What is volunteering?

My supervisor has suggested that I leave this question alone for a little while, so of course I can’t…  (For those of you who can’t countenance studying something before defining it, please bear in mind that I pretty much have to accept the definition used in my data.)  In my head, I’m using a typology of volunteering based on Rochester et al, Stebbins, and Wilson, but also heavily influenced by Musick and Wilson.

I’m shoe-horning volunteering into four broad categories: service, activism, serious leisure and personal development.  (I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that ‘volunteering as therapy’ is just a part of personal development.)  There is, of course, overlap.  Musick and Wilson use the example of AIDS activists in 1980s California.  If you gave unpaid help to nurse gay men with AIDS back in the infancy of the disease you were performing a service, sure, but also making a political statement about equality.  If you volunteer to take visitors on tours of a National Trust property, you may be performing a cultural service, but also indulging your own leisure preferences.  Sorting out and describing these categories (and the overlaps) is one of my key aims.

I’m starting with what’s usually called ‘formal volunteering’ – that is, unpaid help or work provided through groups, organisations, clubs etc.  By contrast, informal volunteering is unpaid help or work provided by an individual, as an individual, to an individual or individuals, at least one of whom is not a friend or relative.  Athough formal volunteering is my main focus, I’ll be looking at whether formal and informal volunteering are related (data permitting).  I’ll also be looking at whether volunteering and caring (unpaid help or work provided by an individual, as an individual, to a friend or relative) are related.

So, to summarize, I have formal volunteering, informal volunteering and caring, with formal volunteering divided into service, activism, personal development and serious leisure.  There are plenty of other ways of splitting it up, of course.  I could look at different domains – sport, heritage, youth service, personal care etc.  I could look at time spent on volunteering, or on the numbers of organisations a volunteer helps, or at the number of service-user contacts s/he makes.  Any of these could be useful in answering my question: is volunteering a political activity?  

Just don’t make me define political activity right now…  My working definition is that political activity is undertaken with the desire to change the world (whereas service activity, by contrast, aims to serve the world as it is).  I’m pretty sure that it needs more thought, though – and possibly a footnote about collectivity, or some such.

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One Response to What is volunteering?

  1. Vicki Bolton says:

    I have just come across an IVR working paper which I think gives quite a good treatment of this discussion: http://www.eyv2011.eu/press-kit/item/download/549

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