How to study trust? Reflections on definitions, conceptualizations, and analytical frameworks

22.8.2022 Eveliina Lyytinen

This text introduces a novel definition, conceptualization and analytical framework to study trust. Defining trust and the use of it is essential when working with the concept.

Definitions and conceptualizations of trust

The academic literature on trust presents a variety of definitions. Many of the definitions emphasize the willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations. Often the relational or emotional aspects of trust are distinguished from its rational, risk-focused elements.

Based on my previous study on Congolese refugees’ protection and journeys, I have defined trust as a positive feeling about or evaluation of the intentions or behaviour of another. Also, it is important to remember that trust invokes the potential for mistrust or its deeper form of distrust.

Besides the definition of trust, it is vital to unpack how it is conceptualized in each study. I have investigated ‘trust’ as a discursively created emotion and practice which is based on reason, routine and reflexivity. In the following, I will briefly discuss each of these conceptual elements.

All three elements of reason, routine and reflexivity are needed for the ‘leap of faith’ that creates trust (Möllering 2006). In regard to the element of reason, it is argued that trust is a mix of feelings and rational thinking, and that rationality can be applied to emotions, and vice versa.

The routine nature of trust means that it is performed without questioning its underlying assumptions and without giving justifications every time. Trust is a reflexive process that depends on ongoing interaction between actors. Trust also typically undergoes gradual growth and transformation in a process of reflexive familiarization.

Moreover, trust can be conceptualized discursively. Candlin and Crichton (2012: 3) argue that trust is best characterized as ‘discursively accomplished and dynamically and reflexively situated within diverse scales of social order’. Thus, it has been argued that trust may be best examined in in-depth qualitative studies. 

I have perceived trust also as a practice. Trust as a practice means understanding it as both a construct and a process, or a performance, for it is continually constructed, negotiated, and accomplished.

Conceptualizing trust as an emotion is linked to the findings that show how emotions influence trust. Theoretically, it has been stated that trust has an affective basis, and that leaps of faith that enable trust are to be understood as emotional commitments. Trust, perceived in this manner, is therefore an ‘emotion concept’.

An analytical framework to study trust

Based on my study in a refugee context, I have built an analytical framework including four crucial elements. 

First, regarding the scales and orientations, trust operates dynamically at different ‘scales’ of social order, and therefore trust research needs to pay attention to the various scales of investigation (i.e. macro/meso/micro). Subsequently, the terms ‘trustor’ and ‘trustee’ can refer to different things, such as institutions or people. Thus, trust can be divided between social trust (trust between people) and institutional trust (people’s trust in institutions).

Second, contexts of trust are crucial to attend to. By this, I mean the cultural and societal context in a given location where trust is built or lost. Again, because trust is situated and embedded in nature, the context of trust has to be considered from multiple directions. The contexts or spaces of trust can be examined from the human body to the nation. 

Third, individual characteristics and intersectionality are essential to consider particularly in qualitative studies of social trust. The characteristics of the trustor and trustee can mean different things. For instance, beliefs, emotions, socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, race, class, and age, among other factors, may have an impact on the level and nature of trust.

Fourth, time and temporality are important when examining issues of trust building and loss, and the nature of trust. This is because trust is always fragile, momentary, situated, and fluid. As time passes, the nature of trust may change. Additionally, trust is not something that either exists or not; rather, it develops over sustained trust periods.

To conclude, based on my previous studies with refugees and trust, I suggest that it is important to critically reflect on how trust is defined, conceptualized and analyzed in each study. I argue that the conceptual elements of trust discussed here can be adapted and modified for different kinds of research.

This blog post is based on the author’s article published in the Journal of Refugee Studies in 2017.

References cited

CANDLIN, C.N. and CRICHTON, J. (2012) ‘From Ontology to Methodology: Exploring the Discursive Landscape of Trust’. In Candlin, C. and Crichton, J. (eds) Discourses of Trust. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1–18.

JENSEN, T. G. (2016) Neither Trust Nor Distrust: Social relations in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in Copenhagen. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 6 (1): 25–32  (http://doi.org/10.1515/njmr-2016-0009

LYYTINEN, E. (2017) Refugees ‘Journeys of Trust: Creating an Analytical Framework to Examine Refugees Exilic Journeys with a Focus on Trust. Journal of Refugee Studies, 30 (4): 489–501 (https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/few035)

MÖLLERING, G. (2006) Trust: Reason, Routine, Reflexivity. Oxford: Elsevier


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