Political Distrust and Social Capital in Europe and the USA


Levels of rising political distrust in the USA and parts of Europe attracted political scientists’ attention in the 1990s, and urged them to look at possible consequences of this phenomenon for the functioning of democracies and social life. Approximately during the same period, from a sociological viewpoint, social capital theorists started studying the effects of declining social capital on political and economic life. In this article, we looked at the relationship between political distrust and social capital from an interdisciplinary perspective. We studied the relationship in six European countries from three regions (North-West, South and East), and the USA, and we were interested in the question of whether this relationship varies over the regions, or whether it is approximately the same everywhere. We used ISPP data from the 2004 wave, which included a range of social capital indicators and political distrust items. Social capital was subdivided into four dimensions, namely, networks (membership of organizations), interpersonal or social trust, social norms (citizenship norms), and linking social capital (political activities). First we studied the effect of political distrust on these four dimensions of social capital, while controlling for other variables such as political efficacy, political interest and a set of socio-structural background variables. One of our main findings was that the only significant effect of political distrust we found throughout all countries was a negative effect on one dimension of social capital, namely, interpersonal trust: the more people distrust politicians and people in government, the less they trust other people in general, even when controlled for all other variables. The reverse relationship led us to the same conclusion: the more people tend to trust people in general, the less they distrust politics, a result we found in all countries. This finding refutes the claim that there is no or either only a very weak relationship between political and social trust, as some have strongly argued before. Other important political attitudes connected to social capital were political interest and political efficacy, and for political distrust it was external efficacy. Significant socio-economic factors were religiousness and educational level for membership of voluntary organizations, educational level for interpersonal trust, religiousness for citizenship norms, and educational level and age for political activities. The reciprocal relationship was strongest in the USA and North-Western Europe, as were the explained variances of our (more extensive) regression models. In Southern and Eastern Europe other factors appear to be at work which influence both social capital and political distrust.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    In this article, the terms (declining) political trust and (rising) political distrust are used interchangeably, but our main focus is on political distrust. For a more detailed discussion, see Sect. 4.

  2. 2.

    Where political cynicism can be seen as a more extreme form of political distrust, and social cohesion as a concept closely related to social capital; see Schyns and Nuus (2007) for a discussion.

  3. 3.

    If the focus of attention in the study was more on consequences of political (dis)trust we discussed the results in Sect. 2, if it was more on consequences of social capital, findings were summarized in Sect. 3. Nevertheless, some studies could be discussed in either section because of their emphasis on reciprocal effects, such as for example, Brehm and Rahn (1997), Kaase (1999), and Paxton (2002).

  4. 4.

    Some authors, however, challenge the view that political distrust is something negative. For example, Hardin (1999) argued that we should not trust governments, because if institutions with power are left unchecked this can easily result in the abuse of power. Although we agree that citizens should not blindly follow politicians and institutions, we also think that a certain level of trust is needed in order for democratic systems to perform well (for a discussion, see also Newton 2001, pp 205–206).

  5. 5.

    This does not mean, however, that the causes of social capital have been overlooked. For some recent studies on causes of social capital, see, e.g., Jackman and Miller (1998) on the endogenizing of social capital, and Delhey and Newton (2005) on predicting levels of social trust across nations.

  6. 6.

    Poland and Slovenia were not included in their study.

  7. 7.

    The answer categories for these items were: Strongly agree/Agree/Neither agree nor disagree/Disagree/Strongly disagree.

  8. 8.

    Answer categories: Have never belonged to it/Used to belong to it but not anymore/Belong to it but do not participate actively/Belong to it and participate actively. The ISSP data also contains an item on trade union membership. However, since membership of a trade union is in some countries obligatory to find employment in a number of sectors or to receive certain social benefits, we chose not to include this item in our analyses. Membership in this case does not inform us about the willingness to voluntarily join such an organization, which is what we are interested in.

  9. 9.

