Towards a unified theory of Trust

In this lecture series we aim to rework the fragmented scholarly accounts of trust into a general understanding that may strengthen institutions on the African continent. To date, the different geopolitical elements of trust have been treated as separate and autonomous domains. Examples of these discrete fields might include the potent conventions of legal equity that are applied to derivative financial instruments out of the City of London, the principles and practices of waqf in Islamic law, the professionalization that underpins trust in numbers, and the institutions and conventions of tribal trusts that control how many ordinary people access land on the African continent. Our hypothesis is that when they are examined together, as interdependent infrastructures, we will approach a new account that focuses on fiduciaries – delegated, regulated authorities (like the notaries in European civil law)  – in the development and maintenance of trust.

We are very aware of the scope and complexity of the scholarship on trust, and we specifically request that you let us know if there is an important body of work that seems missing that we should consider in making these arguments.

The lectures will be hosted in hybrid format in the WISER Seminar room and on Zoom.  Please register on Zoom in advance of the meetings in order to join us. 

1. 14:00 - 15:00 Thursday, Feb 29 | What is Trust? | Keith Breckenridge

In this panel discussion we set out the main moments, preoccupations and curiosities of the existing scholarship on trust : the first part of this field extends from Simmel’s writing in the early 20th century, through Niklas Luhmann’s writings in German in the 1970s on social systems and to Herbert Frankel’s work on money a few years later. In general scholars seem to have had little interest in trust during the political and economic tumult of the 1960s and 1970s; curiously, the real explosion of interest dates from the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s as Fukuyama and many others began to identify a broad decline in the institutions of socialized trust. The new experimental, game theoretical interest in transactions (and their costs) was one major source of this interest. Less well understood was the economic historians’ and sociologists’ discovery of trust in the “economy of obligation” that grew with pervasive indebtedness in early modern England. The crisis of trust, then, was already a well-developed, if lopsided, area of research in the social sciences by the time that the global financial crisis and the rise of the outrage economy on social media began to trigger universal concern about the dismantling of institutional authority in democratic societies. [works to discuss: Carruthers, Fukuyama, Gambetta, Giddens, Hardin]


2.  14:00 Wednesday, March 27 |  Trust in Africanist scholarship | Keith Breckenridge and Laura Phillips

Africanists have written insightfully on the fragile institutions of trust, and the pervasiveness of mistrust, in the societies of this continent. This work is typically ethnographic in its method, and it has produced explanations of the crisis of trust that differ markedly from the most influential accounts of northern scholarship. Some of the most recent work follows the Comaroffs in observing that the collapse of trust in the wealthiest societies signals a new tribalisation of the old imperial societies.  [works to discuss : Carey, Ekeh, Geschiere, Hart, Monga, Shipton, Zeleza]

3.  14:00 Thursday, April 25 | Trust in Islam | Keith Breckenridge and Ayesha Omar

Historians of the medieval law of trust have pointed to its origins in the religious obligations of waqf that the English crusaders brought home from Jerusalem in the 13th century. African lawyers have also pointed to the influence of Islam in the development of customary ideas about trusteeship in the inheritance of property. Specific instruments of trust – typically beyond the control of the state – have been important to the development of islamic institutions over a millennium, and to the success of the trading diasporas on the African continent.  [works to discuss: Alpers, Bishara, Chirikure, Hofmeyr, Makdisi, Mcdow, Soares]

4.  14:00 Thursday, May 30 |  Equity, Finance and the Law of Trusts | Jonathan Klaaren and Keith Breckenridge

Social scientists’ interest in trust has been oddly handicapped by a failure to take the anglophone tradition of equity (the law of trusts and fiduciaries) seriously.  This neglect is probably a consequence of the absence of the law of trusts in civil law societies (where regulated, but venal, public notaries take on much of the same work). This eschewal of research into trust law has coincided with an explosive resurrection in the fiduciary regulation of financial derivatives, private jurisdictions and the offshoring of tax obligations. The absence of scholarship on equity, partly, reflects its expulsion from South African law by the insistence on a Roman-Dutch tradition of indivisible (and individualized) property.  [works to discuss: Chanock, Hudson, Lobban, Lui, Hayton, Palmer]

5.  14:00 Thursday, June 27 | Politics of Tribal Trusts | Laura Phillips and Keith Breckenridge

From the 1890s British missionaries and administrators began to argue that chiefs held all African land in trust, and that it could not be alienated or mortgaged.  By the end of the British military occupation of the Transvaal in 1907, this model – with the colonial government assuming the role of the trustee – had become the dominant form of property for Africans in South Africa, empowering magistrates and then chiefs who controlled land allocation and use.  The model traveled widely across the continent.  One powerful consequence of this idea was the collapse, after the demise of the Glen Grey scheme, of land survey and registration in the reserved territories across the continent.  Over time, and especially over the last generation, aristocrats and governments strengthened their claims to fiduciary control of the land without specifying beneficiaries, their rights or any rules of performance and regulation.  [works to discuss: Ally, Braun, Capps, Chanock, Delius, Ekeh, Ekow Daniels, Lugard, Meek, Smuts]

