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Social and Political Trust (SaPT): A Longitudinal and Comparative Perspective. Patrick Sturgis, Nick Allum, Roger Patulny & Sarah Bulloch + Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, UK. Background

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Social and Political Trust (SaPT):

A Longitudinal and Comparative Perspective

Patrick Sturgis, Nick Allum, Roger Patulny & Sarah Bulloch

+Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, UK


SaPT is a two-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under the Understanding Population Trends and Processes (UPTAP) programme. It is led by Dr Patrick Sturgis and Dr Nick Allum of the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. Dr Roger Patulny is the research officer on the project and Sarah Bulloch is conducting a project-linked research studentship.

The project applies a range of advanced statistical modeling techniques to the UK's rich secondary data resources to investigate the causes and consequences of social and political trust.

Interpersonal, or social trust has been proposed as key to variation in economic growth, rates of criminal offending and victimisation, morbidity, quality of life and the stability of democratic systems of government.

Theoretical accounts of social trust have advanced considerably in the last decade or so, with contributions from political science (Putnam, Uslaner), economics (Elster, Dasgupta), and sociology (Coleman) seeking to elucidate the historical, rational and normative bases of trust.

An enduring problem in the study of both social and political trust relates to causal ordering. While theoretical notions of trust as a 'social lubricant' are founded on the premise that trust is generated through interpersonal networks and social interaction, it is plausible that the mechanism also runs in the opposite direction. That is to say, more trusting individuals may select into networks and associations.

This issue of causal ordering is perhaps the primary focus of the work we are conducting on the project.

  • Methodology/Data used
  • Our project makes use of the following data sets:
  • The British Social Attitudes Survey (various years from ????)
  • The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS)
  • The European Social Survey, 2002 & 2004 (ESS)
  • The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70)
  • The National Child Development Study (NCDS)
  • Taking Part survey
  • Our programme of work comprises 5 over-lapping sub-projects:
  • Sub-Project 1 What Makes Trusters Trust?
  • There is much debate about the causes of individual and country level variation in social trust. In this paper we analyse repeated measures of trust using the British Household Panel Survey to investigate how various ‘life-events’ and experiences influence subsequent levels of trust.
  • Data: BHPS
  • Sub-Project 2 Trust in Britain: long-term trends
  • Britain acts as an excellent test-case for theories of civic decline, most notably Putnam’s theory of social capital. In this sub-project we analyse all relevant data on social trust in Britain between 1959 and 2005.
  • Data: Civic Culture, BSA, BHPS, WVS, Taking Part
  • Sub-Project 3 Trust in comparative perspective
  • In this sub-project we analyse data from the 2002 and 2004 European Social Survey to investigate cross-national variation in the level and determinants of social and political trust.
  • Data: European Social Survey 2002, 2004
  • Sub-Project 4 Social trust and local areas
  • The vast majority of empirical investigations of thecorrelates of trust focus on either individual or country level characteristics. In this sub-project we fit multi-level structural equation models to multi-stage sample data to understand how the characteristics of local areas influence individual level trust. A particular focus of this sub-project is on how various forms of neighbourhood heterogeneity are related to interpersonal trust.
  • Data: European Social Survey 2002, 2004; Taking Part 2006
  • Sub-Project 5 Social Trust and childhood socialization
  • The 2004 sweeps of the NCDS and BCS70 contained measures of interpersonal trust and other indicators of social capital. In this sub-project we investigate how family background, cognitive ability and early socialization experiences influence trust, net of more temporally proximal influences.
  • Data: NCDS, BCS70


To date, we have findings to report from sub-projects 1, 2 and 3. Work on the 2 remaining sub-projects is on-going and dependent on the timing of data releases for the cohort studies and the Taking Part survey.

What makes trusters trust?

