A new study suggests increases in population size may lead to a breakdown in social trust.
The research, by Jordan Smith, Ph.D., of North Carolina State University, discovered that as local populations grow, local elected officials and national news media become less trusted — compared with friends and family, local churches and civic institutions.
Smith believes this “trust deficit” has implications for long-term environmental and community planning. The study is published online in Springer’s journal Human Ecology.
Smith examined three southern Appalachian mining communities during a period of change, amid growing controversy over the expansion of amenity-based industries (such as tourism and recreation areas), as well as its impact on both the environment and local communities.
The expansion of these industries inevitably leads to rapid increases in population.
Smith was particularly interested in the levels of social trust within these communities where conflict is likely to exist between long-term residents who tend to be more concerned about “their” community, and incoming residents who are more transitory and less vested in community affairs.
All three communities moved from a natural resource-based economy to a service economy. The economic shift was demonstrated by a steady decline in natural resource-related jobs and a dramatic increase in the types of employment associated with amenity-based communities.
Smith discovered the commensurate steep rise in population changed how residents interact and communicate with one another.
By and large, residents in each of the three communities tended to trust the information they received from immediate family members, churches, close friends, and local newspapers more than information coming from other sources.
The least trusted information comes from elected officials, national television news, online news sources and co-workers.
The analyses also suggest that population density itself is not related to the structure of information networks or the level of trust or distrust within them.
Smith concludes: “As resource-dependent communities continue to grow, residents will increasingly look for familiar faces when trying to get information. This in effect reaffirms already held attitudes and beliefs. Conflicts associated with amenity transition are more likely to arise because of conflicting values and ideologies, rather than social structural changes in the community.
“The road ahead for environmental and community planners is likely to be difficult as they attempt to accommodate greater and greater numbers of amenity migrants.”