Market logic and voluntary spirit

Another new article sees the light of day. It’s the fourth article using material from my PhD, but only very loosely. In fact it’s the most strident thing I’ve written, with most of the ambivalent caveating left on the cutting room floor (don’t worry academia fans, it could be argued that there’s still plenty of caveats).*

Entitled Volunteering, the market, and neoliberalism it’s an attempt to pull together two sets of reading which have dominated my thinking for the last few years. On one hand the empirical research on volunteering which has examined how volunteering is becoming more instrumental, with, particularly young volunteers, seeing or being encouraged to see volunteering as a means to end (employability being the main one), rather than as an act of voluntary goodness. I’ve written about my own empirical investigation into this trend in Voluntary Sector Review, but this new article seeks to correct a failing of that previous work.

During the many revisions that previous article went though, the editorial team (who I have to say are the most hands-on, thoughtful, and helpful editorial team I have come across so far in my career) asked me to cut out all references to wider social and political theory. This was to keep the article ‘straight’ and policy focused, and included removing references to Richard Sennett, Zygmunt Bauman, and others. The end of the article did include this one Bauman passage which indicated where I wanted to go though:

Bauman (2007: 4-5; 2001), writing on the ubiquity of fractured pathways faced by (young) people, states that the increased necessity for flexibility in the labour market will mean individuals are more likely to ‘abandon commitments and loyalties without regret – to pursue opportunities according to their current availability, rather than following one’s own established preferences’, supporting the conclusions of both interviewees and the previous literature on volunteering.

This new article builds on this. By combining the evidence from recent empirical studies into the marketisation of volunteering (by researchers such as Rachel Brooks, Lesley Hustinx, Angie Eikenberry, Claire Holdsworth and Georgina Brewis, me), with the theoretical insights of Stuart Hall, Will Davies, Benjamin Kunkel, David Graeber, Tony Judt, Emma Dowling and David Harvie, Michael Sandel,** and a smattering of others, I wanted to frame these social developments in the theoretical critique of neoliberalism. While critiques of neoliberalism are ten-a-penny, talking the side of these arguments which examines the damage which is done to the idea of community and the voluntary ethic, has not been fully realised in voluntary sector research. As Colin Rochester has recently argued, we need more research which “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.”

The article comes from an excellent symposium organised by postgraduate researchers (Were you as motivated/capable as a PG researcher? I wasn’t) of which a Storify can be found here. The others papers look great, particularly Rob Macmillan’s intervention, in which he seeks to take on a few voluntary sector assumptions. I haven’t spoken to Rob about my paper yet, but I guess he’d think I’m being overly negative.

I hope the article is enjoyable to read and gets some attention outside of voluntary sector research. It’s published in People, Place and Policy (PPP), the in house journal of SHU’s main social policy research unit CRESR. It’s Open Access, so I’m still keeping up with the idea that I publish between a third and half of my articles in OA journals.

Reading it back now, it actually makes me quite angry, particularly the concluding sentiments which build on Dowling and Harvie’s work:

Ultimately we can conclude that we should be wary of any further attempts to reframe voluntary action for the state’s or the market’s needs. As Dowling and Harvie (2014: 882) conclude, “capital’s lifeblood is unpaid work, and the Big Society as political economy is an attempt is extend the realm of unpaid work that can be appropriated.” This appropriation, of those human activities which seek to reproduce the caring social relationships that make our lives liveable, potentially makes all our futures more precarious.



** And I’ve, ashamedly, just noticed the potentially worrying gender split between these two lists.


Dowling, E. and Harvie, D. (2014) Harnessing the social: State, crisis, and (big) society. Sociology, 48, 5, 869-886.

Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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