“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Funded by the Irish Research Council for the period 2022-2026, the TRUST project is the first study of social trust to take imaginative literature as its primary archive and body of evidence. Engaging the literature of three nations – the US, Russia, and Ireland – in the period since 1990, this comparative project breaks new ground both in the burgeoning interdisciplinary scholarship on trust and in contemporary literary studies.
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Imaginative Literature and Social Trust, 1990-2025

The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union prompted social scientists and public intellectuals to ask how the bonds of social trust could be sustained by democratic nations in a newly global free market economy. The provisional answers provided by these experts in the 1990s were challenged by subsequent events, most notably the rapid proliferation of digital technology, the global financial crisis of 2008, and the political rupture signalled by the populist victories – Trump and Brexit – of 2016. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted urgent questions about social trust, with respect to government, the economy, science, media, and fellow citizens. All of these events have contributed to the widespread feeling that we are living through a crisis in social trust.

While it has long been recognized that trust involves the faculty of imagination, little attention has to date been paid by social scientists to the insights of imaginative literature. TRUST marshals the key strengths and methods of literary studies to reshape our understanding of social trust, with a particular focus on the new modes of distributed trust that underpin social life in the global digital age. On the grounds that social trust becomes most evident only in its absence, when everyday life is thrown into crisis, the project looks to contemporary literature produced in the period since 1990 to understand how social trust functions and how it fails, with a view to identifying better, more justified, and more sustainable forms of trust.

Research Aims and Timeline

Imaginative Literature and Social Trust, 1990-2025 (TRUST) takes a four-stranded research approach:

Strand 1 aims to construct a framework to read literature comparatively as a site for exploring and modelling trust. Combining and advancing the insights of some key methods in the social sciences and in literary studies, this strand employs the lens of trust to intervene in present debates about ways of reading, investigating the relationship among methods including literary hermeneutics, deconstruction, affect theory, and the “new” world literature.
Strand 2 evaluates the impact of digital media on social trust, taking literature as the key body of evidence, with a particular focus on the implications of the emerging paradigm of distributed trust. The strand additionally aims to enhance understanding of the relationship between digital media and imaginative literature across the three nations in comparative context.

Strand 3 examines the effects of the post-1990 global economy on social trust, taking imaginative literature as the key body of evidence, while considering uneven variations across the nations studied. The strand also tests the hypothesis that distributed trust is a new phenomenon, assessing how the distributed elements of economic exchange constitute and challenge modes of interpersonal and institutional trust.

Strand 4 enriches understanding of the relationship between literary institutions and social trust, with a focus on post-1990 developments in global literary culture – including prizes, publishing, and translation. The strand aims to renew the normative commitments of literary study, adapting the discipline to the challenges mounted by distributed forms of trust to older paradigms of social trust.

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