Conviviality with a cause
This is the second of two posts prompted by a reading of Colin Rochester’s publication ‘Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum’ (2013) Palgrave Macmillan
My first post, entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’ (26th March 2014) included observations about the relationship between the state and the voluntary & community sector:
This post is about voluntary action and the research agenda.
In critically appraising the historiography of voluntary action, Rochester embraces notions of ‘conviviality’ and ‘expressive behaviour’, providing a fresh insight into the roots of volunteering. Breaking free of a ‘narrow paradigm’, he looks beyond the restrictive archetype of volunteering as a philanthropic act and explores what he describes as a desire for ‘conviviality’ that is closely allied to recreational activities and the constructive use of leisure time. I don’t believe for a moment that Rochester is claiming we use all our spare time for idle pursuits. I do believe that he is retelling the traditional chronicle and in doing so, providing a new lens through which we may see the act of volunteering as ‘serious leisure’; a term used by Rochester as he works towards his, ‘truly ‘round earth’ map of the territory’.
Rochester draws upon Hemming’s conclusion that participation in volunteer groups provides, ‘a sense of camaraderie and fellowship; a sense of belonging or identity; and above all, ‘an excuse to escape’ and ‘an adult form of play’. It contributes to a sense of community (Hemming 2011). He believes ‘expressive’ volunteering enables people to pursue an interest out of love for the activity rather than financial reward, and to act upon their most cherished beliefs.
In my blog entitled, ‘Why ‘extreme’ volunteering is too extreme’ (31st Jan 2014), I pleaded for us not to ignore the mundane, as without it, society would come unstuck; meeting basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small:
It’s about community on many levels. Since moving to Great Gransden, for example, I’ve been struck by the way in which the expressive and the mundane are fused in friendships of all kinds, in all scenarios, responding to need, and sharing recreation, joy and troubled times.
I would call it conviviality with a cause.
Rochester also calls for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field. Critical of an academic tradition that has, ‘not produced much in the way of additional ‘usable theory’’ (his ‘honourable exceptions’ include Horton Smith 2000, Lohmann 1992 and Milofsky 2008), he wants research to move away from quantitative methods, that is, collecting evidence by measuring e.g. organisations, resources and time spent on volunteering. Existing qualitative research is also judged to be of limited scope, diverting attention from what volunteers actually do, and how they work together; what is the balance – or tension – between expressive aims (or member benefit) and instrumental aims (or public benefit)?; why and how do people join non-bureaucratic groups?; how is the ‘work’ of the group organised? He says we need qualitative research that develops ‘usable’ theories to explain ‘how things work’.
In attempting to move away from the concentration on measuring the instrumental impacts of volunteering, Rochester looks to the IVR Impact Assessment Toolkit which groups ‘the major ways in which stakeholders can be affected’ into five types of ‘capital’ – physical, human, economic, social and cultural. He clearly approves of this societal level analysis, saying it captures much – but not all – of the constellation of roles and functions played by volunteering. Social capital, for example, contributes to the creation of a ‘more cohesive community through building relationships, networks and bond of trust between people’.
My concern is that having criticised a ‘dominate paradigm’ that characterises volunteering as a gift of time (analogous to a gift of money) Rochester then appears to endorse the notion of capital which itself is contested as a tool of analysis in certain academic quarters. For example, Bev Skeggs, in her 2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture last October, concluded that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives.
I am currently grappling with this issue in my own research where I am asking if ‘community’ may be construed as a form of capital and exploring the conditions necessary for the existence of community inside the academy. I am, for example, seeking signifiers of personal, physical and institutional attributes that may reveal the existence of ‘community’ capital. Last week my supervisor asked me how I intended to ‘measure’ these forms of capital. I didn’t have an answer and, to be honest, that doesn’t worry me.
As I work through the final analysis, I am minded to heed Skeggs’ call for us to look for where the theories don’t work, where they can’t be applied. This is where, in my view, Rochester’s plea for us to embrace the expressive and Skeggs’ entreaty for the expression of ‘values beyond value’, come together.
I’m now wondering how ‘community’ may be understood in its expressive form… in 2015 I may have an answer.
Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’
2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –
Hemming, H. (2011) Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, London: John Murray
Lohmann, R. (1992) The Commons: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Organisations and Voluntary Action, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass
Milofsky, C. (2008) Smallville: Institutionalizing Community in Twenty-First Century America, Hanover, NH and London, University Press of New England
Smith, D. H. (2000) Grassroots Associations, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
2 thoughts on “Conviviality with a cause”
I recognise much of what you say about volunteers and I am reminded of Richard Titmus book, I think around 1970, in which he used an essay by Marcel Mauss called ‘The Gift’. This explores ideas of reciprocity in terms that step beyond the exchange of commodities and considers how exchange operates symbolically in the context of altruism.
Ah yes, The Gift Relationship by Titmuss. I thought I still had my copy but I can’t find it. Worth revisiting in this context, thankyou. Also, the notion of the gift relationship is coming up in recent debates about access to patients medical records for researchers.
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