The Sociologists’ Perspective
The scholars Lewis and Weigert (1985a) stress the notion that humans would have no occasion or requirement to trust apart from their relationships with others. They say: “[trust is] applicable to the relations among people rather than to their psychological states taken individually” (p. 968). This statement emphasizes the sociological function of trust which can be clearly separated from the concept’s psychological aspect (Paliszkiewicz & Klepacki, 2013). In contrast with personality psychologists, who view trust as a psychological event within an individual, sociologists conceptualize trust as an interpersonal process, deeply rooted in a fundamental human need for cooperation and interdependence with the social world. Hence, according to this viewpoint, trust is examined as it exists in social properties of relationships between people (Granovetter, 1973). Therefore, trust is regarded as a property of collective units (e.g., dyads, groups, teams, and collectives) - inseparably linked to interrelationships between people. Such a perspective points to trust as a functional condition for the very possibility of society (Luhmann 1979). By referring to Barber (1983), Lewis and Weigert (1985a) state that trust is said to exist in a social system when its members behave accordingly to it and are secure in the expected futures constituted by the presence of each other of their symbolic representations (Barber, 1983). Simmel (1964) states that it is the mutual “faithfulness” that represents nothing less than the foundation of all social relationships. Consequently, according to the sociological view, trust can be thought to be an important mechanism for the functioning of society in that the only alternatives to appropriate trust are “chaos and paralyzing fear” (Luhmann, 1979, p. 142); or, in other words, the breakdown of human relationships. The social philosopher Sissela Bok (1978, p. 26) likewise emphasizes the role of trust as a fundamental social good for the existence of society: “when [trust] is destroyed societies falter and collapse”. Therefore, trust is generally a critical factor for many social and transactional exchanges, which ultimately determines the kind of the interactions and the individual’s expectations of it (Fukuyama, 1995; Hosmer, 1995; Lewis & Weigert, 1985; Luhmann, 1979). Trust is at its heart a necessity for all levels of social exchange relationships. For instance, Blau (1964), who views trust as a set of three distinct beliefs (i.e., integrity, benevolence, and ability) that other people would fulfil their expected favourable commitments, describes trust as an essential component for the early phase but also for the maintenance of solid social relations, just as exchange obligations promote trust. Similarly, Pruitt (1981) views trust as a precondition for relationship exchanges that result from coordination and collaboration. In essence, among sociologists, trust is commonly understood as a social structure which is regularly situationally constructed.
While striving for an explanation of why trust is essential to social life, sociologists’ salient argument is that trust can be regarded as a mechanism which “reduces the complexity” of social interactions. Niklas Luhmann (1979) advanced this notion and today he is regarded as one of the pivotal representatives of this school of thought. In his short but nevertheless influential book Trust and Power (1979) the scholar placed trust at the heart of sociological theorizing for understanding modern society. Like other sociologists such as Barber (1983) later, Luhmann proposes that trust is an irreducible and multi-dimensional social reality. More specifically, Luhmann’s work borrows heavily from the phenomenological and symbolic interaction traditionalists (Parson, 1970; Simmel, 1964) in order to develop a global theory that strives to blend the macro- and micro-sociological aspects of trust. The scholar states that “Trust occurs within a framework of interaction which is influenced by both personality and social system, and cannot be exclusively associated with either” (Luhmann, 1979, p. 6). The idea that the concept of trust cannot be completely understood by exclusively studying the psychological or the institutional level is perhaps one of the most important theoretical insights of Luhmann’s work (Lewis & Weigert, 1985). A critical claim of this statement is the assumption that trust serves the same basic function at the personal level as well as at the more general system level, as it enables humans to deal with uncertainty, social complexity and often ominous images of the future as it simplifies life by relieving social agents from risk. Luhmann advances his thought that modern (industry) society is generally organized by complex and well-integrated temporal structures. Within such a system, social interactions are controlled by “socially expected durations” which determine when activities start and end (Lewis & Weigert, 1985). Social interaction is characterized by the fact that the interaction with other individuals - who are