‘In Democracy We Trust’ was the theme of Notwestminster 2023, held in Huddersfield last month. With a focus on citizen participation, the conference provided a gathering space for activists, academics, volunteers, youth representatives, entrepreneurs and social organisations to come together and workshop ideas for a citizen-led democracy. Following the conference theme, we offered a workshop on ‘Building Trust from Street Level’, part of our broader project on Ordinary Citizenship.
Our aim in offering the workshop was to think beyond trust in political institutions and focus on the kind of trust that occurs between citizens in everyday life. In some ways, this means a more basic understanding of trust, as it concerns minor interactions that are almost invisible we so take them for granted. On the other hand, this kind of trust is also more complex, as it relies on our experiences, personalities and community structures, which shape the way we perceive and interact with others.
As a starting point, we wanted to question the negative representation of trust in much of the scholarly and media discourse: the dire proclamations of the decline of trust in society, in politicians, and in democracy itself. It is important to note that the most common source of data about trust is from attitudinal surveys – that is to say, we ascertain the level of trust in society by asking people who they trust - their neighbours, the news, their politicians. When asked about this, people report low levels of trust, and while that is interesting and useful to know, it doesn’t necessarily provide a complete picture of actual trusting behaviour.
In fact, we wanted to show that what is really remarkable about modern life is not how little we trust each other, but rather how trusting we all are. Away from the extraordinary flashpoints of political lies and betrayals, there is a much more humdrum, everyday practice of ‘ordinary trust’ upon the basis of which social life keeps ticking along and which has proved remarkably resilient over time. As the philosopher Annette Baier writes, ‘we inhabit a climate of trust as we inhabit an atmosphere and notice it as we notice air, only when it becomes scarce or polluted’:
We wisely or stupidly, virtuously or viciously, show trust in a great variety of forms, and manifest a great variety of versions of trustworthiness, both with intimates and with strangers. We trust those we encounter in lonely library stacks to be searching for books, not victims. We sometimes let ourselves fall asleep on trains or planes, trusting neighboring strangers not to take advantage of our defenselessness. We put our bodily safety into the hands of pilots, drivers, doctors, with scarcely any sense of recklessness (1986: 234).
And so the challenge of ‘building trust’ at the level of everyday life is not the challenge of trying desperately to conjure trust out of thin air (or out of conditions of rampant mistrust), but rather of finding ways of keeping ordinary trust alive.
To do so, we worked with participants to explore how habits of everyday living can help and hinder trust, uncovering some of the everyday interactions that build and maintain trust. In our discussions we talked about the subtle ways in which we rely on, and trust, people all of the time. This included trusting that we will all follow the same rules, with driving being a powerful example of both the need to trust others and the high stakes involved in this trusting behaviour. More informal agreements included bringing the bins in for neighbours, trusting that the milk on the doorstep won’t get stolen, leaving parcels in ‘trusted’ places or with neighbours. The reliance on others during Covid-19 raised a number of questions about trust, from shopping for more vulnerable neighbours to following public health guidelines and trusting that others are doing so too. Honesty boxes are another example of the ways in which we trust others to behave in reciprocal ways even when we can’t see them. Of course, trust isn’t just about transaction. Drawing on their experiences of community work, some of the participants pointed out the emotional intensity of trusting others with your thoughts and feelings and expecting confidentiality.
When these trusting behaviours work, they reinforce our sense of community, calling to mind the words of Jane Jacobs:
The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eying the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded ... Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level - most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone - is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust (2020: 66-67).
But trust is difficult. There are conflicting emotions around trust. Interestingly, the younger participants at the workshop seemed to find it hardest to think of examples where they trusted strangers on a day-to-day basis. For them, there was no option of asking someone on a train to keep an eye on your belongings while you went to the bathroom, for example. One context is which they did express a willingness to trust was whilst travelling abroad, including the need to rely on others whose language you may not even speak. Even here, trusting was not an enjoyable experience despite no harm being done, as it was the discomfort and exposure to the potential of harm that they remembered. The hesitancies around trust, the memories of trust being broken reveal profound vulnerabilities.
Indeed, context is an important part of how and why we trust. The intersections of our social identities can lead to forms of vulnerability that either require trust or can shake our sense of trust, with physical disability as an example of being forced to trust others to help you negotiate everyday infrastructures, or gendered risks in moving through space as informing who we trust, when and why. When family and community structures break down, the framework of everyday trust can be damaged.
Overall, though, the workshop highlighted the importance of social trust and its benefits, both on a collective level of building community and for a more personal level of satisfaction. It feels good to be trusted and it feels good when trusting others pays off. Thus, to build trust we need to find ways to maintain our optimism, to be actively listening to one another and build trusting frameworks that enable the conditions for reciprocity and everyday cycles of trust. This focus on the level of everyday, interpersonal and social trust is especially important when we take into account the frameworks around us that seem to hinder trust, from surveillance technology to individualistic notions of ‘freedom’ to the broken promises of politicians and the undermining of our trust in political institutions.
Baier, A. (1986). Trust and Antitrust. Ethics, 96(2), 231–260. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2381376
Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. London: Vintage. (edn. 2020).
Dr Alba Griffin is a post-doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Leeds whose research explores violence and power and inequality, particularly in Latin America, with a focus on popular culture and representation.
Dr Derek Edyvane is Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Leeds whose work has focused on the concepts of incivility and injustice, citizenship and the ethics of political resistance. He is interested in the responsibilities that ordinary citizens have to confront injustice, and in the ethical considerations that bear on that confrontation. He also has longstanding interests in community, multiculturalism, political ethics and political liberalism.