Challenges for the Future

By Justin Davis Smith and Michael Locke, eds.
From , London: Institute for Volunteering Research, 2007

From the essay “Beyond Social Capital: What Next for Voluntary Action Research?” 

So what of the future for voluntary action research? What lies beyond social capital? We have come a long way from the pioneering work of the 1970s and with the political climate continuing to favour an expansion of voluntary action, the prospects for research (and for researchers) in and on the sector looks good. However, to continue to move forward I think the sector needs to look critically at where we have come from, at what we have achieved and at some of the failures and limitations of our work.

The key challenges for the future include:

The need for closer integration between the academic and practitioner-research communities

Despite the advances I have alluded to in spanning the gulf between the academic
and practitioner-research communities more needs to be done. In the UK researchers from the sector regularly share the same conferences as their university-based colleagues. And yet there is scope for more collaboration still. Academic researchers have much to learn from their exposure to the real world of voluntary action; while practitioner researchers can benefit from association with a more theoretical and rigorous approach.

The need for a more critical approach to our work

Perri once famously derided voluntary action research on the grounds that it was
mere boosterism – with its aim being not the pursuit of knowledge, but the strengthening and legitimisation of the sector. And he has a point. Much of the research carried out within the sector does fall into this trap. Researchers are often drawn to the sector because they believe passionately in the cause. And chief executives (and indeed governments) who are persuaded to release scarce funds to support a research function do not generally do so in the expectation that the findings will reflect negatively upon the policy initiative or organisation.

There is nothing wrong in committed research, and notions of purely objective research seem to me to be difficult to sustain. But the sector and those who study it need to be more critical of some of the claims made for it and by it and more prepared to challenge some of the conventional wisdoms.

[2 examples omitted]

Unrealistic claims about the effectiveness and value of voluntary action may lead to a backlash from policy makers disappointed at the lack of results, and will do nothing to further our understanding of the circumstances necessary to enable volunteering to flourish. It may well be that mentoring works better in certain circumstances or with certain client groups or with particular forms of institutional support. Without such critical studies our room for expansion and development is limited.

The need for more theory building

Much of the research carried out in the field over the past 30 years has been highly empirical – large-scale social surveys and smaller, qualitative organisational case studies. Much of this has been of a very high quality; but what has been largely missing has been an attempt to build theories and construct and test hypotheses to make sense of the growing body of data. We know a lot about people’s motivation to volunteer and the size and shape of the volunteering sector; but we know very little about the underlying causes and meaning of voluntary action. This gap is not surprising. It is only now that the necessary body of empirical material has been collected to enable to us begin to look for patterns and meanings. But the challenge for the third (or is it fourth) wave is to move beyond the empirical to the explanatory.

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The need for more contextualising of the research

Running parallel to the need for more theory building is the need for the voluntary action research community to pay more attention to the context in which their subject matter, voluntary organisations and volunteering, takes place. I have lost count of the number of papers I have sat through at international conferences which expertly summarise the findings from say 40 interviews with volunteers in a community care project in rural Kansas but then leave it at that, with no attempt to relate the findings to the broader context, either within Kansas or (heaven forbid) within the USA or the global community. Now I know all about the dangers of making sweeping statements based on very limited data. But that shouldn’t serve as an excuse for us to retreat within the comfort of our own secure boundaries. In order really to make a difference our work needs to be bolder and attempt to make inferences and draw conclusions about how our findings fit in with broader theoretical and policy frameworks.

The need to retain our independence and integrity

Just as the voluntary sector needs to safeguard its independence against encroachment from government, so the voluntary action research community needs to assert its authority in the face of an increasing government embrace. Just as it is difficult for voluntary groups in receipt of government money to speak out against government policy, so it is sometimes difficult for researchers in receipt of government contracts to criticise government policy. Of course this issue is not particular to the voluntary action research community. But with the sector increasingly becoming flavour of the month within government the pressure to conform will grow during the third and fourth wave of development. It is vital for the future health of our research community that we stick hard and fast to our principles and refuse to bow to the sometimes enticing embrace of government.

The need for more multi-disciplinary studies

The time is ripe for voluntary action studies to make stronger links with other more established disciplines. As it moves more centre stage and receives more academic respectability so the opportunities for collaboration with academic communities in say history, legal studies, anthropology, political studies and economics grows. Already we have seen some fruitful partnerships. Melanie Oppenheimer, for example, has enjoyed significant success in getting volunteering onto the agenda of the Australian Labour History community, which has resulted both in a special journal issue on Labour and voluntary action in Australia and a joint essay (in which I was involved) on a comparative history of Labour and the voluntary tradition in Australia and UK.

But more needs to be done. Phase four of voluntary action research development will be about the sector research community becoming more mainstream and both learning from and influencing the research agendas of other disciplines. As voluntary action research spreads into other disciplines, it may be that our research community finds its identity diluted and even finds some of our own social capital slipping away. This could have significant implications for organising conferences and publishing journals in our field.

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