inevitably independent and their behaviour is not fully predictable, combined with an inborn need to understand the actions of the other members of society - faces individuals with an overwhelming social complexity (Gefen, 2000). This complexity can so severe that it completely paralyzes any social action. Generally, interaction partners are not able to control the actions of the other party - in fact it is often impossible to understand the real motivation that leads to such a behaviour. For instance, people are not able to take an introspective view of their interaction partners and are therefore never able to know the true motivations which finally drive their behaviour. Are the reviewers attempting to help me or are all or some of them trying to manipulate me in a certain way? In such an environment, one would have to consider all possible future outcomes which maybe arise with equal probability. Hence, a person would have to find and anticipate the outcomes of all possible futures of an interaction yet to come - an almost impossible endeavour, as everything/anything can be true/false. What here is truly required is a strategy that reduces this intricacy to manageable and calculative proportions. Otherwise, this complexity would be so dramatic that it would actually inhibit most intentions to perform cooperative behaviours. Since people have to interact with others under unpredictable circumstances on a regular basis or in similar situations, they apply a variety of approaches that aim to reduce this crushing complexity. Rational prediction is one of these strategies. By collecting and processing information about our interaction counterpart and known causal relationships in the social environment, we are able to make predictions that certain futures are more probable than others, while other futures can be regarded as being too remote or too uncertain to require serious consideration in the present planning. However, because of human nature, rational prediction alone is not sufficient. People simply do not have the required resources such as cognitive abilities, but also time, to rationally predict and control the effects of all possible futures. This seems to be also especially true in online environments, where information on others’ reputation is simply missing or can be only indirectly derived. Such predictions are also often hindered because humans tend to be more irrational than rational entities. Instead, Luhmann (1979) proposes that trust is a (simple) functional alternative to rational prediction. To trust is convenient to humans as the concept reduces complexity far more quickly, economically, and thoroughly than rational predication does. Therefore, the author proposes - in line with many sociological scholars that followed - that trust is one of the most effective methods to reduce social complexity and therefore represents a focal aspect in most interactions with other people. He assumes that trust succeeds where prediction based on rational thinking alone would fail - because to trust means to live as if certain at least rationally possible futures will not occur, while others surely will (Lewis & Weigert, 1985). Trust makes an otherwise unjustifiable belief in the future subjectively justifiable and facilitates social interactions to continue on a simple and confident basis. When trust vanishes, these interactions would again be impaired by immense social complexity posed by contingent futures which would finally paralyze action again. Overall, Luhmann proposes that people who trust reduce their perceived social complexity through a (generalized) belief. Sometimes, such a belief can be irrational and may appear to be unwise. Nevertheless, it still eliminates the risk of disadvantageous future behaviours of the trusted party to an acceptable level. Trust is a shortcut to intense mental efforts to make predictions about something that is unpredictable.
Luhmann’s work on the role of trust in social interactions had an important impact on subsequent scholars that followed his view by recognizing the sociological function of trust. For instance, Gefen (2000) defined trust “[...] in the broad sense, [trust] is the confidence of a person [.] in his or her favourable expectations of what other people will do, based, in many cases, on previous interactions (experience)” (p. 726). Trust is especially important in situations that are not governed by other complexity reduction methods, such as rules and regulations (Fukuyama, 1995). Even if rules exist, trust is critical, because there is still no guarantee that other individuals will completely abide by them. Luhmann recognized that trust, of course, does not really enable individuals to control or even anticipate without error the behaviour of others; however, the construct facilitates for people the creation of a comprehensible organization of their social exchanges. In his subsequent work (Luhmann 1979; 1988), the sociologist sharpens his position that trust is a prerequisite of human behaviour, as it represents not less than a “basic fact of social life” (Luhmann, 1979, p. 4).
