Sunday, October 23, 2005


Mechanics of trust

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued that one of the consequences of modernity has been a change in how human beings assess the trustworthiness of strangers.

Modernity, Giddens argues, disembeds social relationships from local contexts. We are brought into contact with "strangers" on a more regular basis than inhabitants of premodern societies were. That means that premodern means of determining whether a person is "trustworthy" are generally less helpful to modern people. In premodern societies, you could manage personal risks by placing trust in people whom you knew personally, through kinship networks (real or fictive) or the ties of local communities. But as moderns we are regularly forced to entrust our personal and financial security to people with whom we have fleeting, if any, face-to-face contact.

For example, you see the pilot of the plane once, and probably when you get off the plane. You hear his or her disembodied voice drily announcing information about the weather and ETA. You have probably never met the pilot and probably never will again. But you manage the risks of flying by placing your trust in this essentially faceless pilot, and you are right to do so. That doesn't mean you necessarily banish anxiety, but you are able to operate practically in spite of that anxiety in a way that premoderns may not have been able to, at least not with the same degree of ease. The reason why is because you have a peculiarly modern trust in abstract systems of professionalization and expertise, which you trust have trained the pilot well. You begin to gain this facility for trusting abstract systems through a variety of means of socialization, including the "hidden curriculum" of formal education. In school you not only receive packets of information, but you learn how to pay deference to education itself, as a process that divides "experts" in particular fields from non-experts and entitles the experts to your trust--even when your face-to-face contact with the expert is temporary, irregular, or perhaps absent altogether.

Think what you will of Giddens' theory: I'm always slightly uncomfortable with sweeping yet specific generalizations about the divide between "premodernity" and "modernity." But Giddens' argument that modernity has displaced trust from relationships requiring "facework" to "faceless" systems of credentiality seems to me to have prima facie plausibility whenever I go to the car mechanic, as I did last Friday. When I go to a garage I am acutely aware of my status as a Lay person, capital-L. That's not to say I know nothing about cars, but I know close enough to nothing that I become acutely aware of the fact that I am at the mercy of a stranger, known to me only in his social role as trained car expert.

Clearly I'm not alone in feeling this sense of risk when I approach a car mechanic. On Thursday, I was browsing user ratings of mechanics in my area at the Car Talk website, and found that the Number One concern of users who had made comments on the site was with the mechanic's honesty, even more so than competence. Our trust in the abstract systems of expertise is so finely honed that we take the competence of mechanics for granted: it's their personal integrity that still stands under the shadow of our skepticism, since we don't know them in most cases as personal friends. But it's a quintessentially modern thing to do, Giddens would say, what I was doing on the Car Talk site: First, I've been socialized to trust two faceless voices I hear on the radio every Saturday, conditioned to trust their expertise by their association with a particular abstract institution. So much so that I consult a website visited by other listeners like myself, who are also faceless and known only by a numerical handle, but whom I trust to direct me to particular trustworthy mechanics. What I'm doing here, of course, is still trying to mitigate faceless trust with some indirect "face-to-face" trust. I'm trying to hear from people who have had contact with the experts who are still strangers to me. Giddens's point is not that moderns do away with facework altogether, but we have learned practical ways of combining the two mechanisms of trust.

All of which is just a pedantic preface to this quotidian story: My muffler seemed broken, so I took it to the shop. I received a free estimate of $550. I called another shop down the street and spoke to someone over the phone to get a second quote: $420. I called the first shop back to tell him that I had found a significantly lower price, and to ask if he could come down off his estimate. He told me he could shave the price to $490. I told him I would have to hang up and talk it over with my wife, which made him quickly adjust to $470. He said the price was higher because his shop uses better, guaranteed parts. (Who am I to know if that's true? He's the expert!) In the end, I decided to leave the car at the first shop, which did the job for $470. Now the muffler seems to be in working order, with my pocket less empty than it could have been, and I am able to slide, like a good modern, back into my socialized routines. All's well that ends well. (Or perhaps, in the case of this post, all's well that ends!)

Collective Improvisation:

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