Trust, social dilemmas and the strategic construction of collective memories

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Source: SOM 1996 survey. N= 1760

Even though all of these correlations are weak, they all point in the same positive direction The more people trust other people, the more they tend to have confidence in the societal and political institutions. But again, the difficulty is to understand in what direction the causal ling goes. One noteworthy result here is that the two strongest correlations in the table above are the ones between horizontal trust and trust in the institutions of law and order, that is, the courts and the police. At a first glance, there seems to be no reason why there should be a causal mechanism between trusting other people and trusting these two particular institutions. On the contrary, you could argue that if you trust other people, you don't need the services provided by these two institutions.
One possibility on how to understand this is that the causal link runs the other way around; the more you trust the institutions that are supposed to keep law and order, the more reason you have to trust other people. The argument, inspired from non-cooperative game theory, runs as follows. In a civilized society, institutions of law and order have one particularly important task: to detect and punish people who are “traitors”, that is, those who break contracts, steal, murder and do other such non-cooperative things and therefore should not be trusted. Thus, if you think (i.e., if your cognitive map is) that these particular institutions do what they are supposed to do in a fair and effective manner, then you also have reason to believe that the chance people have of getting away with such treacherous behavior4 is small. If so, you will believe that people will have very good reason to refrain from acting in a treacherous manner, and you will therefore believe that “most people can be trusted.” Psychological and survey research confirms that social trust acts as a constraint on immoral behavior. People who believe others are trustworthy, are themselves less likely to lie, cheat, or steal (Laurin 1986; Rotter 1980).
If the above reasoning is correct, then trust in other people may have more to do with the way in which the political institutions of this type are operating. If people believe that the institutions that are responsible for handling "treacherous" behavior act in fair, just and effective manner, and if they also believe that other people think the same of these institutions, then they will also trust other people. However, it should be added that it is probably not the formal institution as such that people evaluate, but its historically established reputation in regard to fairness and efficiency. What matter is the collective memory about the actual operations of the institutions. The wordings of Joseph Stalin's extremely democratic constitution from 1936 did probably not increase trust in the Soviet society. Again, it is the "history of play" more than the formally enacted rules of the institutions that matter.

