Skip to main content

Identifying Social Trust in Cross-Country Analysis: Do We Really Measure the Same?

Abstract

Many see trust as an important social resource for the welfare of individuals as well as nations. It is therefore important to be able to identify trust and explain its sources. Cross-country survey analysis has been an important tool in this respect, and often one single variable is used to identify social trust understood as trust in strangers, namely: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” The question, however, is whether this variable captures the meaning of social trust equally well in all countries. This is investigated by comparing different measurements of trust across five clusters of countries in all parts of the world. The analysis shows that there are considerable problems associated with the use of the variable of “most can be trusted” as an indicator of trust in strangers, both in terms of strangers understood as “people you meet for the first time” and in terms of strangers understood as people of a different nationality and religion. These results question the validity of previous investigations of social trust based on international survey material. The analysis furthermore reveals that a new survey question about trust in people one is meeting for the first time is better suited as indicator of social trust in comparative analysis.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Notes

  1. (.504–.251)/.504 = .501.

References

  • Alesina, A., & La Ferrara, E. (2002). Who trust others? Journal of Public Economics, 85, 207–234.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, C. J., & Paskeviciute, A. (2006). How ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity influence theprospect for civil society: A comparative study of citizenship behavior. The Journal of Politics, 68, 783–802.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Banting, K., Johnston, R., Kymlicka, W., & Soroka, S. (2009). Do multiculturalism policies erode the welfare state? An empirical analysis. In K. Banting & W. Kymlicka (Eds.), Multiculturalism and the welfare state: Recognition and redistribution in contemporaty democracies (pp. 49–91). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bjørnskov, C. (2006). Determinant of generalized trust: A cross-country comparison. Public Choice, 130, 1–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Delhey, J., & Newton, K. (2005). Predicting cross-national level of social trust: Global pattern or nordic exceptionalism? European Sociological Review, 21(3), 311–327.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Freitag, M., & Tranmüller, R. (2009). Spheres of trust: An empirical analysis of the foundation of particularized and generalized trust. European Journal of Political Research, 48(6), 782–803.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harding, R. (2002). Trust and trustworthiness. New York: Russel Sage Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harding, R. (2006). Trust. Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Herreros, F., & Criado, H. (2008). The state and the devopment of social trust. International Political Science Review, 29(1), 53–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller, A. S., & Mitamura, T. (2003). Are surveys on trust trustworthy? Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(1), 62–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nannestad, P. (2008). What have we learned about generalized trust, if anything? The Annual Review of Political Science, 11, 413–436.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  • Reeskens, T., & Hooghe, M. (2008). Cross-cultural measurement equivalence of generalized trust. Evidence from European Social Survey (2002 and 2004). Social Indicator Research, 85, 515–532.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rothstein, B. (2003). Sociala fällor och tillitens problem. Stockholm: SNS-förlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rothstein, B., & Stolle, D. (2003). Social capital in Scandinavia. Scandinavian Political Studies, 26(1), 1–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sturgis, P., & Smith, P. (2010). Assessing the validity of generalized trust questions: What kind of trust are we measuring? International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 22(1), 74–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sztompka, P. (1998). Trust, distrust and two paradoxes of democracy. European Journal of Social Theory, 1, 19–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Uslaner, E. M. (2002). The moral foundation of trust. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lars Torpe.

Appendices

Appendix A

See Table 7.

Table 7 Correlation between “trust most people” and” trust people you meet for the first time”

Appendix B

See Table 8.

Table 8 Variable list

Appendix C

See Table 9.

Table 9 Trust in most people (trust most) and trust in people one meets for the first time (trust first) adjusted for not trusting people of another religion and/or nationality and a new ranking of the countries

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Torpe, L., Lolle, H. Identifying Social Trust in Cross-Country Analysis: Do We Really Measure the Same?. Soc Indic Res 103, 481–500 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-010-9713-5

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-010-9713-5

Keywords

  • Social trust
  • Social capital
  • World values survey
  • Cross country survey analysis