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Mixed Method Research

This study examines the link between education and trust levels using both quantitative data from the 2021 General Social Survey (GSS) and qualitative interviews with 20 individuals. While quantitative results show a positive correlation between education and trust, qualitative findings reveal that both lower-educated and graduate degree holders exhibit high trust levels, suggesting other influencing factors. These insights underscore the intricate dynamics between education, trust, and societal trends, emphasizing the need for comprehensive research on the topic.

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Trust factor: Does a degree make a difference?

This project was undertaken as coursework within the Sociology department at Purdue. It employed a mixed-method approach, utilizing both GSS survey data and participant interviews.


Variables for the study

To address my primary research query, "How do education levels affect the trust levels?", I selected "Trust" as the dependent variable and "Highest Degree" as the independent variable from the 2021 GSS survey (as shown in the pictures on the right).

Sample: After eliminating the missing and error cases from the overall dataset (N=4032), the sample size that was eligible to be included in this study was 45.1% (= 1820).

Dependent Variable: The survey centered on trust levels, where participants rated their trust in others on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 1 indicated caution, while 5 signified high trust, based on the question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?"

Independent Variable: The variable "highest degree" was used to predict trust levels, categorizing respondents into five educational levels: "less than high school," "high school," "associate/junior college," and "graduate."

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Existing Literature

The current body of literature on the correlation between education and social trust has mainly adopted a positive stance, providing numerous theoretical justifications for the positive effect of education on levels of social trust. The guiding research question from this can be derived: How does the attainment of education affect the trust levels of individuals?



Survey Data: For this explanatory mixed methods approach, first, I used the GSS survey data as the quantitative data to assess the association of chosen variables using SPSS. Given my research interest in exploring the association between educational attainment and trust levels, both of which are categorical variables in the survey data, cross-tabulation was employed as the primary analytical approach, as shown in Table below, to identify patterns and trends in the data.

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Finding from above table: Education attainment shapes the feelings of trust. The relationship between the variables is positive i.e. higher the education level, higher is the trust levels. Now the purpose of the qualitative data would be to obtain the answer for the question: What are the reasons that bring changes in trust level when someone attains more education?

Qualitative Data: The study used a qualitative approach to examine the link between education and trust levels in U.S.-born adults. Data was gathered from 20 participants, aged 20-69, through interviews as part of the sociology course on Mixed methods. The interview included demographic questions, health, well-being, and social attitudes, with a focus on changes in trust levels over time. Participants were asked if their trust in others changed as they aged and were prompted to elaborate on their answers, especially regarding the impact of their education. Interviews, averaging 45 minutes, were conducted via Zoom, phone, or in-person. The interview questions included:

  • Has your trust in others changed over the years as you progressed in your life?

  • Can you tell me a little more about that?

  • Can you tell me little about the role that your formal education has played in your life, both in terms of practical things, such as the job you chose, and in how you think or feel.

In this phase of the study, respondents were queried on their level of trust, demographic data, and a limited number of elaboration questions. The data was collected by requesting participants to respond to the same question regarding trust level as was presented in the 2021 GSS survey. Subsequently, cross-tabulation was employed to examine the patterns of the trust and education level variables from the collected dataset (shown in the Table below) in comparison to the survey data. The transcribed interviews were subjected to an inductive analytical approach, and common themes were identified across interviews to gain a deeper understanding of the role of education in changes in trust levels.

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Finding from above table: 

  • High school graduates: 75% had higher trust levels, 25% had lower.

  • 1-3 years of college education: 60% had higher trust levels, 40% had lower.

  • Contrasts with survey data: Lower education generally associated with lower trust.

  • Higher education levels: Followed survey data trend, with higher education correlating to higher trust levels.



Education levels vs. Trust level change: To comprehend the discrepancy between my collected data and quantitative findings of the survey data, I investigated how participants in our interview responded to questions regarding changes in their trust level over time (shown in the Table below).

  • Noted: All high school graduates reported trust level changes.

  • Speculated: Change in trust levels might explain why more high school graduates had higher trust.

