Risk and Trust

A selection of Niklas Luhmann’s articles published in English and loosely arranged into categories. Where no abstract is provided the first paragraph is given instead.


Modern Society Shocked by its Risks
Luhmann, N. Social Sciences Research Centre Occasional Paper 17 (1996), Dept. of Sociology, University of Hong Kong
Free: available here

The term ‘risks’ is a neologism that came into use with the transition from traditional to modern society. In the Middle Ages the term risicum was used in highly specific contexts, above all sea trade and its ensuing legal problems in cases of losses or damages. We find in the vernacular languages and the printing press of the 16th century the concepts rischio and riezgo. The context became enlarged to include also life and career at princely courts and other settings where Fortuna plays its fatal role. The English ‘risk’ seems to be a term imported from Continental Europe and appeared only since the 17th century. During these times people thought in terms of good or bad fortune rather than of risk. An increasing risk awareness apparently became neutralised by attributing possible future successes and damages to an external source, the goddess Fortuna. This explained, albeit in a metaphorical way, the unpredictability of events and the unforeseeable choice between good and bad outcomes. External attribution protected the decision-maker from responsibility in the field of future contingencies. Prudence was viewed as the capacity of humans (as distinct from animals) to choose between reasonable expectations, contingent on the actions of other people. So prudence, not risk, was the term for the capability to cope with temporal and social contingencies.


Familiarity, Confidence, Trust: Problems and Alternatives
Luhmann, N. in Gambetta, Diego (ed.) Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations,ch. 6, pp. 94-107.
Free: available here

Trust has never been a topic of mainstream sociology. Neither classical authors nor modern sociologists use the term in a theoretical context. For this reason the elaboration of theoretical frameworks, one of the main sources of conceptual clarification, has been relatively neglected. Furthermore, empirical research – for example, research about trust and distrust in politics – has relied on rather general and unspecified ideas, confusing problems of trust with positive or negative attitudes toward political leadership or political institutions, with alienation (itself a multidimensional concept), with hopes and worries, or with confidence. In their monograph on patrons, clients, and friends, Shmuel Eisenstadt and Luis Roniger (1984) use the concept of trust as roughly equivalent to solidarity, meaning, and participation. This makes it possible to show that unconditional trust is generated in families and small-scale societies and cannot be automatically transferred to complex societies based on the division of labour. Trust, then, needs for its reconstruction special social institutions; friendship networks and patron-client relations are examples for this adaptation. But this is merely to reiterate well-known statements about the division of labour and the need to reconstruct solidarity, about Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft. It does not give any new insight into the particularities of trusting relations. To gain such insights we need further conceptual clarification.