Trust as collective memory
While there are now several good analyses regarding the importance of ideas in politics, there are fewer that are useful on the production of ideas and ideologies, and especially, why some ideas come to dominate over others (Berman and McNamara 1999). Many theories on this topic are unfortunately not very helpful because of their strong functionalist tendency. Whichever ideology or norm is "needed" to secure the established configuration of power in society is also "produced" because there is such a "need". The critique of such functionalist logic in the social sciences for its lack of microfoundations is well known and doesn't need to be repeated here (Elster 1983; Hedström and Swedberg 1998).
A different approach, which I have found very helpful, is a part of the literature on collective memory. Compared with many other approaches to the study of the impact of ideology, culture and history, it has the advantage of viewing the creation of ideas and social norms as a strategic process. Collective memories are not something given by "history", or created because the present society "needs" a specific social construction of the past (cf. Schwartz 1991). Instead, what is emphasized in this literature is that "collective memories" are deliberately created by strategically acting political entrepreneurs in order to further their political goals and ambitions.5 In other words, a group's or a society's collective memory is contested ideological terrain, where different actors try to establish their particular interpretation of the past as the collective memory for a particular group (cf. Hardin 1995).
An excellent recent study in this tradition is Nachman Ben-Yehuda's book on the creation of "The Masada Myth" in Israeli politics. Ben-Yehuda shows convincingly that "The Masada Myth" is a "fabricated moralistic claim" that was produced in the 1940s to spur national pride among young Israelis, in particular. The myth was supported by "the central Israeli regime, as well as by key political, social, military, and academic figures". Ben-Yehuda's analysis shows that the collective memory (Jews in ancient times fighting heroically against much stronger Roman forces and, when defeat could not be avoided, chose a honorable death instead of loss of freedom and slavery) is according to generally available historical sources a genuinely false story.6 This is not the place to recapitulate Ben-Yehuda's very interesting analysis, but it will serve as an argument for the importance of using the concept of "collective memory" to solve the problem of how to explain the theoretical puzzle laid out previously. A fine summary of the role played by "collective memory" in politics is given in Baker's analysis of pre-revolutionary France:
Politics in any society depends upon the existence of cultural representations that define the relationships among political actors, thereby allowing individuals and groups to press claims upon one another and upon the whole. Such claims can be made intelligible and binding only to the extent that political actors deploy symbolic resources held in common by members of the political society, thereby refining and redefining the implications of these resources for the changing purposes of political practice. Political contestation therefore takes the form of competing efforts to mobilize and control the possibilities of political and social discourse, efforts through which that discourse is extended, recast, and - on occasion - even radically transformed (Baker 1985).
The purpose of trying to combine the analysis of (large n) social dilemmas/collective action problems, with the analysis of collective memory, is to offer an explanation for when there is a change from sup-optimal to optimal equilibria (or vice versa), that is, when collaboration for mutual benefit is possible. Thus, what does it take for a society to move from "Palermo" to "Milan", or from "Moscow" to "Stockholm"? The hypothesis is that what is needed is a change of the collective memory concerning three questions. 1) who are we, 2) who are the others, 3) and what can these others be expected to do if we choose to trust them. Within rational choice theory, Bates et. al. have argued that different forms of cultural or interpretavist theory would serve to fill this function. I agree in part when they argue that "(g)ame theorist often fail to acknowledge that their approach requires a complete political anthropology". My argument is that the theory of collective memory is superior to their use of cultural theory, because ideas, norms and culture are not taken just "shaped by history". Instead, these are themselves to be seen as part of strategic action, albeit on a different societal level (Bates, de Figueiredo Jr, and Weingast 1998, p. 244). When they argue that the problem with existing theories of the role of ideas is that they do not explain why one idea gains prominence over others, the collective memory approach will do just that.
In order to solve a social dilemma, it is necessary for the agents have accurate information about the "others", if they will betray trust, or if they will be trustworthy. My argument, which is inspired by the literature about collective memory, is that the answer to these questions is not something given by "culture" or "history" in any historically determined or functionalist way. Instead, this is a field for strategic action by political leaders, they fight over what is to be our collective memory of ourselves and of "the others". Things well known to political scientists working in the historical-institutionalist approach, such as the importance of institutionalized power and the specific configuration of resources in different settings, will help us explain this (Rothstein 1996; Steinmo 1993). As Katznelson has argued, instead of taking preferences as a given point of departure (i.e., rational choice), or behavior as simply revealed preferences (i.e., behavioralism), the historical institutional approach "(c)onnects institutional design to the formation and existence of political agents who possess particular clusters of preferences, interests, and identities" (Katznelson 1997, p. 104). This view is also prominent in John Rawls writing about social justice, especially in his idea that political institutions should be "framed so as to encourage the virtue of justice in those who take part in them" (Rawls 1971, p. 261). The eternal dilemma in the social sciences between explanations centered on individual agency and on social structures can be overcome though a careful and detailed analysis of the creation and impact of political institutions.

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1 I thank Piotr Swistak for reminding me that every important problem in the social sciences may have an explanation, but they may not have a solution that we like.

2 Technically there are many different types of equilibria. When the term is used here, it refers to what is known as a Nash-equilibrium: "a pair of strategies that are best replies to each other on the equilibrium path" Morrow, James D. 1994. Game Theory for Political Scientists. Princeton: Princeton University Press.. It is a situation where non of the players can do better by making a unilateral change of strategy.

3 I admit, this is a very unfair caricature of Robert Putnam's argument, but think of it as an "ideal-type" instead, that usually makes things easier for social scientists.

4 Game theorists usually use the term “opportunistic behavior”, which I think is a much too nice term to describe what this is all about.

5 I'm grateful to Fredrick C. Harris, for pointing me to this literature.

6 Another very good analysis of collective memory is Yael Zerubavel's Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (University of Chicago Press 1995). It may come as no surprise that in a newly established nation state like Israel, the demand for a common "collective memory" has been particularly high, and therefor also more easy to analyze for social scientists.

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