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Trust: the social glue of modern societes
Theorists have long disagreed over the impact of socio-economic modernization on social trust. The optimistic school argues that modernization delivers economic security and human empowerment and thereby enhances trust; the pessimistic school holds that modern urbanism undermines the structural conditions for high levels of social trust. Adapting these contrasting theories to the specific case of China, this article puts them to a test with survey data. The study exploits the condition of highly uneven levels of regional development combined with common political institutions and cultural heritage, and conducts a multilevel analysis of survey data from roughly 1,900 individuals and a wide range of regional statistics from 61 county-level units. While trust in particular others is almost unaffected by socio-economic progress, we find robust evidence that regional modernization is associated with substantially higher levels of general trust, with economic prosperity exerting the strongest contextual effect. The evidence further shows that higher general trust in more developed regions does not feed on an enhanced conversion of particular into general trust or an activation of individual trust promoters. This indicates that general trust is nurtured through the contextual effect of residing in more modern social environments. These findings provide substantial backing for the optimists and lend themselves to a reinterpretation of a widely discussed “trust crisis” in China, which to date is often interpreted akin to the pessimistic modernization narrative.
Trust in people is general insofar as it extends to out-groups, that is, unfamiliar and dissimilar others. But whether trust in out-groups can emerge independently from in-group trust is controversial, and conclusive evidence has been unavailable. This article fills this gap, analyzing which conditions create out-group trust independent from in-group trust. Using data from 76 countries around the world, we establish three insights. First, while a high level of in-group trust is the rule, out-group trust varies greatly across countries. Second, out-group trust emerges independent from in-group trust when human empowerment emancipates people from in-group control. Third, other conditions championed as trust-crediting forces do not confound the effect of human empowerment. In conclusion, trust generalizes to out-groups as a result of human empowerment's emancipatory impulse.