Luhmann (1979) also advances the view that different types of trust do exist. Specifically, he states that society passes through different developmental stages. While there exist small and relatively undifferentiated societies (e.g., tribes) where social order depends widely on personal or interpersonal trust (trust between people), complex industrial societies in contrast are based more on system trust. Here, system trust can be defined as trust in the functioning of bureaucratic sanctions, norms and safeguards. A typical example is the legal system. Luhmann (1979) advocates that interpersonal trust and system trust differ in respect of their foundation. In general, the basis of personal trust is built by reciprocated altruism or emotional bonds between individuals. For system trust, however, intensive emotional involvement is untypical. Instead, system trust is established when one perceives that everything appears to be “normal” and the system behaves as expected. Further, system trust is not trust in a particular person, but rather a generalized trust that all other members of the society will continue to trust in the system Lewis & Weigert, 1985). Luhmann (1979) calls this assertion “trust in trust”: This means that we all trust in the system because we trust that others trust in it as well (Lewis & Weigert, 1985). This makes their actions more calculable. Luhmann characterizes this process as “overdrawing” of one’s information base. According to the scholar, there exists a collective cognitive reality that transcends the realm of individual psychology and individual cognitive bases (Lewis & Weigert, 1985). However, he does not pass the line to assert that people do not have to individually assess information and make personal judgments of where, when and how much to trust - rather he recognizes the need for an investigation of the psychological perspective of trust.
By focusing on the issue of how institutions and incentives can be introduced to reduce anxiety as well as uncertainty typically associated with relations among relative strangers, sociologists have further delved into the issue of trust as an institutional phenomenon. Sociologists typically make the claim that trust is a socially rational expectation which is based on formal requirements and informal obligations. In this tradition, Zucker’s (1986) conceptualization refers to trust as a “set of shared social expectations” of the institutional environment. More specifically, trust constitutes various expectations that are shared by everyone involved in a social relationship or an economic exchange. Trust includes broad social rules, such as how does a “fair” rate of interest for a given situation look, as well as legitimate social processes, such as who has the “right” to dictate this rate in a given situation (Zucker, 1986, p. 54). Therefore, trust includes the beliefs that all participants follow the same social rules and that in an established society all social processes function in a proper way. Such beliefs represent the background expectations of society, as they are taken for granted. According to Zucker (1986), trust in social exchange cannot only be developed on knowledge based on prior experience between the exchange partners, but furthermore can be based on the belief in the institutional environment that has been established to support the trust (e.g., bureaucratic organizations, professional associations, and laws). In the essence of her work, the scholar emphasizes the importance of the institutional arrangements, social structures, processes and norms in the context of trust - an insight that has been advanced also by other authors. For instance, Shapiro (1987, p. 685) terms these arrangements “guardians of trust”. A communality shared by such instruments is their capability to reduce both system-dependent as well as transaction-specific uncertainty. This is accomplished by the elicitation of trusting beliefs which are based on the
institutional arrangements functioning as contextual cues that make a social environment or the circumstances of an economic transaction appear normal. Shapiro (1987) terms these expectations as “structural assurance beliefs” signifying structural protections or governance mechanisms. On the societal level, such supporting structures, guarantees, and safety nets surface as elements of the legal systems that protect the individual’s personal rights and his/her property. The role of institutional mechanisms for the establishment of trust has been also recognized by various other authors (e.g., Lane & Bachmann, 1996). However, the fact that Zucker’s work has been recognized as a milestone in sociological as well as organizational research can be attributed to the scholar’s proposed typology of trust. Institutional-based trust, as discussed before, is only one of the three sources on which trust could be based. She argues that institution-based trust historically has been supplemented by process-based and characteristic- or person-based trust. Process-based trust is generally tied to past expected or past experiences. For example, trust is only developed in exchange relationships where exchange histories were known and respected or the other party is perceived to be reputable. On the other hand, characteristic-based trust is related to similarities between individuals. Exchanges are limited to those individuals who have the same ethnicity, culture, and other backgrounds, such as shared expectations.
