Researching Trust – Problems and Opportunities

the-sheldon-cooper-situation-L-UB5vc0I was at a leadership conference this week and listened to a presentation about trust.  In all organisations the issue of trust is vital, particularly those where research, development and innovation are key as well situations that are political.  The researchers were examining people’s experience of trust by using a questionnaire survey (the second phase was to include interviews).  It got me thinking how difficult it is to ‘measure’ trust due to its complex relational and contextual nature and how this is played out over time.  It reminded me of the process of exchanging a gift and the sense of expectation that is created between the giver and receiver.  And it is in this reciprocity of expectation that the relationship continues.  Trust can be seen in similar ways to that of a gift, but here the focus is not a tangible item of the gift, but the relationship itself brought to life with a confidence building gesture.

Pierre Bourdieu, in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), argued that the tendency of abstraction, free from context and the temporal flow of events from which they are drawn, is a fundamental problem of researching how people interact with each other.  And he explored this through the example of gift exchange, and I extend this argument here to trust.

An objective approach would consider the principle of gift exchange, seen from outside the game, as a form of reversible operation and context-free ‘law’: where possible, gifts are to be matched by return gifts of equal value whereby the obligation is cancelled out.  Or in the case of trust, confidence building actions are matched by similar actions.  However this does not account for the intertwined context that the parties navigate skilfully, along with feelings of hesitation, possibilities and expectation and how this fits in with the meshed course of past events; events that point to the irreversibility of experience.  Bourdieu also considers ‘style’ of gift exchange:  the occasion and nature of further gifts and how this affects the experience of the ongoing process.

In our book (Warwick & Board, 2013) we explore this from a common experience in the UK, that of buying a round of drinks in a pub.  We do this from the perspective of the person buying the round, who is immersed in the game, and that of the detached researcher watching the goings on (p46).  However, here I would like to illustrate the point through the gift exchange anxieties of Sheldon Cooper.  Sheldon is one of the main characters in the comedy, The Big Bang Theory.  They are a bunch of rather nerdy physicists and engineers, working in a university, along with their friend and neighbour, Penny, a waitress who dreams of becoming an actress.  Sheldon, bordering on the autistic, sees everything from the perspective of the objective scientist.  And it is this mindset that trips him up when Penny gives him a Christmas present, here is the video (Cendrowski , 2009).  Shocked that he is to be bought a present by Penny he buys a range of gifts of different values.  Upon receiving his gift from Penny he plans to quickly check its price on the internet so he can give the one of closest value and return the rest to the store.   But of course, Penny gives him something priceless – a signed napkin of Sheldon’s hero, Leonard Nimoy.  Here the zero-sum game of gift exchange collapses and Sheldon is overcome.

The question for me is how we can describe the relationship of trust that gives voice to this relational and anticipatory nature of experience rather than focusing on the abstract notion of zero sum exchange.  I shall call this the ‘Sheldon Dilemma’.  And this brings me to where I began, trust is too important a factor of organisational life not to research, but how can we study it?  To complement the surveys and questionnaires, which all have their place, it would be good to hear accounts of people’s own stories (including researchers’ own stories) of their dynamic network of their trust relationships.  We should focus on accounts of the here and now, not those that come to mind months or years later.  Perhaps here we might be able glimpse the dynamic nature of trust that gives voice to anticipation, style and reciprocity.

So instead of talking about trust (almost as if it were an object) lets talk about the processes of how we build trust worthiness.

Rob Warwick

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cendrowski , M. (2009). The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis. The Big Bang Theory, Season 2, Episode 11.

Warwick, R., & Board, D. (2013). The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


4 thoughts on “Researching Trust – Problems and Opportunities

  1. Excellent post. So good to read something that gets at the responsive nature of our lives together. You make it clear how, by using the noun “trust”, we risk pushing the processes of trust building into the shadows. I am reminded of Michael Billig’s book “Learn to write badly – how to succeed in the social sciences”. He argues that the “problem of pompous or starchy writing in the social sciences” is not simply a problem of jargon. Rather, it arises when academic writers overuse nouns and turn people (and processes) into things. And the problem is not confined to academia. Actually, it’s quite hard to avoid nouns – I only have to go back and re-read my first two sentences above!

  2. Thanks Alison. I’ve just finished Michael Billig’s book and very good it is. He does point out how hard it is not to convert our life to a series of nouns, like you pointing back to his own work. Another great habit you don’t often see – modesty!

  3. Pingback: Problems and opportunities of researching trust |

  4. Pingback: Pitfalls and opportunities of frameworks in building trust | Building Trusting Relationships

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