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Trust as a Multilevel Phenomenon: Implications for Improved Integrative Science in Trust Research

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Examinations of trust have advanced steadily over the past several decades, yielding important insights within criminal justice, economics, environmental studies, management and industrial organization, psychology, political science, and sociology. Cross-disciplinary approaches to the study of trust, however, have been limited

Examinations of trust have advanced steadily over the past several decades, yielding important insights within criminal justice, economics, environmental studies, management and industrial organization, psychology, political science, and sociology. Cross-disciplinary approaches to the study of trust, however, have been limited by differences in defining and measuring trust and in methodological approaches. In this chapter, we take the position that: 1) cross-disciplinary studies can be improved by recognizing trust as a multilevel phenomenon, and 2) context impacts the nature of trusting relations. We present an organizing framework for conceptualizing trust between trustees and trustors at person, group, and institution levels. The differences between these levels have theoretical implications for the study of trust and that might be used to justify distinctions in definitions and methodological approaches across settings. We highlight where the levels overlap and describe how this overlap has created confusion in the trust literature to date. Part of the overlap – and confusion – is the role of interpersonal trust at each level. We delineate when and how interpersonal trust is theoretically relevant to conceptualizing and measuring trust at each level and suggest that other trust-related constructs, such as perceived legitimacy, competence, and integrity, may be more important than interpersonal trust at some levels and in some contexts. Translating findings from trust research in one discipline to another and collaborating across disciplines may be facilitated if researchers ensure that their levels of conceptualization and measurement are aligned, and that models developed for a particular context are relevant in other, distinct contexts.

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2016