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Volunteerism in the Inner City: an anthropology of giving

By T Hayakawa


This thesis presents an ethnographic account of British volunteering. While volunteering has been researched from multiple disciplinary perspectives, few studies are concerned with the in-depth analysis of the experience of volunteering. This thesis deploys anthropological theory and methods to seek such an analysis. Amongst volunteers, organisations and policy-makers the idiom of the gift and gift exchange is commonly employed to define volunteering and the social benefits it is said to create such as social capital, community, and civil society. Yet gift exchange theory, which has developed largely in anthropological studies of non-western societies, posits that a gift demands a reciprocal gift to fulfil its social roles. By examining volunteering as a social act of ‘giving’, the thesis seeks to problematise volunteering in contemporary western society from such a non-western point of view. The research explores the ambiguities and contradictions that inhere in ‘giving without a return’, in a modern urban setting where most of the social relations established through volunteering could be equally well provided through paid workers and social services. Following reviews of the gift and British Social Policy, I explore volunteering under five themes; volunteering motivations, volunteering relationships, the perception and function of money and professionalism, and volunteering’s significance for social solidarity. The in-depth analysis reveals that volunteering does not fit into a traditional model of gift exchange. It exists in an ambiguous zone between exchange and the gift, commercial market and one-sided giving, public and private: it conflates spheres which are conventionally conceived of as being in opposition. Within a complex organisational context, there is a constant process of negotiation of meaning. The idea of volunteering is as mystified as that of the perfect gift or of money, and the study of volunteering needs to explore the processes through which it is appropriated, culturally and in practice

Publisher: UCL (University College London)
Year: 2009
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Provided by: UCL Discovery
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