Broken societies: Inequality, cohesion and the middle-class dream

‘There is no evidence that the ethos of a people can be changed according to plan. It is one thing to engineer consent by the techniques of mass manipulation; to change a people’s fundamental view of the world is quite a different thing, perhaps especially if the change is in the direction of a more complicated and demanding morality’. (Edward Banfield in 1958)

Christian Larsen writes in 2013: The intriguing finding is that the share of ‘trusters’ has decreased dramatically in the US and UK. In 1959, 56 per cent of British respondents said that most people can be trusted; in the latest World Value Survey, this figure was down to 30 per cent. In 1960, 55 percent of Americans said that most people can be trusted; now it is 35 per cent. In Denmark and Sweden, by contrast, the share of ‘trusters’ has increased. In Denmark, it shot up from 47 per cent in 1979 to 76 per cent in 2008 (the highest level ever measured in any country). In Sweden, the share went up from 58 per cent in 1981 to 68 per cent in the latest World Value Survey.

What explains this divergence? What socioeconomic changes have shaken these countries from stable levels of trust? Why have American and British people become less trusting and Danes and Swedes more so? My answer is that the level of economic inequality within a society profoundly shapes how we perceive the trustworthiness of fellow citizens.

* those in the middle of society are seen as having little to win and a lot to lose by cheating. Why would they risk the reputational damage of being caught cheating? Anthropological studies support this notion: ‘It is those in the middle of the social spectrum, vying with one another for slight precedence in social affairs, who are most concerned about gossip and most vulnerable to its consequences.’ Again, in contrast, those less concerned about gossip ‘tend to be persons who are insulated from the social, political, and economic consequences of gossip either by their wealth … or by their accepted marginal social status’ (Merry 1997: 48).

* US data shows that those who are optimistic about the future are much more likely to trust fellow citizens than pessimists…

* social cohesion, especially as measured as trust in unknown fellow citizens, is primarily a cognitive phenomenon. Trust and distrust are judgments depending on citizens’ perceptions of their society…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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