Trust in a Complex World

Trust in a Complex World

A new book by a Rutgers professor explores what community means, how trust has declined and how it can be rebuilt

Charles Heckscher, a professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, says that increasing understanding among different opinions will bring a renewed sense of community to Rutgers students.
At a time when social connection and cooperation is needed more than ever to solve big communal problems, traditional communities and trust among members continues to weaken. To tackle entrenched vexing problems like inequality, racism and climate change, new ways to create engaged communities are needed, says Charles Heckscher, director of Rutgers' Center for the Study of Collaboration in the School of Management and Labor Relations.

Social media may be the new path to creating strong communities to tackle the most difficult issues, writes Heckscher, the author of Trust in a Complex World, a new book that explores the decline of traditional communities and the rise of new ones. In this Q&A, Heckscher talks about what community means, how trust has declined and how it can be rebuilt.  

 What do “community” and “trust” mean in relation to your research?

Trust is a willingness to give up immediate personal control in the expectation that others will “do the right thing.” Community is a group of people who trust each other. In an effective community, people can count on each other, and they all benefit from the strength of the group.  The question is: Why should anyone trust other people? How can we have confidence in how they will act? The two key answers are shared values and relationships. We trust if we believe that others share our ideas of right and wrong, and if we believe they care about us. This is hard to achieve -- it’s a long social process. There have to be accepted mechanisms for effectively defining shared values and social reputations, which take a long time to build.

There are different types of community. The oldest and simplest form relies primarily on tradition: People essentially trust each other to act in the future as they have in the past. The “modern” era, starting in the 16th century in the West, found this too limiting. It established a kind of trust based on making deals -- respecting the abstract dignity of all humans, agreeing to disagree about particulars, and seeking mutually beneficial agreements. That kind of community is now inadequate because we need more than tolerance and deal-making:. We need to work together on complex problems and to build understanding of differences.

How have trust and community declined?

There is a great deal of evidence of weakening and fragmentation of familiar relations like families, neighborhoods, local clubs, federations and political parties. This has been documented by the school of “communitarians,” among whom Robert Putnam is perhaps the most widely known for his evocative phrase, “Bowling Alone.” Communitarians are very troubled by these trends, arguing they undermine trust and lead to both political decline and personal disorientation. They often see the younger generation as lost in narcissism and lacking commitment.

In my view, however, communitarians miss other aspects of social relations: the growth of cross-cultural sharing, the ability to find support from multiple groups, the increasing willingness to discuss tastes and personal feelings and the gradually improving ability to have meaningful conversations beyond one’s native clan.

What is an example of this decline in trust?

A particularly important example for university students is the changing employment relationship. A half-century ago most students would have been seeking a safe corporate home that would promise high security in return for deep loyalty. Today, most students neither expect nor want that kind of relationship, but they are faced instead with a world of high uncertainty and little confidence in the future.

What steps can we take to repair the decline in trust and community?

There are three ways to rebuild trust. One, emphasized by the communitarians, is to strengthen loyalties to familiar institutions like families, neighborhoods and corporations. The problem is that even if this could work, it would necessarily reinforce divisions between groups and conformity within them, and so would only make it harder to build the wider understanding and cooperation needed today.

The second is to strengthen regulatory systems and abstract rights -- building international governance institutions, improving expert management and strengthening general codes of rights. But systemic regulation by itself has proved to be a poor basis for trust: People feel distant from it, alienated and eventually suspicious. The decline of trust in governments has been growing for decades and is an essentially universal trend in the West, even in strong social-democratic states.

That leaves a third way, which is much less developed, but has more potential because it focuses on engendering understanding, collaboration and wide participation. We’ve witnessed this through the last half-century in the growth of foreign travel, in popular self-help books that advocate self-development through new experiences, in the spread of social media, and in the rise of participatory community planning. In all, there’s a common thread: To define oneself is not to burrow deeply into one tradition, but to explore widely and to embrace others who are different. It’s a fledgling sensibility that has not yet reached political and economic institutions, but it’s evolving rapidly.

How can university students reverse the decline in trust and foster change? Is this something that you teach?

The most important thing is to increase understanding across differences. University students already engage in new activities that involve sharing and discussion with people outside their comfortable circles. This generation has a much better understanding of what it feels like to be someone other, especially from groups that have not been historically high in status: immigrants, African-Americans, women, for example. They are part of many conversations, formal and informal, across these lines. Some are contentious and angry, some expose wide gulfs, but they are slowly raising the level of exchange.

University students are also in the vanguard of a kind of social movement which I call, using a military concept, “swarms.” That is, instead of joining an organization or following a leader or trying to form a unified mass, they are working in decentralized and highly participatory projects and campaigns that sometimes come together around larger shared purposes. Organizing swarms is not easy, and they often fall apart, but there are some practical lessons emerging that I try to summarize.

What themes did you focus on in your research for Trust in a Complex World?

I’ve been thinking for a long time about why traditional labor unions have been in decline, which has to do with long-running shifts in social institutions and orientations. I’ve also been studying how large corporations have built the ability to cooperate without bureaucratic control, in flexible teams and processes. These two kinds of research, though very different, led me to explore the evolution of basic social values and relations. Some colleagues and I developed a notion of “collaborative community” to analyze the social conditions for working together in the increasingly fluid and uncertain world of business. This book is an extension of that line of thought to society as a whole. 

-- Renee Walker