Can we still distinguish voluntary work from other forms of work?

One of the issues facing many researchers and policy-makers is how to differentiate between various kinds of volunteering in order to understand different kinds of experiences. Consequently a typology of volunteering seems like it would be a very helpful tool for the sector.  This week we see such a typology – based on differences in motivations and activities – published in the journal ‘Sociology’.

From interviews with 30 volunteers, Mihaela Kelemen, Anita Mangan and Susan Moffat distinguished four categories of types of volunteering

  • Altruistic: Perhaps most readily associated with voluntary work, volunteering as activities that help the local community
  • Instrumental: Possibly on the rise in the current economic context, volunteering as activities that enable individuals to improve their CVS
  • Militant: also possibly on the increase as social services face increasing cuts, volunteering as activitism
  • Voluntolds: encompassing corporate volunteering schemes and political policies that ‘encourage’ benefit claimants into volunteering

However what is particularly interesting about this typology is that the authors argue the boundaries between categories are very permeable.  For example, while some volunteers seemed to be ‘voluntolds’, this also involved the altruism of ‘giving something back to the community’.   The recognition that we can construct typologies but that they will always be inter-related reveals the complex nature of volunteering and is an argument for not setting up false dichotomies between volunteering groups.  More fundamentally, Kelemen et al argue that it calls into question any very firm distinction between volunteering and paid work.  Indeed they suggest that given the activities volunteering encompasses – planned work that delivers a service and is not necessarily a matter of personal choice – it should be considered as ‘work’.

In the 21st Century, digital technologies are also implicated in a narrative of increasingly permeable boundaries between life and work.  While Kelemen et al’s research does not consider the role of technologies in volunteering, there are clearly points of contact.  Our research assumes fluidity between using digital technologies for different kinds of (paid or unpaid) activities and adopts a generally dynamic construction of digital volunteering.


About gilliansymon

Gillian is Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has particular research interests in the use of technology in work and non-work contexts, as well as in identity at work, sociomateriality and qualitative research methods. She is currently involved in an EPSRC-sponsored research project exploring the links between digital technologies (lie social media) and work-life balance: The Digital Brain Switch Project.

2 thoughts on “Can we still distinguish voluntary work from other forms of work?

  1. Hello, I find this categorization of volunteering very confusing. It seems more like a categorization of motivations than a way to actually differentiate from one form of volunteering than another.
    Really interesting stuff, thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks for commenting! The authors say it is a categorisation of ‘types of volunteering work’ and that it demonstrates that ‘volunteering is multifaceted and constantly changing, depending on the individual circumstances and wider social relations in which these are embedded’. For example the militant volunteers had expanded their motivations when their site came under threat. The issue then might be if volunteers change motivation, should they move to a different category? However the authors argue that their categories as categories of activity ‘accommodate multiple motivations simultaneously’. As well as concluding that the boundaries between types are permeable, perhaps we also conclude that it is difficult to distinguish motivation from activity as they are both subjectively interpreted?

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