The Politics of Volunteering
May 2013, Polity
Many of us may have participated in grassroots groups, changing the world in small and big ways, from building playgrounds and feeding the homeless, to protesting wars and ending legal segregation. Beyond the obvious fruits of these activities, what are the broader consequences of volunteering for the participants, recipients of aid, and society as a whole?
In this engaging new book, Nina Eliasoph encourages readers to reflect on their own experiences in civic associations as an entry point into bigger sociological, political, and philosophical issues, such as class inequality, how organizations work, differences in political systems around the globe, and the sources of moral selfhood. Claims about volunteering tend to be astronomical: it will create democracy, make you a better person, eliminate poverty, protect local cultures, and even prevent illness. Eliasoph cuts through these assertions by drawing on empirical studies, key data, real-life case studies, and a range of theoretical analyses.
In doing so, the book provides students of sociology, political science, and communications studies with a framework for evaluating the role of civic associations in social and political life, as well as in their own lives as active citizens.
Chapter 1: Why Do Theorists Say Associations Are Crucial for Democracy?
Chapter 2: Volunteering and Political Activism
Chapter 3: Civic Association, the Market and Government: How Do Different Societies Balance Them Differently?
Chapter 4: Neoliberalism and Grassroots Organizations
Chapter 5: What Happens to Civic Participation in Conditions of Vast Social Inequality?
Chapter 6: Opening Up Civic Participation
Conclusion: Is Democracy in Our Future?
Nina Eliasoph is associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. Her previous books include Making Volunteers and Avoiding Politics.
- A readily accessible and highly engaging overview of the role individuals can play in the bigger political picture
- Provides a critical intervention on the connections between volunteering/grassroots action and the wider political sphere
- Constructs a framework for evaluating the role of civic associations in social and political life, as well as in the lives of individual active citizens
- Draws on empirical studies, key data, and real-life case studies, from encouraging urban cycling, to protesting against war and injustice
"A useful book for students on all sorts of courses … the book is written in a scholarly, informing and engaging style … The key thing about this book is that it reminds us that volunteering is political."
Journal of Social Policy
"Amid the sea of muddled thinking about civil society and social policy, Nina Eliasoph's work shines like a beacon of clarity and rigor. This honest and nuanced account of the politics of volunteering marks a landmark contribution to the field."
Michael Edwards, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos
"With unerring aim, Nina Eliasoph punctures some of the most cherished myths about volunteerism. Yet, with sensitivity and compassion, she shows volunteers struggling to do good while coping with contradictions not of their own making. The result is a remarkable book that brings the concept of civil society to life in all its moral messiness."
Francesca Polletta, University of California, Irvine
"The Politics of Volunteering is a pleasure to read. Nina Eliasoph helps us to understand how civic associations based on volunteering are different from but overlap with civic associations devoted to political activism, and how each may be led to cross the boundary between them. In clarifying the landscape of our public life she helps us to see how a deeper look at the total picture can help us to be more effective in our public engagement. This is a valuable book for students but also for the many thousands of volunteers and activists in our midst."
Robert Bellah, University of California, Berkeley
"The Politics of Volunteering represents the kind of sociological literature that is written with both academics and a larger audience in mind. Eliasoph manages to examine challenging and complex questions with admirable clarity." (Sosiologia 2015)