Why do we need a history of trust?
The original impulse for my concern with trust came from spending a good deal of time in Russia during the 1990s, when I observed at first hand the impact on ordinary Russians of economic and political reforms inspired by Western example and in some cases directly imposed by the West. Those reforms rested on economic and political precepts derived from Western institutions and practices which dated back decades or even centuries - generating habits of mutual trust which had become so ingrained that we did not notice them any more. In Russia those institutions and practices instead aroused wariness at first, then distrust, then resentment and even hatred of the West and its policies.
I learnt from that experience that much social solidarity derives from forms of mutual trust which are so unreflective that we are no longer aware of them. They are nevertheless definitely learned, not an instinctive part of human nature. It follows that forms of trust which we take for granted are not appropriate for all societies.
I have therefore become interested in forms of human solidarity which are not mainly generated by power structures or by rational choice. I use the word 'trust' as the central term in a semantic chart which delineates such forms of solidarity: confidence, faith, reliance etc.
Trust is mediated to us through symbolic systems - language, myth, religion, law, science, various forms of culture, money - and by the institutions connected with them. In my recent book, Trust: a History, I concentrate on two symbolic systems, religion and money because they are both crucial to social solidarity today. I also examine an institution, the nation-state, which has proved remarkably effective at absorbing symbolic systems to promote a relatively high level of trust among huge numbers of people.
Geoffrey Hosking FBA, OBE is Emeritus Professor of Russian History, University College London. His books include Russia: people and empire (1997), Rulers and Victims: the Russians in the Soviet Union (2006), Trust: money, markets and society (2010) and Trust: a History (2014). He lectures regularly in Russia and has recently delivered a course of lectures on the history of trust at Moscow University.