(1983) the Measurement and Meaning of Trust in Government

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  Society for Political ethodology The Measurement and Meaning of Trust in GovernmentAuthor(s): Stanley FeldmanSource: Political Methodology, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1983), pp. 341-354Published by: Oxford University Press  on behalf of the Society for Political Methodology Stable URL: . Accessed: 21/06/2014 17:13 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  .  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact  . Oxford University Press  and Society for Political Methodology  are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize,preserve and extend access to Political Methodology. This content downloaded from on Sat, 21 Jun 2014 17:13:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  The Measurement and Meaning of Trust in Government Stanley Feldman Perhaps the most well documented trend In political attitudes over the past 20 years has been the sharp increase in political cynicism. Research in the 1950s and early 1960s found Americans loyal and highly trusting of political authorities (Almond and Verba, 1963; Lane, 1965). Since the mid-1960s, a large number of studies using a number of different indicators have shown substantial declines in political trust, confidence, and public evaluations of both political and nonpolitical Institutions and leaders (Miller, 1974a; Hill and Luttbeg, 1980; Ladd, 1976-77; House and Mason, 1975; Wright, 1976). Despite the large body of evi dence on the decline of political trust, major questions still remain about the meaning, causes, and consequences of the observed trends. Although the significance of these trends in political attitudes remains unclear, a major issue that needs to be addressed is the meaning of responses to the items used to document these trends. A good example of the problems surrounding the meaning of such social and political indicators is the popular trust in-government scale that has been included in a long series of SRC/CPS National Election surveys. These items have become popular measures of political trust/cynicism and have been Included In other large-scale surveys, but consid erable conflict has developed over their precise meaning. The interpretation issue revolves around the problem of diffuse support (Easton, 1975): general feelings of alle giance and support for the political regime. Miller (1974a, 1974b) made the case most strongly for interpreting the AUTHOR'S NOTE: The data used in this analysis were collected by the Center for Political Studies and made available by the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, neither of which bears any responsibility for the results or interpretations reported here. This content downloaded from on Sat, 21 Jun 2014 17:13:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  342 Political Methodology political trust items as measures of diffuse support, arguing that mistrust is in large part a consequence of fundamental social and political conflict and has potentially significant consequences for the political system. Miller, Goldenberg, and Erbring (1979:79) have more recently argued that cynicism reflects general dissatisfaction with government perfor mance and may be considered a 'leading* Indicator of dif fuse support. An alternative interpretation is that the trust-in government items, because of their reference to the govern ment in Washington and the people in Washington, tend to reflect attitudes toward the incumbent authorities rather than toward the political system more generally. Citrin (1974) argued for the latter interpretation, in part because he found that expressions of cynicism were often accompanied by feelings of pride in the political system. Muller and Jukam's (1977) data from a German survey show a clear dis tinction between attitudes toward political incumbents and toward the political system. They argue that political trust is more related to incumbent affect than to system support. Most recently, Muller, Jukam, and Seligson (1982) have shown that the political trust measure does not relate to anti-system behavior in the way that a measure of diffuse political support should. The key issue in this debate is the seemingly ambiguous meaning of government in the trust items: do people interpret this to mean the specific leaders in power at the time or the more established governmental institutions from which long-term legitimacy derives (Hill, 1981)? One data set may offer some answers to this question. In the 1978 National Election study, four new questions were included with the five trust-in-government questions. Using the same wording as the do-what-is-right and few big interests items of the trust-in-government scale, two items were changed to refer to President Carter and the Carter administration, while two others specify the U.S. Congress. (See the appendix for the wording of these questions.) The more specific referents of these questions make it possible to examine the relationship between the general trust items and trust in both the President and Congress, and thus to gain a better understanding of the meaning of trust in gov ernment. Two problems stand in the way of a simple Interpretation of the relationships among the three sets of trust items, however. First, as Abramson and Finifter (1981) recognized in their analysis of these data, the use of identical ques tion wording across the three referents introduces the possibility of contamination because of common methods This content downloaded from on Sat, 21 Jun 2014 17:13:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Stanley Feldman 343 variance. Thus, a correlation between, say, trust in govern ment and trust in Congress could reflect the covariance gen erated by people reacting to the common question wording. Abramson and Finifter's (1981) analysis of these items showed that common method variance is a potential problem, at least for the few-big-interests questions. Even with this source of bias recognized, however, Abramson and Finifter found substantial relationships between the srcinal trust measure and the new measures of trust in Carter and Congress. Despite their awareness of the question wording problem and their careful attempts to deal with it, their methods (examining the effects of dropping items from scales while correcting for changes in scale reliability) fall short in two respects: they are able to detect only quite large methods effects and they cannot accurately estimate either the magnitude of those effects or the true correlations among the trust measures with methods effects removed. In addition, any analysis that attempts to estimate unbiased parameters among attitudinal constructs must take into account both systematic and random error components in the measured variables (Blalock, 1968). The second problem that must be dealt with before these new trust items can be used to assess the meaning of the trust-in-government scale is the causal nature of the observed relationships. Plausible theoretical arguments can be used to defend three different interpretations of a correlation between the general trust scale and trust in Carter or Congress. First, as Miller (1979) argues, there may be a spillover effect in which general distrust of political authorities results in increasing distrust of the specific institutions of the government or the occupants of those institutions. Alternatively, the direction of causal influence could be reversed, with generalized distrust of political authorities being a consequence of distrust of the President and Congress: distrust of the major political institutions and incumbents builds up and leads to a more diffuse sense of distrust of politics and the political system. Another, less substantive, interpretation of this causal flow is that, when asked about trust in government or the people in Washington, people respond on the basis of the most salient features of the national government: the President and Congress. Finally, observed correlations among the several trust measures could simply be spurious. Feelings that the government has not solved important prob lems or is generally unresponsive to people's opinions may lead to distrust of various aspects of the government simul taneously. Thus, correlations among the three measures of political trust do not necessarily demonstrate direct causal relationships among them. This content downloaded from on Sat, 21 Jun 2014 17:13:37 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


Jul 23, 2017
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