Shapiro (1987) also advances the view of trust as an impersonal rather than a personal state. Shapiro (1987, p. 626) defines trust as “a social relationship in which principals [...] invest resources, authority or responsibility in another to act on their behalf for some uncertain future return”. By drawing from the principal-agent theory, the scholar argues that in a regular setting the principal is not able to perfectly monitor the actions of the agent, who performs a dedicated task for the principal and on whom they depend. A social control framework ensures that trust can be developed between the parties in these situations. The instruments of such a framework, including institutional arrangements and generally accepted structural constraints, are aimed at ensuring the agent’s honesty. However, Shapiro also challenged the role of institutional-based trust as she proposes the question: “who guards the guards?” She concluded that “in complex societies in which agency relationships are indispensable, opportunities for agent abuse sometimes irresistible, and the ability to specify and enforce substantive norms governing the outcomes of agency action nearly impossible, a spiralling evolution of procedural norms, structural constraints, and insurance-like arrangements seems inevitable” (Shapiro, 1987, p. 649).
It is an omnipresent reality that most sociological researchers regard trust as the expectation that social interaction partners have of one another. For instance, when defining trust in social relationships and social systems, Koller (1988) refers to the expectation of one interaction partner that his/her counterpart has the willingness to behave advantageously toward him/her, although the person who is trusted has the freedom to select among alternative behaviours that may also have harmful consequences for the individual that trusts.
Barber (1983), who also provides an excellent discussion of the earliest works on the concept of trust, agrees by advocating that trust is basically a set of optimistic speculations regarding the behaviour of the interaction partner. Nevertheless, in doing so, Barber takes a predominantly cognitive and functional stance and develops the idea that one has to shift the focus of those speculations from the ultimate outcome of a single event, which is uncertain, to the three basic conditions that determine that outcome. By proposing a trust concept that is anchored by three expectations which determine the fundamental meaning of trust, Barber (1983) simultaneously argues for a multi-dimensional construct. The author includes (1) expectations of the persistence and fulfilment of the natural social order in which the individual found himself or herself. Within this context, Barber cited Niklas Luhmann (1980, p. 4), who characterizes the social world as being unmanageably complex and states that trust is capable of reducing this complexity with “cognitive, emotional, and moral expectations that some things will remain as they are or ought to be”. In essence, according to Barber, trust rises with a person’s speculation that the world will continue to exist without any fundamental change. (2) The expectation of technically proficient role performances from those who are involved with the interaction partner. Many of the earlier writers (e.g., Gabarro, 1978) were concerned about a conceptual linkage between trust and competence. Barber (1983), on the other hand, avoids this corundrum with the expectation of technically competent role performance. The author distinguishes between daily routine actions, technical possibilities, as well as expert knowledge. (3) The expectation of morally correct role performance from those associated with the individual. Respectively, the expectation that interaction partners will perform their fiduciary obligations and responsibilities. Some authors before Barber tend to synthesize the trust concept with fiduciary duties and responsibilities, but they refrained from defining those terms. However, Barber avoided this problem in his work by claiming that fiduciary duty of professionals, in certain situations, means to place the interests of the individual who is trusting before the interests of the professional who is trusted. In essence, Barber emphasizes the central role of the expectation that a truster, at a specific point in time, will allow someone else’s (the trustee’s) interests to prevail above his/her own. This expectation depends to a lesser extent on the earlier shown behaviour, but mainly on the felt moral obligations and intentions. In the case where the referent’s behaviour can no longer be anticipated, the person falls back on this. This fact highlights the strategic aspect of the trust concept. Barber recognizes that trust dimensions can also be related, as he suggests that greater trust resides in a referent when trust along multiple dimensions (e.g., competence and concern) is present. Barber (1983) makes a valuable contribution to the “personal expectations” literature on trust. Here, the author developed his thoughts on trust towards an interpersonal definition in that for his conceptualization, two conditions have to be met: (i) the existence of a person who is trusting; and (ii) a second individual who is worthy of that trust. However, within Barber’s conceptualization, trust remains basically the optimistic expectations of a person relative to the eventual consequence of a future, uncertain event.
