Trust and Democratic Politics

Other External Scholars:
Nancy Burns, University of Michigan
Donald Kinder, University of Michigan
Project Date:
Nov 1999
Award Amount:
Project Programs:

Social scientific theories of trust are growing ever more sophisticated, but techniques of measurement remain relatively primitive. The most widely cited measures of trust, such as those in the General Social Survey, ask whether we trust "most people", thereby assuming that we make sweeping judgments about the trustworthiness of human nature in general. Nancy Burns and Donald Kinder of the University of Michigan believe these measures are misguided. We should not ask whether people are trusting of humanity in general; we should ask more specific questions about who they trust with what.

In order to verify their suspicions about the standard social trust questions, Burns and Kinder will examine how people go about answering them. They suspect that respondents base their opinion of “most people” on a few acquaintances hastily called to mind. But whom they call to mind may have shifted over the years, as the makeup of American society has changed. If so, Burns and Kinder hypothesize, the recorded decline in levels of trust among Americans may simply reflect the declining homogeneity of American society.

To exemplify a better, more specific measure of trust, Burns and Kinder will study the trust Americans place in their electoral institutions. After a pilot survey, the questions they develop will be incorporated into the long-running National Election Study for 2000, bringing their methods to wide scholarly attention.


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