An Elusive Animal: Trust in an Uncertain Present

Series Introduction: “Theorizing Trust from Anthropological Perspectives

This piece introduces an eight-part series, “Theorizing Trust from Anthropological Perspectives.” Nikita Simpson and Elizabeth Storer reflect on theorizations of trust that they encountered while conducting empirical and policy-focused research during the COVID-19 pandemic. They point to the elusiveness of trust as a concept, and the forms of stigma, racism, and marginalization that such an elusive discourse might usher into research and policymaking. They introduce a series of contributions from anthropologists working in diverse empirical contexts that assess the utility of the concept of trust for understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, very few people knew much about the pangolin. In an essay published in the New Yorker in August of 2020, David Quammen notes that this spined animal, with its long face and toothless mouth, had only been seen by ecologists a handful of times in the forests of Central Africa. Its scaly feathers allow it to recede from view along dusty roads—like a chameleon, but somehow fiercer, or stranger. However elusive they may be, Quammen points out, these animals are susceptible to coronaviruses, one of which, perhaps, found its way to humans via a predatory trade through wet markets. Or did it?

There is something in the elusiveness of the pangolin that might act as a metaphor for the wider COVID-19 context, particularly for the way policymakers and scholars think about trust in these times of flux. During the pandemic, our ability to understand the present and to predict the future seemed to dissolve into a protracted crisis. Any certainty we had—about our ability to make decisions, to form and sustain relationships, to provide and receive care, to interpret information and advice, to access and depend on healthcare and other state services—was upended. While this uncertainty was shared, it was also experienced unequally. “We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat,” was the familiar refrain in news headlines. As a society, we were left grasping for some way of understanding, externalizing, anthropomorphizing this deeply uncertain present.

As epidemiologists focused on locating the source of viral outbreaks using surveillance data and models, policymakers, economists and social scientists alike have attempted to understand how people act in this uncertain present through the lens of trust. In our research projects spanning the duration of the pandemic, we realized that the term “trust” has come to resemble an elusive animal like the pangolin, emerging and receding in ethnographic interviews, in policy encounters, and interdisciplinary conferences. “The reason they are vaccine hesitant is that they don’t trust the government,” was a familiar phrase repeated by policy makers. “Societies that complied well to social distancing mandates were those with a high degree of trust,” economists and epidemiologists told us. But across these voices, there was no consensus on the definition of trust or whom it might be referring to. Trust appeared then disappeared in discourse. When we inquired about what our interlocutors meant by trust, its meaning or substance seemed to dissolve. Like the pangolin, the term trust seemed to take up a lot of space but could never been pinned down—present in its absence.

“Trust is one of our most precious social virtues, and its disappearance or misuse threatens not only our moral order but the very foundations of our polity.” Alberto Corsín Jiménez tells us. Indeed, “building trust” has been lauded by policymakers as central to encouraging uptake of testing and COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as encouraging health seeking in the UK healthcare system, especially in groups who experience contemporary manifestations of historical exclusion. As we embark on post-COVID recovery, often well-meaning policy makers are seeking innovative pathways to heal “broken relations of trust” to repair the losses, inequalities and sense of abandonment perpetuated by the highly unequal outcomes of the pandemic. As such, trust has become a currency for discussing both routes to and problematics within state and community-led COVID-19 recovery projects. But it also seems self-referential in character—if only we had more trust, we could build more trust, then we would have more trust. Visions espoused in policy documents seem to be tangled. Despite its continual repetition, trust remains illusory.   

But it is not only policy makers who have come to rely on this cyclical discourse of trust. Economists and epidemiologists have found that measuring and mapping trust is key to explaining differential outcomes in COVID-19 transmission, mortality, and vaccine uptake. Whilst there has been a rush to typologize variables and the robustness of institutional and personal trust models, quantitative social scientists use a flat definition of trust that does not account for inner mechanics and deliberative dimensions. In our interdisciplinary encounters, we have found that when questioned, scholars using trust as a variable to measure engagements with the state, or with science, often struggled to speak to the relational connotations of the concept. Quantitative approaches present blunt tools to articulate the complex forms of intimacy and suspicion through which we relate to one another during crisis. Too often, as Mary Leighton and Liz Roberts observe, they reify a “common sense” notion of trust that can be tracked in presence or absence, ignoring the ways in which it is enacted or not. Yet the simple fact that experts versed in abstracted measurement have begun to invoke interest in a deeply social concept presents opportunity for interdisciplinary exchange.

Looking into the anthropological canon on trust, which is rich and plentiful, we find some interesting insights to make sense of empirical observations. Anthropologists and philosophers like Sarah Pink and Sue Liisberg tell us that trust is a verb not a noun, made and remade. To build trust has been said to require a temporary blindness to difference, good faith, and imagination of something common, something shared. To show trust, Niklas Luhrman tells us, is to anticipate and behave as though the future were certain. Trust, according to Esther Oluffa Pedersen and Sue Liisberg, typically concerns near and probable futures that mostly meet our expectations. When such futures are deeply uncertain, trust becomes present in its absence.