Barber’s view of the dimensionality of trust integrates earlier sociological insights such as the work of Garfinkel (1967), whose micro-sociological conceptualization of trust is based on the individual’s expectation of order and stability in a world of everyday interaction. Like Barber (1983), Liebermann (1981) also states that in fiduciary relationships the dependent party’s trust is based on a belief in the “competence and integrity of the professional or official in accordance with the highest ethical standards” (Mayer et al., 1995).
Many sociological scholars, with Barber (1983) amongst them, overly restrict their trust conceptualization to expectations, which leads to a purely functionalistic analysis of the construct. Lewis and Weigert (1985) likewise agree with earlier sociologists that trust is a set of expectations with particular contextual conditions, parameters and constraints (see also Cheung & Lee, 2006). However, they criticize the previous conceptualizations of trust as being too rational and cognitive centred. Here, the scholars (p. 970) emphasize the critical point that “trust is based on a cognitive process which discriminates among persons and institutions that are trustworthy, distrusted, and unknown. In this sense, we cognitively choose whom we will trust and we base the choice on what we take to be ‘good reasons’, constituting evidence of trustworthiness. However, knowledge alone can never cause us to trust. The manifestation of trust on the cognitive level of experience is reached when social actors no longer need or want any further evidence or rational reasons for their confidence in the objects of trust”. Based on this criticism, Lewis and Weigert (1985a) conceptualized trust as consisting of distinct cognitive (cognitive-based trust), emotional (affect-based trust), and behavioural aspects, which are combined into a unitary social experience or overall attitude towards the trust object. This viewpoint appears to be deduced from the “age-old trilogy of cognition, affect, and conation” (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Katz & Stotland, 1959) or the ”three-component view” of attitude (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974). Lewis and Weigert state that the existence of the three dimensions is nothing new as they are implicitly included by a variety of sociology’s key trust contributors (especially in Luhmann, 1979). The cognitive aspect of trust includes the notion that we cognitively decide whom we should trust or distrust, in which respects and under which circumstances this takes place. In this process, we base our choice on what we take to be “good reasons” which constitute corresponding evidence for the interaction partner’s trustworthiness. On the cognitive dimension, trust is based upon knowledge (or perception) of the trustee’s personal and institutional attributes. In this context, Luhmann (1979, p. 19) states, “familiarity is the precondition for trust as well as distrust, i.e., for every sort of commitment to a particular attitude toward the future”. Similarly, Simmel (1964) observes that trust involves a certain degree of cognitive familiarness with the trusted object which is somewhere on the continuum between “total knowledge” (also known as completely objective evidence) and on the other end “total ignorance” (or completely subjective evidence) (Hinnant, 2007).
At the beginning of a social relationship, people trust only when they have access to the evidence that the other party is trustworthy, but as trust develops gradually, interaction partners no longer need rational reasons for trusting each other (Lewis & Weigert, 1985). Here, Lewis and Weigert further state that in such a condition it is of no importance how much more knowledge about an object we may collect, such knowledge alone can never give us reason to trust. They further assert that the rational component of trust is characterized by a cognitive “leap” beyond the expectations that reasons and experience alone would warrant. They simply represent a kind of “platform” from which the leap is created. This process can be termed, by referring to Luhmann’s (1979) terminology, as “overdrawing” on the informational base. Typically, each individual makes the leap not only because of his/her own psychological constitution, but in parallel on the assumption that others join the leap. Therefore, cognitive trust can be characterized as being a collective cognitive reality that goes beyond the realm of the person’s psychology. According to Lewis and Weigert (1985), trust is not ultimately based on rational evidence alone, instead, individuals trust by virtue of the norm of trust.