6.  14:00 Thursday, Thursday, August 1 | Critics of Trust | Laura Phillips

Some of the most insightful accounts of trust have come from those who deny its general usefulness.  Carey, in particular, has pointed to the resourcefulness of mistrust in generating the flexibility and tolerance that resource-scarce societies require to endure – in this argument, general expectations of mistrust can generate the resilience that is often attributed to widespread trust.  Similarly, Weichselbraun et al have recently focused on the use of political arguments about building trust to foster invasive and burdensome technologies of audit, control and pacification.   [works to discuss: Gambetta, Carey, Geschiere, Mühlfried, Jiménez, Weichselbraun et al]

7.  14:00 Thursday, August 29 | Trust in computing | Keith Breckenridge and Faeeza Ballim

Firms, engineers and governments routinely, and apparently universally, suggest that computers, networks and input devices can be used to build trust – perhaps because these instruments can generate and exploit the statistical evidence and arguments that Porter has tracked as key to the ascendancy of numerical regulation.  Yet, interestingly, as Donald Mackenzie has shown, computer scientists and mathematicians have a long history of bitter conflict over the reliability of mechanised computational reasoning.  This principle – that computers, their input devices, their networks and users should never be trusted – is close to the core argument of modern computer security (as Anderson has repeatedly demonstrated). Far from solving the problems of mistrust in computing and statistical evidence, the recent ascendancy of human-like deep-learning models intensifies these disputes within computer science, and in society.  Yet the same network arrangement (as Schaffer and Shapin, Latour and others have shown) has supported a particular kind of experimental science, the automation and centralisation of decision-making and the expansion of scales that cannot be wished away. [works to discuss: Anderson, Domingos, Latour, Mackenzie, Marwhala, Schaffer, Shapin]

8.  Thursday, 26 September, 14:00  | Money as Trust | Laura Phillips and Keith Breckenridge

Trust in expert economists, and in government, lay at the heart of Keynes’ insistence that aggregate demand (over the entire national economy) could be managed to prevent cyclical recessions and unemployment.  For the neoliberal economists who followed Simmel, especially the South African Herbert Frankel, money was an instrument of trust precisely because it involved bargains formed without the state.  The liberals’ inflexible gold standard, especially for Polanyi, was the mainspring of the political crisis that led to Fascism.  Yet for Africans and Indians (and many others in the former colonial world) gold – Keynes’ “barbarous relic” – has long been a singular instrument for preserving the value of labour and the wealth of families.  [works to discuss: Ally, Frankel, Keynes, Polanyi, Simmel, Tooze ]

Future problems:

  • Trust in Infrastructure |  Keith Breckenridge

  • Trust in African economic history | Laura Phillips

  • Classical theories of trust | Keith Breckenridge

  • Rise and Fall of Professional Authority


Lecture 1 :  What is Trust?

Banner, Stuart. Anglo-American Securities Regulation: Cultural and Political Roots, 1690-1860. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Brooks, Charles Wilson. Pettyfoggers and Vipers of the Commonwealth: The ’lower Branch’of the Legal Profession in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Capps, Gavin James. “Tribal-Landed Property: The Political Economy of the BaFokeng Chieftancy, South Africa, 1837-1994.” London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London), 2010.
Carruthers, Bruce G. City of Capital: Politics and Markets in the English Financial Revolution, 1996.
Carruthers, Bruce G. “Financialization and the Institutional Foundations of the New Capitalism.” Socio-Economic Review 13, no. 2 (April 1, 2015): 379–98.
———. The Economy of Promises: Trust, Power, and Credit in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.
Carruthers, Bruce G., and Laura Ariovich. “The Sociology of Property Rights.” Annual Review of Sociology 30, no. 1 (August 1, 2004): 23–46.
Daniels, W. C. Ekow. “Some Principles of the Law of Trusts in West Africa.” Journal of African Law 6, no. 3 (1962): 164–78.
Dunn, John, and Diego Gambetta. “Trust and Political Agency.” Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, 2000, 73–93.
Flew, Terry. “The Global Trust Deficit Disorder: A Communications Perspective on Trust in the Time of Global Pandemics.” Journal of Communication 71, no. 2 (2021): 163–86.
Frankel, S. Herbert. Two Philosophies Of Money. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.
Fukuyama, Francis. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Gambetta, Diego, ed. Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations. New York, NY, USA: B. Blackwell, 1988.
Geschiere, Peter. Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust: Africa in Comparison. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990.
Hoexter, Miriam. “Waqf Studies in the Twentieth Century: The State of the Art.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41, no. 4 (1998): 474–95.
Hudson, Alastair. Understanding Equity & Trusts. Seventh edition. London New York: Routledge, 2022.
Langbein, John H. “The Secret Life of the Trust: The Trust as an Instrument of Commerce Essay.” Yale Law Journal 107, no. 1 (1998 1997): 165–90.
Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Edited by Michael King and Christian Morgner. Translated by Howard Davies, John Raffan, and Kathryn Rooney. Newark: Polity Press, 2017.
Makdisi, George. Rise of Colleges. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.
Muldrew, Craig. The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England. Early Modern History. New York: St. Martin’s press, 1998.
Uslaner, Eric M. “The Moral Foundations of Trust,” n.d.
Waddams, Stephen. “Equity in English Contract Law: The Impact of the Judicature Acts (1873–75).” The Journal of Legal History 33, no. 2 (August 1, 2012): 185–208.
Weichselbraun, Anna, Shaila Seshia Galvin, and Ramah McKay. “Introduction: Technologies and Infrastructures of Trust.” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 41, no. 2 (September 1, 2023): 1–14.
WISER Research Theme: