Aberdeen researcher to examine trust within minority communties

A University of Aberdeen researcher has received funding to study the ways that trust is formed and lost in minority communities impacted by high levels of digital and social exclusion.

Dr Karen Salt has received the funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its commissioning process for projects exploring the theme of Empathy and Trust in Communicating ONline (EMoTICON).

While the study of trust and empathy in social situations is an established area of enquiry, relatively little research has addressed the ways that such issues occur in, and subsequently shape, online communities. The EMoTICON call addresses this area with a specific focus on digital communications, funding research which will help scientists understand how empathy and trust are developed, maintained, transformed and lost in social media interactions.

Dr Salt’s project, The Trust Map, emerged from the basic premise that social equity is underpinned by trust and empathy. In communities where trust is lacking, issues relating to social exclusion and power may arise.  Such issues may play a key role in the lives and life chances of those impacted by digital exclusion and lacking digital literacy. Although digital use (as a whole) has increased in the UK, millions of people live only tangentially (if at all) within the digital world. As community organizations, charities and agencies seek to increase community cohesion and decrease both digital and social exclusion, what remains unexplored is the role of power, empathy and the co-production of trust in these processes.

This novel and timely project analyses the relation between power and social and digital exclusion.  It does this by engaging in local and sustained community-centred activities that investigate the links between exclusion, empowerment and trust.  Through these interactions, community members will be able to construct and share their narratives of trust, enabling the project team to begin mapping the processes of trust and power offline and online. In addition to this work, community participants will help co-design and implement innovative digital tools that will help inform what the team hopes will be the visualisation of the formation and loss of trust. By investigating the interplay between trust, power, and empathic behaviour between communities and social (in)equality, the project will test the potential of online resources for mitigating social injustice.

She commented: “The UK is struggling with a number of issues about belonging and community cohesion.  Rather than conducting an empirical study about exclusion and power or creating greater access to resources, this project asks what may lie at the root of a number of significant social problems: trust in structures of power (such as government bodies) and in each other.  By working in communities and with community members, this project places the people who live with the reality of trust and power, every day, at the centre of its endeavours.  They are our best sources of knowledge about the impact of these processes.  We must do our best to learn from them.”

As part of the project, Dr Salt will also host a public event at this year’s ESRC Festival of Social Science, which will take place in November. The event will give members of the public the opportunity to provide the research team with information about who they trust, why and ideas they may have about how trust can be repaired, individually and collectively, within society.

Dr Salt will lead a team of researchers: Dr Emma Flynn from Durham University; Dr Jo Briggs from Northumbria University, and Dr John Vines from Newcastle University.

In addition to leading The Trust Map, Dr Salt is also working on a project led by Professor Shaun Lawson from the University of Lincoln which will look at cultures of fear through online ‘othering’ and how this leads to mistrust of groups or communitites.