Critical Thinking About Voluntary Action and Its History

In this month’s blog post, Colin Rochester introduces a journal which will take the study of voluntary action in a new direction.

A group of academics and practitioners –and some who combine both roles– have decided to do something about their growing dissatisfaction with the current state of voluntary sector studies.  In the hope of developing ‘a different narrative of voluntary action’ they have launched a new journal to be called Critical Studies in Voluntary Action.  The journal will be published online twice a year and the first issue is planned for the Autumn of 2015.

The ‘Mainstream’ View of Voluntary Sector Studies

Our discontent with the way voluntary action is studied and presented has three main components:

  • In the first place most current research tends to focus unduly on just one type of voluntary organisation –the bureaucratically organised and professionally managed agencies which concentrate on delivering various kinds of social welfare services.  The challenges of governance and management they encounter are not fundamentally different from those experienced by public sector agencies and for-profit businesses and the standard wisdom of mainstream organisational theory and the management techniques taught in business schools can be used to address them.  Very little attention is given to non-bureaucratic organisational models and to other functions such as campaigning and advocacy, self-help, or community action.
  • Secondly, volunteering is also studied from a similarly restricted perspective.  Volunteers are viewed as unpaid workers who provide additional human resources for professionally run service delivery organisations.  They need to be managed in ways which are very similar to the standard approach to managing paid employees.  There is hardly any serious interest in the much larger numbers of ‘unmanaged’ volunteers and the variety of roles they play.
  • And, finally, scholars of voluntary sector studies work within a set of assumptions about the object of their area of study and the place voluntary action has in the wider social and political environment.  While lip service is given to the huge variety of organisations and activities involved in the field, the idea of a voluntary (or third) sector complete with an ‘infrastructure’ and ‘leaders’ is taken as read and more often than not equated with the organisations that employ staff to provide services.  And the relationship of this sector with government is seen in terms of partnership –the underlying assumption is that working with government is inevitable and that government’s aims and aspirations are compatible with those of voluntary organisations.

Towards a Different Narrative of Voluntary Action

Critical Studies in Voluntary Action will encourage and help to develop an alternative account of voluntary action that: 

  • embraces a much wider range of voluntary and community activity than the work of professionally-led and bureaucratically organised voluntary agencies whose main function is to work with government on the delivery of public services.  We are just as interested in mutual aid groups; advocacy and campaigning organisations; informal and non-bureaucratic collective action, and other kinds of civil society organisations.  And the journal will feature research on activities in the worlds of leisure, recreation and the arts, community development, and the natural and built environments.
  • involves a more critical approach to discussing the role and significance of voluntary organisations and volunteering in our society and, more specifically, questions the twin assumptions of much current research and writing that voluntary organisations are natural partners of government and that the key questions are about how they can make themselves more efficient in the delivery of services; and
  • challenges the infiltration of the culture and behaviours of the market into the non-market parts of our society and reasserts the idea that voluntary action embodies/expresses important and distinctive values that are not compatible with a market society.

A Call to Historians

One explanation for the widespread acceptance of the assumptions underpinning the ‘mainstream’ view of voluntary sector studies is the ignorance of those who work in voluntary organisations and those who study them of their history.  The Voluntary Action History Society was founded more then twenty years ago with the express aim of addressing a widespread lack of interest and understanding of the roots and historical development of voluntary organisations and volunteering.  As I commented in a paper given to a VAHS seminar a year ago ‘discussion of the growing role to be played by voluntary agencies in the public and social policy arena has been largely uninformed by any understanding of the historical experience which has shaped today’s institutions and relationships and any lessons from the past have been left unlearned’.

In that paper I argued that the accounts we had of the history of voluntary action were incomplete and only provided part of the story and that we needed to develop a more inclusive and comprehensive view of the roots of voluntary action and the development of its activities, institutions, and role in the wider society.  Critical Studies in Voluntary Action will provide a home for contributions to that development and I hope very much that we will receive proposals for articles that will, among other things, explore the history of voluntary action as the pursuit of social change and social justice –often in opposition to governments– and as the vehicle for conviviality and expressive behaviour rather than as the practice of philanthropy and mutual aid.

Contributions and Further Information

We are looking for contributions written in clear, accessible English of two kinds:

  •  Full-length articles based on research and making a contribution to the development of critical theory of up to 8000 words.  These will be subject to peer review before publication.
  • Shorter articles of up to 2-3000 words in the form of ‘think-pieces’ or ‘research notes’.  These will be published at the discretion of the editorial board.

We are also looking for volunteers to act as peer reviewers.

Contributions, proposals for articles, offers to review submissions, and requests for further information should be sent to the Editorial Board’s convenor, Colin Rochester, at



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