From Iceland — Crisis of Trust?

Crisis of Trust?

Published December 3, 2010

Crisis of Trust?

As a stranger, you can understand some things because you don’t understand everything. That was a leitmotif of my stay in Iceland and a  personal justification for conducting my research there. The aim of my three month long postdoctoral research project at the University of Iceland was to look at how social bonds in Iceland have changed because of the economic crisis. In a way I was prepared for this experience, being sort of an expert on the subject – social capital. On the other hand, I was an outsider, visiting Iceland for the first time  and speaking hardly any Icelandic. So I repeated like a mantra: “as a  stranger you can…” any time I was faced with a situation where I had  no idea what was going on.. 
Among the results of the project there are some findings I would like to share  with you Grapevine readers. The data  shows that there has been a recent  change in the values and attitudes of  people in Iceland. I made comparisons  between the results of my own survey conducted in the spring of 2010 and data from before the crisis—the years  2004/5 (European Social Survey), 1999 and 1984 (both World Values Survey).  From the ESS and WVS data sets I selected subsamples of students as my survey had been based on a sample of students. 
Trust, lack thereof
Before the economic crisis, Iceland was one of the world’s most trusting societies. Only Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark were slightly ahead. Today, this is no longer the case. Levels of social trust have dropped significantly in Iceland, increasing the distance between Iceland and Scandinavia. However, Icelanders still display relatively high levels of trust, much higher in fact than in continental Europe,  and this is the outcome I want to  stress.
What is notable in Iceland is that it is trust in parliament, the legal system,  politicians and political parties that has dropped significantly. Only trust in the police remains as high as it was before the crisis. This makes for a disturbing picture, although some people might say that it is obvious that trust toward institutions will decline during an economic crisis. But when the trust between ordinary people drops too, this means that society is undergoing a bigger change.
Independent people?
 An economic crisis can go beyond economics. When Finland went through economic problems in the 1990s, political scientists claimed that there was nothing to worry about, as despite the decrease in trust toward institutions, trust between people remained constant. Social trust—the assumption that other people are willing to cooperate and have benevolent intent towards one another—is something that keeps the core of a society together. Finland in the 1990s bounced back and conquered  the world, or at least cornered the market in mobile phones with its innovative Nokia products. This is a situation which would not have been possible without social trust, since people need to know that they will be listen to and respected when they come up with new ideas: that is how an innovative economy works. Icelanders are renowned for being independent people, and not only because of the internationally famous book by Halldór Laxness. It is rather the other way around. The book became famous because of the truth of the values mocked within it. My research may be  small in scale but it suggests that during the last 26 years—what we generally  refer to as one generation—social embeddedness has become more and more important for Icelanders. Let me explain what I mean. Social embeddedness has many aspects; one of them is the relationship between adult children and their parents. If adult children look up to their parents for help and support,  it means that they give up some of their independence for the price of this social embeddedness. 
The countries wherein adult children are the most independent from  their parents are Norway, The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. At the other end of this continuum are Poland, India and South Korea. The situation in Iceland has changed gradually over the last 26 years. Nowadays young Icelanders expect parental help to a greater  extent compared to their parents when  they were young. This is probably due  to the unstable economic situation and the difficulty of finding a first job with proper wages. 
These findings go along with the  idea of Icelanders as brave, well-integrated and independent people at  the same time, although this is only scratching the surface of a very deep subject. Ancient philosophers teach us that we can easily be misguided by our  senses while modern sociologists know that we can easily be misled by statistics. There are many ways of depicting reality. And the one that appeals to us tends to be the one that appeals to our hearts. 

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