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Center for Cultural Studies on Science and Technology in ChinaWU Xiujie: To trust or not to trust strangers? Social support among strangers reflected in the folk narratives of North China

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WU Xiujie, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

To trust or not to trust strangers? Social support among strangers reflected in the folk narratives of North China



The concept of ‘stranger’ is generally an unavoidable category in the construction and articulation of social relationships. As such, social interactions among strangers are certainly a key to our understanding the basis of trust in a certain society. When we attempt to investigate the complex concept of ‘social support among strangers’, however, some of the limits of the social-anthropological method of ‘participant observation’ become apparent. This paper attempts, experimentally, to explain how the basic principles of trusting strangers are reflected in some folk narratives and proverbs in North China. Attitudes toward strangers under different circumstances (travelling on roads or at home, as the recipient or provider of social support) reveal paradoxical intuitions for coping with the social uncertainty caused by the encounter with strangers. Based on this analysis, I argue that providing social support to strangers in the humanitarian sense tends to be regarded by the provider as a ‘free gift’, without the anticipation of reciprocity. In developing and sustaining trustful relationships with strangers, however, individuals must be assured of the existence of both general trust and ‘commitment insurance’. In this sense, I suggest that it is possible to investigate the institutional mechanisms of establishing trust by analysing its cultural aspects, something that will also allow us to examine the phenomenon of ‘trust deficiency’ in contemporary Chinese society.

Keywords: strangeness, social support, trust, reciprocity, Chinese folk narratives



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