    We found, in accordance with the literature, that in Poland membership in formal voluntary organizations is low (see also Gasior-Niemiec and Glinski 2007). However, since (past) church membership is rather high in Poland and membership for the other three organizations low, this resulted in a relatively low Cronbach’s alpha for this country for the four items. When compared with the other countries, the Polish index is thus more a reflection of church membership than a balanced picture of all four organizations.

  10. 10.

    Answer categories: Try to take advantage almost all of the time/Try to take advantage most of the time/Try to be fair most of the time/Try to be fair almost all of the time.

  11. 11.

    Answer categories: You almost always can’t be too careful in dealing with people/You usually can’t be too careful in dealing with people/People can usually be trusted/People can almost always be trusted.

  12. 12.

    Answer categories: Have not done it and would never do it/Have not done it but might do it/Have done it in the more distant past/Have done it in the past year.

  13. 13.

    Unfortunately, there are no World Values Survey data available for Denmark and Portugal in 2005, and we decided not to include data from the Netherlands, which were included in a separate pool of countries, since results were too diverging when compared with similar questions posed in the European Social Survey 2004 and 2006.

  14. 14.

    Political distrust was measured by an item on confidence in parliament, where we used the answer category ‘None at all’ as a proxy for political distrust.

  15. 15.

    Social capital was measured by one item on interpersonal trust (% ‘Most people can be trusted’ shown in Fig. 1), and by a constructed index of membership of religious/church organizations, cultural organizations and political parties (% membership of at least one of these three organizations, shown in Fig. 2).

  16. 16.

    In 2005, however the question was posed slightly differently in the WVS questionnaire, with an additional option for being an inactive member (in addition to ‘no member’ and ‘member’). This may have boosted the rise in membership somewhat, since we included inactive and active members in the category of member.

  17. 17.

    Missing cases were deleted listwise, and only standardized coefficients (β) are reported.

  18. 18.

    Although we would like to stress here that in this article we were not interested in explaining as much variance as possible in either political distrust or social capital.

  19. 19.

    Since the item ‘joining an internet political forum’ is an activity performed mainly by the young in all countries, we reran the analyses with seven items. Results, however, remained the same: the younger are still more politically active.

  20. 20.

    Which is what we think happened in, for example, the study of Newton (1999).


  1. Billiet, J. B., & Cambré, B. (1999). Social capital, active membership in voluntary associations and some aspects of political participation. In J. W. Deth, M. Maraffi, K. Newton, & P. F. Whiteley (Eds.), Social capital and European democracy (pp. 240–262). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bourdieu, P. (1986). Forms of capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York: Greenwood.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Brehm, J., & Rahn, W. (1997). Individual-level evidence for the causes and consequences of social capital. American Journal of Political Science, 41(3), 999–1023. doi:10.2307/2111684.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Catterberg, G., & Moreno, A. (2006). The individual bases of political trust: Trends in new and established democracies. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 18(1), 31–48. doi:10.1093/ijpor/edh081.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Citrin, J. (1974). Comment: The political relevance of trust in government. The American Political Science Review, 68(3), 973–988. doi:10.2307/1959141.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Citrin, J., & Luks, S. (2001). Political trust revisited: Déjà Vu all over again? In J. R. Hibbing & E. Theiss-Morse (Eds.), What is it about government that Americans dislike? (pp. 9–27). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Citrin, J., & Muste, C. (1993). Trust in government. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of political attitudes (pp. 465–530). San Diego: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Dalton, R. J. (2004). Democratic challenges, democratic choices: The erosion of political support in advanced industrial democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Dekker, P. (2006). Cynismen tegenover de politiek in Nederland. In P. Dekker (Ed.), Politiek cynisme (pp. 35–48). Driebergen: Stichting Synthesis.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Dekker, P., Koopmans, R., & Van den Broek, A. (1997). Voluntary associations, social movements and individual political behaviour in western Europe. In J. W. Van Deth (Ed.), Private groups and public life, social participation, voluntary associations and political involvement in representative democracies (pp. 220–239). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Delhey, J., & Newton, K. (2005). Predicting cross-national levels of social trust: Global pattern or nordic exceptionalism? European Sociological Review, 21(4), 311–327. doi:10.1093/esr/jci022.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Easton, D. (1965). A systems analysis of political life. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Freitag, M. (2006). Bowling the state back in: political institutions and the creation of social capital. European Journal of Political Research, 45(1), 123–152. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6765.2005.00293.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Gasior-Niemiec, A., & Glinski, P. (2007). Polish traditions of self-organisation, social capital and the challenge of Europianisation. In F. Adams (Ed.), Social capital and governance: Old and new members of the EU in comparison (pp. 237–266). Muenster: Lit. Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Hardin, R. (1999). Do we want trust in government? In M. E. Warren (Ed.), Democracy and trust (pp. 22–41). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Hetherington, M. J. (1998). The political relevance of trust. The American Political Science Review, 92(4), 791–808. doi:10.2307/2586304.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernization and postmodernization: Cultural, economic, and political change in 43 societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Iyengar, S. (2001). Cynicism and Choice. Boston Review. Retreived May 16, 2007, from http://pcl.stanford.edu/common/docs/research/iyengar/2001/cynicismandchoice.pdf.