But trust is not just a social phenomenon, it is also a mode of governance. Discourses of trust and mistrust might be used directly to shore up weak political structures, Mary Douglas might add—as sutured to metrics of risk and narratives of blame. Trust and mistrust then come to hide deeper narratives of blame and exclusion. “Moral self-consciousness is externalized in the idiom of danger and instrumentalized in the politics of uncertainty and blame,” she suggests. Mistrust becomes—in Matthew Carey’s words—“uniquely corrosive of human bonds—it is social acid.” Indeed, trust gives us a window not only into the empirical dilemmas of vaccine hesitancy or pandemic policy; but into wider questions of care, social cohesion, stigma, inequality, and freedom as they play out in the post-pandemic world. These perspectives point to the impossibility of a single definition or metric of trust, and they highlight the need for empirical analysis of its relationships, temporalities, and intimacies.

Such anthropological insights have guided our recent work conducted in Europe around COVID-19, inequality, and vaccine uptake. In ethnographic research with marginalized communities and government policy makers in the UK, Laura Bear, Nikita Simpson, and colleagues from LSE Anthropology found that trust was being used as a cyclical and slippery discourse to speak about and negotiate relations of care in the household and community. Trust while also being used by local officials and policy makers to blame, exclude and stigmatize communities who were considered non-compliant or vaccine hesitant. Bear, Simpson, and the team identified a disconnect between the work of trust in policymaking and the processual construction of trust within communities. Nodal figures like community leaders, advocates and activists engaged in a labour of trust to repair this gap. This relational and often invisible work involved tacit listening, acknowledgement, social support, and coalition-building. Conversely, mistrust was ever-present in parallel interactions with authorities. Across the UK, mistrust was a synonym for fracture and rupture in relations of care—where the fragile networks of austerity starved communities were threatened again by the new crisis of COVID. 

Later, an ethno-historical research project, “Ethnographies of Disengagement,” led by Elizabeth Storer alongside Iliana Sarafian, revealed troubling disparities between policy-rhetoric and dispossessing state policies. Based in Italy, the research worked with refugees, urban migrants, and Roma communities to understand their orientations towards COVID-19 vaccination. Whilst European policies aimed towards countering vaccine hesitancy increasingly espouse “trust building” in these communities, we found this rhetoric to be counter to state interventions, which fostered alienation and fear. Across state borders, in Roma villages and housing occupations (which formed the site of Sarafian’s engagements) vaccination campaigns used different forms of evidence to prove vaccine status and became tools of profound exclusion, serving to reinforce and deepen inequalities and discrimination. In reality, nationalistic undertones to vaccination meant that vaccine hesitancy has become another way to marginalize those at the state periphery; permitting the eviction of Roma settlers, and perpetuating the denial of refugee citizenship claims and employment reform. For refugees seeking to navigate safe passage across Italy, trust acquired an immediate dimension, where COVID-19 restrictions where often side-lined in the context of treacherous journeys. People and families had to rapidly interrogate structures of assistance for information relating to safe passage and shelter.

Through these diverse encounters, we came to understand that, whilst trust signalled an emotional engagement with the internal diversity and work of communities by external onlookers, the term increasingly created a depoliticized space of indifference in their exchanges—hiding relations of structural inequality, racism and marginality. By posturing to the diversity of communities, and the significance of investing in social and solidarity infrastructures, experts evaded an actual exploration of ongoing processes of dispossession.

As we began to question this emergent anti-politics of trust, we were simultaneously inspired by the role that anthropologists could play in confronting it, and in bringing the elusive animal of trust into better view. As such, we brought together a group of anthropologists who have worked on particular relations and enactments of trust in diverse empirical settings. They each contributed a short reflection on the substance of trust in their context, and the utility of the concept as they understood it, for investigating the COVID-19 context.

This Critical Care series offers eight contributions that seek to theorize trust from ethnographic perspectives. These pieces challenge the depoliticized discourse of trust and animate its complex micro and macropolitical dynamics. Thought the interventions are drawn from a diversity of empirical contexts, all call for an engagement with the internal entanglements of relational, pragmatic, embodied or sensual trust work. Our contributors acknowledge that trust does not imply a utopian vision but is rather a pragmatic concept. Since trust provides a means to speak of survival, endurance and reconstruction in the near future, the concept demands interrogation amidst the uncertainties of the present moment.

About the Authors

Nikita Simpson is a Postdoctoral Research Officer in the Department of Anthropology, LSE, where she is involved in the Periscope project, and leads the COVID and Care Research Group. Committed to the role of anthropology in policy and intervention design, Nikita works particularly on the anthropology of health and mental health. The Periscope project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme (101016233).

Elizabeth Storer is a Postdoctoral Research Officer in the Firoz Lalji Institute, LSE. Her research focuses on the social-political lives of global health interventions and is connected to the Periscope project. The “Ethnographies of Disengagement” project was funded by the British Academy COVID-19 Recovery: G7 Fund (COVG7210058).