  • Observation: All respondents with graduate degrees also reported trust level changes.

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Trend in Trust Change Over Time: To gain an in-depth understanding of how trust levels had evolved over time for degree holders, the inductive coding of the interview data was used to discern the nature of the changes that had occurred.

  • 17 out of 20 participants acknowledged trust changes over time (shown in the table below).

  • 14 participants experienced trust decline; 1 reported an increase; 2 gave ambiguous responses.

  • Findings inconsistent with hypothesis: higher education doesn't always correlate with greater trust.

  • Notably, all high school graduates showed declining trust levels despite over half expressing higher trust.

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Role of Education in Trust Change: Based on the results of qualitative analysis through analytical coding, it was apparent that 11 out of the 17 participants who reported changes in their trust levels over time demonstrated a discernible impact of education on this transformation. Out of the 11 participants who showed sign of role of education (shown in table below):

  • For 8 individuals, trust decreased due to education

  • For 1 individual, trust increased due to education

  • For 2 individuals, trust changed due to education but direction of change was not clear

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Reason of this trust change related to education: ​​Participants with higher level of degree identified factors affecting trust:

  • Increased exposure to social diversity leading to increased social negativity. Participant 951 with graduate degree said:

    • ​‘I came from a very stable and helpful home, so I was very trusting growing up [...] so my education obviously opened up new doors for me to move up. [...] I’ve had my identity stolen ..I’ve had a family member steal money from me.’

  • Failed later-life developments as contrast to positive earlier life factors. Participant 202 with graduate college degree responded: 

    • ‘So I grew up in a decently small town. Um, I went to my undergrad in a pretty small town. And now being in a decently big city, um I have learned not to trust people as much.’

  • Changes in social circle where college degree holders expressed remorse over shifts in their social networks. Participants with graduate college degree noted:

    • ​‘I was kinda brought up to believe that people are helpful and good..then through years I’ve kind of narrowed it down don’t always need a ton of people who are there for you, but you need a few good ones that you know you can trust.’ [952]

    • ‘Your circle kind of changes [...] People have changed. World is getting colder [...] my education along with me being an educator - it’s definitely shaped and changed everything.’ [102]

Participants with lower levels of education identified following as affecting trust:

  • Diligent work affecting trust & negative social encounters: Participants who worked hard in life due to lack of degree, also felt the need to work hard to earn and give trust. Participant 701 with high-school degree responded:

    • ​‘...but I do believe that they do need to earn my trust a little bit before I can give them. I was never responsible growing up [...] the profession I’m in now requires more organization, more responsible level-headed person. Um, yeah, I’m definitely a different person than I was 5 years ago [influence of going to high school].’

  • Education's positive impact: Some education leads to better improvement in later stages in life as compared to earlier life factors, hence increasing trust. Participant 301, with 1-3 years of college became more trusting due to education, contrasting earlier life influenced by a strict religious upbringing.

  • Ambiguous trust changes: Some participants with 1-3 years of college had unclear trust changes. This could be attributed to evolving personality and moving beyond the mindset with age as one participant (802) responded.



Conclusions - Paradoxical

While the initial hypothesis drawn from the quantitative data of the GSS survey suggested a positive correlation between higher education levels and trust, the qualitative findings have refuted this claim, indicating that possessing a high level of education does not necessarily determine an individual's trust level.

  • High-level of education is not necessarily a determining factor for trust.

  • Early-life factors like being raised in affluent environment and personality traits, can play a role in the trust levels.

  • Personal life experiences of being in a disadvantaged position outweighs the role of education in shaping the feelings of trust.

  • Additional factors like age, marital status or settings like place of residence, belief in the system, institutions or government might help in deeper understanding of this relationship.

Overall, the implementation of a mixed-methods approach in this study underscores the significance of utilizing both quantitative and qualitative data to elucidate the complex and multifaceted nature of the relationship between education and trust. Further research is needed to explore this relationship fully and to identify additional factors that may impact trust levels.

Thank you

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