Towards a sociology of institutional transparency: openness, deception, and the problem of public trust

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Abstract

Transparency has become the watchword of 21st-century liberal democracies. It refers to a project of opening up the state by providing online access to public sector data. This article puts forward a sociological critique of the transparency agenda and the purported relationship between institutional openness and public trust. Drawing upon Simmel’s work, the article argues that open government initiatives routinely prize visibility over intelligibility and ignore the communicative basis of trust. The result is a non-reciprocal form of openness that obscures more than it reveals. In making this point the article suggests that transparency embodies the ethos of a now-discredited mode of what Ezrahi calls ‘instrumental politics’, reliant on the idea that the state constitutes a ‘domain of plain public facts’. The article examines how alternative mechanisms for achieving government openness might better respond to the distinctive needs of citizens living in late modern societies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)416-430
Number of pages15
JournalSociology
Volume52
Issue number2
Early online date19 Jan 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018

Keywords

  • Deception
  • democracy
  • open government
  • public
  • transparency
  • trust

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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