By Cristian Capotescu and Gil Eyal, Columbia University
[For the Spring 2023 SKAT Newsletter]
TrustWorkers Project exhibition June 2022 at Columbia University
Trust is one of the twenty-first century’s defining social and political issues. Trust, or lack thereof, shapes how citizens interact with media, information technology, and expert systems. Despite, or perhaps precisely because trust undergirds our ability as a society to share physical as well as virtual public space and because it is at the core of our most intimate and our most technologically mediated social relationships, it is perpetually fragile, and it is often perceived to be in crisis. This sense of a crisis of trust in institutions, government, science, media, and expert systems has gained particular salience in the public debate since the beginning of the pandemic. But as concerning and real as this crisis is, we do not believe it is an entirely new phenomenon. Nor is the crisis of trust an issue reducible to the onset of new social media platforms, the rise of populist movements in our body politic, or the spread of mis-and disinformation. Based on this premise, the Trust Collaboratory launched in the fall of 2022 at Columbia University as one of the first research centers in the nation chiefly dedicated to the study of the social dynamics of trust. Under its founding director, Gil Eyal (Sociology), the center started with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2020 as the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Trust and Mistrust of Science and Experts. Today, the center has grown beyond its initial footprint and is set to engage in the coming years with three programmatic arenas: Science and medicine; information technology and algorithms; and media and journalism.
Our focus on these three areas around which trust is built, shaped, and negotiated is deliberate. Liberal democracies in general, and the United States polity especially, rely on a system of “checks and balances” that shores up confidence in a well-functioning democracy. Alongside the constitutionally codified executive, legislative, and judicial branches, American democracy is also safeguarded by informal checks and balances, including the “fourth estate” (the media) and the “fifth branch” (science, especially regulatory science). Because media and science lack the constitutionally mandated powers of the other branches, they can only perform this crucial role as long as they enjoy trust and command the respect of the citizenry. However, as Emile Durkheim warned about this trust dilemma more than a century ago, “all the scientific demonstrations in the world would have no influence if a people had no faith in science.” Durkheim was among the first to recognize that trust shapes how citizens relate to scientific knowledge and public institutions. But trust is brittle, and the ease with which it can be lost is disproportionate to the efforts required to regain it. This situation creates significant challenges for maintaining trust in our democracy and the viability of its checks and balances. Building trust in the democratic project requires prolonged trust-building efforts untethered from the short-termism of election cycles and moral panics.
The Trust Collaboratory, therefore, puts at the center of its intellectual mission the following question: How are we to fortify trust when our profession and other academic fields provide few robust insights into what trust is and how it can be studied?“Trust barometers” common in the polling industry often flatten and obscure how trust operates in the intricate social webs, beliefs, and meanings of daily life. Trust remains stubbornly unquantifiable, and we believe that unpacking its multidimensionality in theory and practice requires concerted interdisciplinary efforts. Responding to these challenges, the Trust Collaboratory builds a multi-dimensional research architecture to translate scholarly insights and findings into public interventions. Housed within the INCITE Institute at Columbia University, the center drives new research and publicly-engaged activities to bring the rich analytical insights of the social sciences and humanities to bear on this foundational and often taken-for-granted infrastructure of modern life. At the heart of our work is the recognition that trust is not merely an object of study in the classical sense. We reckon that trust is also a lived scholarly practice because academia requires the trust of the communities it works for and with. For this reason, the Trust Collaboratory’s institutional mission incorporates community-academic collaboration principles based on a practice of co-production and consultation. They are at the forefront of our work as we draw on the expertise and contributions of scholars as well as external stakeholders, including journalists, community advocates, non-profit professionals, policy experts, and policymakers in NYC and beyond.
The Trust Collaboratory’s inaugural series of activities in the academic years 2022–24 encompasses the Covid-19 and Trust in Science Project (CATS). This transnational research initiative analyzes the experiences of Long Covid patients in the United States, Brazil, and China. Our ongoing TrustWorkers Project, in turn, explores how frontline workers in America’s public health sector—Community Health Workers (CHWs)—operate as trust mediators between local communities and medical institutions. We are also launching new projects in 2023 that study the job market challenges of the millions of employees suffering from Long Covid as well as the role of AI and algorithms in criminal justice and hospital medicine.
Interested in collaborating with us? Visit us at TrustCollaboratory.org for more information. Register for the launch event on April 20 (Thursday) here.