  21. Jackman, R. W., & Miller, R. A. (1998). Social capital and politics. Annual Review of Political Science, 1, 47–73. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.1.1.47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kaase, M. (1999). Interpersonal trust, political trust and non-institutionalised political participation in western Europe. West European Politics, 22(3), 1–23. doi:10.1080/01402389908425313.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Keele, L. (2007). Social capital and the dynamics of trust in government. American Journal of Political Science, 51(2), 241–254. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2007.00248.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. King, A. (2000). Distrust of government: Explaining American exceptionalism. In S. J. Pharr & R. D. Putnam (Eds.), Disaffected democracies: What’s troubling the trilateral countries? (pp. 74–98). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Klingemann, H.-D. (1999). Mapping political support in the 1990s. In P. Norris (Ed.), Critical citizens: Global support for democratic governance (pp. 31–56). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Knack, S. (2002). Social capital and the quality of government: Evidence from the states. American Journal of Political Science, 46(4), 772–785. doi:10.2307/3088433.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Levi, M. (1996). Social and unsocial capital: A review essay of Robert Putnam’s. Making Democracy Work, Politics & Society, 4(1), 45–55. doi:10.1177/0032329296024001005.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Levi, M., & Stoker, L. (2000). Political trust and trustworthiness. Annual Review of Political Science, 3, 475–507. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.3.1.475.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Lilibacka, R. (2006). Measuring social capital: Assessing construct stability of various operationalizations of social capital in a Finnish sample. Acta Sociologica, 49(2), 201–220. doi:10.1177/0001699306064774.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Lyons, S. R. (1970). The political socialization of Ghetto children: Efficacy and cynicism. The Journal of Politics, 32(2), 288–304. doi:10.2307/2128655.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Makarovič, M., Ivančič, A., & Podmenik, D. (2007). Social and political participation: Is there an European convergence? In F. Adams (Ed.), Social capital and governance: Old and new members of the EU in comparison (pp. 51–89). Muenster: Lit. Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Mclean, S. L., Schultz, D. L., & Steger, M. B. (Eds.). (2002). Social capital: critical perspectives on community and ‘bowling alone’. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Miller, A. H. (1974a). Political issues and trust in government: 1964–1970. The American Political Science Review, 68(3), 951–972. doi:10.2307/1959140.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Miller, A. H. (1974b). Rejoinder to “comment” by J. Citrin: Political discontent or ritualism? The American Political Science Review, 68(3), 989–1001.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Miller, A. H., & Listhaug, O. (1990). Political parties and confidence in government: A comparison of Norway, Sweden and the United States. British Journal of Political Science, 29(3), 357–389. doi:10.1017/S0007123400005883.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Mishler, W., & Rose, R. (1997). Trust, distrust and skepticism: Popular evaluations of civil and political institutions in post-communist societies. The Journal of Politics, 59(2), 418–451. doi:10.2307/2998171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Narayan, D., & Cassidy, M. F. (2001). A dimensional approach to measuring social capital: Development and validation of a social capital inventory. Current Sociology, 49(2), 59–102. doi:10.1177/0011392101049002006.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Newton, K. (1999). Social and political trust. In P. Norris (Ed.), Critical citizens: Global support for democratic governance (pp. 169–187). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Newton, K. (2001). Trust, social capital, civil society, and democracy. International Political Science Review, 22(2), 201–214. doi:10.1177/0192512101222004.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Newton, K., & Norris, P. (2000). Confidence in public institutions: Faith, culture or performance? In S. J. Pharr & R. D. Putnam (Eds.), Disaffected democracies: What’s troubling the trilateral countries? (pp. 52–73). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Norris, P. (1999). Introduction: The growth of critical citizens? In P. Norris (Ed.), Critical citizens: Global support for democratic governance (pp. 1–27). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Paxton, P. (2002). Social capital and democracy: An interdependent relationship. American Sociological Review, 67(2), 254–277. doi:10.2307/3088895.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Portes, A. (1998). Social capital: Its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 1–24. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.24.1.1.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Reef, M. J., & Knoke, D. (1993). Political alienation and efficacy. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of political attitudes (pp. 413–464). San Diego: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Rose-Ackerman, S. (2001). Trust and honesty in post-socialist societies. Kyklos, 54, 415–444.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Rothstein, B. (2003). Social capital, economic growth and quality of government: The causal mechanism. New Political Economy, 8(1), 49–71. doi:10.1080/1356346032000078723.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Schyns, P., & Nuus, M. (2007). Political cynicism and social cohesion in Europe and the United States. In F. Adams (Ed.), Social capital and governance: Old and New members of the EU in comparison (pp. 91–103). Muenster: Lit. Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Van Oorschot, W., & Arts, W. (2005). The social capital of European welfare states: The crowding out hypothesis revisited. Journal of European Social Policy, 15(1), 5–26. doi:10.1177/0958928705049159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Van Oorschot, W., Arts, W., & Gelissen, J. (2006). Social Capital in Europe: Measurement and Social and Regional Distribution of a Multifaceted Phenomenon. Acta Sociologica, 49(2), 149–167. doi:10.1177/0001699306064770.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Warren, M. E. (1999). Introduction. In M. E. Warren (Ed.), Democracy and trust (pp. 1–21). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Whiteley, P. F. (1999). The origins of social capital. In J. W. van Deth, M. Maraffi, K. Newton, & P. F. Whiteley (Eds.), Social capital and European democracy (pp. 25–44). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Woolcock, M. (2001). The place of social capital in understanding social and economic outcomes. In J. F. Helliwell (Ed.), The contribution of human and social capital to sustained economic growth and well-being (pp. 65–88). Geneva: OECD.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peggy Schyns.


Appendix 1

see Table 7, 8.

Table 7 Correlations between the four social capital indices (Pearson)
Table 8 Confidence in Parliament across Seven Countries, 1981–1999, in percentages

Appendix 2

Political Efficacy

The term political efficacy refers to the belief of citizens to be able to affect the political system (Reef and Knoke 1993, p 414). External political efficacy concerns the belief that political institutions or politicians are responsive to citizens’ actions, whereas internal political efficacy refers to an individual’s belief that he or she is able to influence the political process on the basis of his or her own capabilities. Efficacy and social capital are assumed to be positively related, i.e., individuals who believe that they are able to affect the political system have higher levels of social capital than individuals who do not have this belief. Efficacy and political distrust are expected to be related negatively, that is, higher levels of efficacy lead to lower levels of political distrust. More in particular, external efficacy is found to be related to political trust (Brehm and Rahn 1997; Catterberg and Moreno 2006).

We constructed two indices based on the following questions concerning external political efficacy (first two items) and internal efficacy (last two items):

  • People like me don’t have any say about what the government does

  • I don’t think the government cares much what people like me think

  • I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing [country]

  • I think most people in [country] are better informed about politics and government than I am (Strongly agree/Agree/Neither agree nor disagree/Disagree/Strongly disagree)

The index of external political efficacy ranged from two (lowest level) to ten (highest level). Cronbach’s alpha for the external efficacy items was fairly high in the different countries, varying from 0.71 for Spain to 0.84 for Portugal. Unfortunately, the reliability for the internal political efficacy items was lower: it ranged from 0.23 for Poland to 0.60 for Portugal (on average 0.50). This index ranges from two (lowest level of internal political efficacy) to ten (highest level of internal political efficacy).

Political Interest

Individuals who are more interested in politics are expected to have higher levels of social capital in general and—more specific—to be more tempted to participate in civil society. Political interest and political distrust are assumed to be negatively related: individuals who are interested in politics are expected to trust political institutions and politicians more than individuals who are not interested in politics (Catterberg and Moreno 2006).

The ISSP respondents were asked the following question in the ISSP survey:

  • How interested would you say you personally are in politics? (Not at all interested/Not very interested/Fairly interested/Very interested)


In addition to efficacy and interest, religiousness has also been found to affect social capital. Van Oorschot et al. (2006) reported that people who attend church frequently—regardless of their denomination—have higher levels of social capital. They moreover notice that ‘[i]n a way, church attendance almost necessarily implies active participation, socializing and trusting’ (Van Oorschot et al. 2006, p 163). In this study, the variable religiousness was also measured by frequency of church attendance. This variable ranges from one to eight, where one indicates that a respondent never attends church and eight that he or she visits church every day or several days a week. Church attendance is related to less political distrust (Catterberg and Moreno 2006; Dekker 2006).

Education and Age

Education and age are also believed to be positively related to social capital. As elements of human capital, and following the idea of the accumulation of capital—the idea that high levels of one form of capital automatically lead to high levels of other forms of capital—higher levels of education and age are expected to be accompanied by higher levels of social capital (Brehm and Rahn 1997; Van Oorschot et al. 2006). Age is hypothesized to be positively related to social capital; that is, having more life experience—as part of having more human capital—is expected to go together with having more social capital. Brehm and Rahn (1997) found that higher educational levels lead to more civic engagement as well as to more interpersonal trust among citizens in the United States. Van Oorschot et al. (2006) concluded—in line with Brehm and Rahn—that higher levels of social capital can be found among higher educated and older Europeans. Education and age are hypothesized to be negatively related with political distrust: the higher educated and the older, the less distrust people show towards politics (Newton and Norris 2000, p 65). The variable education ranged from one (no formal education) to six (university degree completed). Age was measured in terms of years of age.


In the literature there is mixed evidence on the role of gender (coded here as male = 0, female = 1) for social capital and political distrust. Concerning the former, women are often believed and found to have more bonding social capital than men. They are more involved in family networking, but politically they are less engaged and they participate less in voluntary organizations than men. Women are also found to be more trustworthy, but they trust other people somewhat less than men (Van Oorschot et al. 2006). The same can be said about the relationship between gender and political distrust: some studies found that women are slightly less distrusting than men (Mishler and Rose 1997, p 438; Newton and Norris 2000, p 65), but usually effects are weak or non-significant.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Schyns, P., Koop, C. Political Distrust and Social Capital in Europe and the USA. Soc Indic Res 96, 145–167 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-009-9471-4

Download citation


  • Political distrust
  • Social capital
  • Interpersonal trust
  • Cross-national analysis