The researchers (Lewis and Weigert 1985a, b) further identify an emotional or affective base of trust that is complementary to its cognitive counterpart. In this context, Lewis and Weigert argue that affective trust is motivated by strong positive feelings among those who participate in the relationship. Trust is viewed as a force that allows for intense emotional investments. More specifically, expectation-violating behaviours elicit emotional reactions. They state that “The affective content of the trust relationship is evident in the strong emotional response elicited by its betrayal. Although feelings of anger and guilt are usually strongest when an interpersonal trust is betrayed, we also feel a sense of outrage when a public trust is violated, as occurs, for example, when a political official violates the oath of office. Because each participant in the trust relationship knows that its betrayal would bring emotional pain not only to the person betrayed but also to the betrayer, affect complements the cognitive dimension of trust”. Therefore, emotional-based trust is characterized as being just as reciprocal and intersubjective as its cognitive base. For Lewis and Weigert (1985a, b), trust represents a construct composed of feelings as well as rational thinking. This accords with the psychological insight that emotions (feelings) have to parallel cognition in order to cause human action. The exclusion of either one of these two dimensions may mis-conceptualize trust as blind faith (without any cognitive base) or a rationally calculated prediction (without an emotional base).
The third component of trust is its behavioural enactment. Here, to trust means that the individual acts as if the future behaviours of the other party were indeed certain, while the violation of these assumptions leads to negative consequences for those persons involved. In other words, by borrowing from Barber’s (1983) perspective, Lewis and Weigert (1985a) define the behavioural ingredient of trust as “the undertaking of a risky course of action on the confident expectation that all persons involved in the action will act competently and dutifully” (p. 971). The authors emphasize that, although analytically distinct, behavioural trust is closely intertwined with the cognitive as well as emotional elements of trust. Moreover, each dimension implies the others. Nevertheless, Lewis and Weigert (1985a, b) argue that the comparative strength and relative importance of the individual dimensions may vary due to the type of relationship, situation, and social system. Specifically, they assume that cognitive trust is more characteristic of the macro level such as large social settings and societies, whereas affective trust is more typical in primary, close-knit groups (e.g., kin) or close relational situations. Overall, Lewis and Weigert once again reinforce the sociological assumption that trust is a “collective attribute” based upon the people’s relationships that co-exist in a social system. They conclude that trust is essentially social and normative rather than individual and calculative and is hence a necessity for social relationships. Without trust, such interactions would be impossible.
In a nutshell, sociology provides meaningful insights to gain a profound understanding of how humans develop trust, and which fundamental role trust captures in social interactions. While theoretical contributions on the societal macro level are manifold, only few empirical studies aim to investigate trust in social settings or on the individual level. Only recently, due to the rise of research in the context of the Internet, some scholars have attempted to operationalize and measure types of trust that has its roots in the sociological school of thought. Here, the concept of institution-based trust is applied to draw on the idea that people are able to form trust in the Internet as a social system or (more specifically) the Internet as a shopping or research channel. For instance, McKnight and his colleagues (McKnight et al., 2002b) define Internet- trust as the belief that structural conditions are present. These beliefs make the probability of achieving a successful outcome in an endeavour like commerce more likely. The authors draw their research on the conceptualization of trust being two-dimensional: structural assurance and situational normality. Here, by mainly drawing on Shapiro (1987) and Zucker (1986), structural assurance is conceptualized as the consumer’s belief that structures (e.g., guarantees, regulations) are in place in order to facilitate success. On the other hand, situational normality is the notion that the world is in proper order and success is likely, as the situation is normal or favourable (Baier, 1986; Lewis &Weigert, 1985a, b). Other e-commerce and marketing researchers followed a similar operationalization, as demonstrated later.
This literature stream also tells us that the universe of online reviews can be regarded as a certain kind of social institution. Society has dedicated certain functions to this system and it is up to the online consumer himself/herself to judge whether this institution can be trusted.