Anthropology of Trust and Mistrust

Black person standing inside the hospital archive at St. Mary's Hospital, Lacor-Gulu
Hospital Archive at St. Mary's Hospital, Lacor-Gulu   ©Grace Oroma-Lanek

The Covid-19 pandemic, but also past and recent Ebola epidemics in West Africa and in Eastern DRC, show that some of the most important and pressing aims of contemporary research and intervention in the field of global health—be it pandemic preparedness, the protection of vulnerable lives and infrastructure, but also progressive initiatives like OneHealth—dramatically depend on people’s trust and support. However, epidemics or pandemics also seem to unfold in a world, in which these health emergencies come to challenge our understanding of mistrust and trust in unexpected ways. 

The working group aims study to explore the formation of mistrust and trust in epidemics by studying the institutionalization of mistrust in the field of global health research and intervention. This approach emphasizes that the aim of eliminating mistrust does not equip us with the tools to understand the functioning of trust and mistrust. Our group will explore how mistrust is institutionalized and how the institutionalization of mistrust raises the possibilities for unsolicited and spontaneous articulations of trust.[1] This approach is inspired by democratic theories of trust and their relevance for improving public health responses to epidemics.[2] Democratic principles such as transparency, accountability, or participation — repeatedly called upon in public health recommendations to build trust — are emblematic examples for the institutionalization of mistrust. Instead of fighting mistrust, they support the articulation of doubt and suspicion, which paradoxically begets voluntary trust. More specifically, we are interested in how mistrust is institutionalized in global health research and interventions; how we can compare the institutionalization of across the globe? Furthermore, we will explore the de-institutionalization of mistrust in various countries to get a grasp at the politics of mistrust. We are interested explore how the lack of trust gives rise to alternatives modes of institutionalizing mistrust in everyday practices of care and survival. Finally, we are interested in novel designs to democratize research and intervention in the field of global health to understand how we might maintain trust in future health.

The research group will explore these questions by conducting ethnographic case studies to generate in-depth insights into the function of mistrust. Our ethnographic approach stresses that field research means to learn from our informants what trust means in a world in which epidemics seem to grow in scale and frequency. We will draw on these ethnographic case studies to use anthropological research methods and anthropological theories of trust for improving trust in global health research and intervention. We will conduct ethnographic research in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. We hereby draw on long-term scientific research collaborations in these countries while we aim to build new scientific research collaborations

[1] Sztompka, Piotr. 1999. Trust. Cambridge University Press.

[2] de Waal, Alex. 2020. “Can There Be A Democratic Public Health? From HIV/AIDS to Covid-19.” African Arguments;

Jasanoff, Sheila, and Stephen Hilgartner. 2021. “A Stress Test for Politics: Insights from the Comparative Covid Response Project (CompCoRe) 2020.” VerfBlog, 2021/5/11, 



Research Group Medical Anthropology

Portrait of a male person of color with glasses and dark hair pulled back, wearing a blue shirt.
AG Medical Anthropology

Dr. Sung-Joon (Song) Park

Telefon: +49 40 285380-711


  • The logo shows the letters D, F and G on a white background, next to the lettering "Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft".
  • Large and small black dots Volkswagen Stiftung