Volunteers: A Social Profile (2008)

Book Review
Publishing information: 
<p><strong>Marc A. Musick and John Wilson<br /> Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, Feb 2008. 680pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-0-253-34929-3.&nbsp;</strong><strong> $39.95</strong></p>

This book tells you everything you ever wanted to know about who volunteers and why, and probably a bit more besides. Well, actually, it tells you everything that is known or measured about why different people volunteer, whilst also highlighting the many remaining questions where data has yet to be collected. With over five hundred pages of text crammed full of survey data and references to existing studies (plus another 150 or so pages of appendices and references), this must be one of the most comprehensive publications on volunteering to date.

Its sheer size and level of detail mean that this is not a book to sit down and attempt to read in one sitting, but it is certainly a book to keep close to hand and to dip into as and when you can. I will certainly be keeping it on my desk, to be thumbed through and referred to when exploring the different aspects of volunteering that it covers. For a UK audience, however, it is worth pointing out that although the book does bring in studies from around the world, it is heavily weighted to data from the US.   

The book is divided into six parts, with the bulk being devoted to an exploration of why people volunteer, or more specifically why some people volunteer more than others. In considering this question, the book divides its analysis into three main groups of explanations. Each group contains a number of different theories, most with numerous (and sometimes contradictory) empirical studies either giving weight to or against these theories.

The first group of explanations is those based on ideas of ‘subjective dispositions’, which argue that individuals’ personalities, motivations and values can all influence whether or not people volunteer. Here, for example (and perhaps unsurprisingly given their sociological backgrounds), the authors largely dismiss the psychologists’ arguments that motivations alone can be used to explain patterns of volunteering, arguing instead that understanding motives is only the beginning of understanding why some people volunteer and others do not.

The second group of explanations focuses on ‘individual resources’, and explores how factors such as socio-economic status, time, health, gender and race can influence whether or not people volunteer. For example, women are more likely to volunteer than men, although they do not volunteer more hours. This may in part be due to cultural factors (for example the proposition that women tend to be the more empathetic gender) but also may be due to social practices (it is known that women are more likely to attend church and that church attendance influences volunteering), and the influence of other roles women perform (for example mothers get involved in volunteering opportunities through their children’s school and clubs).

The third group of explanations looks at the social context of volunteering, including life course, social resources, volunteer recruitment practices and regional location, to argue that volunteering is influenced and structured by the organisational and institutional environment. This part of the book contains chapters on trends in volunteering and international comparisons, focusing not on ‘describing differences’ over time or space but on ‘providing explanation’.

The book also includes sections on the organisation of volunteering, the impact of volunteering on volunteers, and a discussion on the definition of volunteering.  Overall, it gives a comprehensive and accessible summary that provides evidence for many long-held assumptions about volunteering, whilst also challenging some of those assumptions. For example, rather than uphold the widely held view that people are becoming less inclined to volunteer, the authors use survey data to conclude that, whilst volunteering may be changing, there is ‘no cause for concern… the volunteer spirit is not diminished’.

The book does not provide any simple answers or explanations as to why some people volunteer more than others – at the end of it I am still not sure what the answer is. But this is because it is a complex question and it is not possible to single out one or two factors to explain volunteering. Despite the absence of easy answers, I like this book not least because I agree with the authors’ belief that volunteering and activism are part of the same phenomenon, despite the tendency (particularly in lay discourses) to depoliticize volunteering. This is of increasing importance as governments around the world get more involved in volunteering, most commonly adopting a definition of volunteering that is closer to caring than to activism with the potential to encourage, as the authors note, only ‘safe, non-controversial and “non-political” volunteering at the expenses of advocacy volunteering and social activism’.

This book review is tagged under:

  • Volunteering/trusteeship