationships within the organization, thus some people may have prejudice against those outside the organization. In this sense, people involved in social organizations on a larger scale that are open to more participants are more likely to universally trust strangers.


Gao Xuede is from the School of Management at Lanzhou University in Northwest China’s Gansu Province.