In this paper, we make use of repeated measures data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) to examine the effect of a range of theoretically related explanatory variables on subsequent levels of interpersonal trust over a six year period. We employ a fixed effects specification with lagged covariates to control for the time-invariant characteristics of individuals that might spuriously link our explanatory variables to subsequent changes in trust. We contrast the results of our fixed effects model with cross-sectional and a repeated measures random effects specifications, which do not control for unobserved individual heterogeneity.

While the cross-sectional and random effects models show substantial effects of life events on subsequent levels of trust, the fixed effects specification shows only two significant explanatory variables. The only events found to predict a future increase in trust are obtaining a post-compulsory educational qualification, and improving one’s perception of the financial situation of the household.

These results lead us to conclude that existing correlational studies of the causes of interpersonal trust are likely to be affected by endogeneity bias. Additionally, the small number of significant predictors of trust found in the fixed effects model lends support to the idea that interpersonal trust is a relatively stable social value, developed early in the life-course and relatively resistant to ‘life events’ in the short to medium term.

Trust in Britain: long-term trends

Peter Hall (1999) concludes that interpersonal trust is in long-term decline in Britain. From a high-point in 1959, when almost 6 in 10 Britons agreed that ‘most people can be trusted’, by 1998 the proportion had almost halved, with only 30% agreeing with this statement in the world values survey of that year. In this paper we re-analyse the long-term trend in trust in Britain, using new data sources and extending the time series to 2006. Counter to Hall, we find that despite some ‘trendless fluctuation’ in the interim, levels of trust in Britain today have hardly changed since the first measurement was made in the late 1950s.

Trust in Comparative Perspective

Much work on social and political trust has been carried out in recent years using country-level aggregated measures. In this project we are using structural equation models to combine multiple items as indicators of individual level latent variables. We then employ a variety of models incorporating countries, or country level macro variables, to explain inter-individual differences in the propensity to trust.

One of these studies looks at the linkages between social and political trust and civic engagement, using data from the European Social Survey. We find that some of the correlation between trusting and joining can be explained by confounding variables – income, social class and education, as well as country differences (much as we find in

the ‘What makes trusters trust’ analysis. However, the link between social and political trust is more resistant to controls. This supports the conclusion that social and political trust are more akin to value orientations or personality-based variables, than being the outcome of heterogeneous political institutional structures across Europe.

Measurement model for Social, Institutional Trust and Joining.

Country level correlation

between social and

institutional trust,

adjusted for individual –

level characteristics

  • Aims
  • The recent ascendancy of the trust concept can be attributed to its central status in Putnam’s highly influential theory of social capital.
  • Yet, despite the central position of ‘trust’ in social theory and empirical research alike, many important questions remain:
  • • Is trust a rational response to ‘life-events’, or is it more akin to a social value, developed at an early stage of the life-course?
  • • Is trust uni-dimensional; how are different types of trust related to one another?
  • • Does civic engagement and social interaction generate trust?
  • • How should trust be measured, and with what empirical indicators?
  • • How does trust relate to other key social and political value dimensions?
  • What are the consequences of declining trust for the effective functioning of social and political systems.
  • The aim of the SaPT project is to address these questions using the ESRC’s core large-scale data sets. These surveys offer a rich array of variables pertaining to trust, efficacy and engagement in the UK and Europe.
  • By analysing a range of different indicators of social and political trust, their inter-relationships, cross-country and temporal variation, we aim to provide some much needed clarity in the debate regarding the individual, social and historical factors which underpin social and political trust.

Policy Implications

Our results suggest that social trust, often referred to as the ‘attitudinal dimension of social capital’, is a relatively ‘sticky’ phenomenon. That is to say, it is developed early in the life-course and remains fairly stable thereafter. Trust appears to be broadly unrelated to membership in civic associations and a variety of ‘life-events’ at the individual level. For policy makers interested in stimulating social capital and generating civic engagement in deprived communities, our results suggest that strategies aimed at encouraging civic participation and volunteerism are unlikely to be very successful as a means of stimulating social trust.