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Abstract: Volunteering and the nonprofit organizations that frequently organize it have commonly been analyzed in economic terms. The definition of volunteering based on this conception has been referred to as “unpaid work (labor).” This economic definition has been around far longer than that of volunteering based on the idea that it is leisure, which is discussed under the heading of the “volitional definition” Using the tool of the literature review, the theoretical and empirical accomplishments of the serious leisure perspective are set out, an approach that began more than 40 years ago.

Keywords: leisure; leisure motivation; serious leisure perspective; volunteering; volunteering as unpaid work

Stebbins, Robert A. Leisure and the Motive to Volunteer: Theories of Serious, Casual, and Project-Based Leisure. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137585172.0003.

Volunteering and the nonprofit organizations that frequently organize it have commonly been analyzed in economic terms. The definition of volunteering revolving around this conception has been variously referred to as “unpaid work (labor)” or “unpaid productive work (labor).” This economic definition has been around far longer than that of volunteering based on the idea that it is leisure, which will be discussed in this book under the heading of the “volitional definition.” I go much more deeply into this area in the section entitled “definitions of volunteering”

In this book I attempt to set the record straight, using the tool of the literature review, wherein I will set out the theoretical and empirical accomplishments of the leisure approach that began more than 40 years ago. The economic and volitional studies of volunteers and volunteering have for the most part rubbed along without noticing each other. To the extent that the first is inspired by economists; its singular approach is perhaps understandable. For it seems that Nobel Prize winner in Economics Gary Becker (1965:504) set the modern tone 50 years ago for his discipline: “although the social philosopher might have to define precisely the concept of leisure, the economist can reach all his traditional results, as well as many more, without introducing it at all!”

So it is in traditional economics and the mainstream economics of today that the idea of leisure is typically residual. Accordingly, the few definitions of leisure that appear in the dictionaries of economics are superficial, largely portraying leisure as time leftover after work. For example, Weiss (2009:3) asks the question: how we may distinguish leisure from work? He quotes W.S. Jevons (2006:168) who defines labor as “any painful exertion of mind or body undergone partly or wholly with a view to future good.” Weiss goes on to observe that:

applying the (newly discovered) principle of diminishing marginal utility (and increasing marginal disutility), Jevons shifted attention from work or leisure as such to the marginal units of each activity. A person stops working only when the marginal disutility of work exceeds the marginal utility of the consumption derived from additional work, which is presumed positive when the wage is positive.

Given this understanding of leisure it is easy to see how it could fail to play a central role in economic thought.1

Nevertheless, that understanding raises a key motivational question: why do people engage in unpaid productive work, laborious or not? Since in this conception payment in cash or in kind is not an incentive to perform such work, what encourages people to do it, to volunteer? Or, for that matter, what encourages them to do other kinds of unpaid productive labor, as found in the serious leisure of many of the amateurs and hobbyists? This question, which mainstream economics is unable to answer satisfactorily, has given birth to a range of theory and research within the field of leisure studies. The goal of this book is to review this body of literature, to show how rich it has become over the past 40 years, and to indicate where its principal gaps lie. The serious leisure perspective (SLP) is the lens through which I will conduct this review. As for the gaps, they will be discussed throughout, in situ as it were, with a main summary on this concern being saved for the conclusions.

The SLP is the broadest theoretical framework in leisure studies, pulling into its orbit the leisure foci of social psychology, sociology, anthropology, geography, philosophy, and history. There is also, of course, an economic component here: in the main the highly descriptive though complex assessment of leisure services and attractions. Yet, this perspective is not a mere pastiche created from these fields, for it emerged inductively as a grounded theory rooted in the soil of the everyday lives of diverse leisure participants. Links to the aforementioned disciplines and to a variety of fields of practice have been forged subsequently. A short history of the SLP is available at and a longer one in Stebbins (2007/2015:Chapter 6).

Now, it may seem that I have unfairly singled out economics for vilification based on its failure to recognize the importance of leisure in human life. My justification for this critique is that the present book is about volunteers and volunteering, a field in which some economists have taken considerable interest. But it should be known that other basic disciplines in the social sciences (geography is an exception) are nowadays scarcely more attuned to the study of leisure than economics. The sociology of leisure, though a vibrant field, has for the most part been developed outside institutional sociology (e.g., university departments of sociology, mainstream annual conferences in sociology, dictionaries of sociology) in the field of leisure studies (Stebbins, in press).

Additionally, leisure has not been, historically, a concept in mainstream psychology. Psychology’s dictionaries contain no direct reference to leisure, even though psychologists do occasionally conduct research on leisure (positive psychology contains some exceptions to this general neglect, e.g., Freire 2013; Stebbins 2015). To be precise, what is known about leisure from the standpoint of psychology has been described as a “social psychology of leisure” and “a child of leisure studies” (Mannell, Kleiber, and Staempfli 2006:119). These authors hold that “leisure has all but been ignored by social psychologists in the field of psychology during the past 100 years” (pp. 112-13). So, by and large, the contributions to the psychological understanding of leisure motivation, experience, attitude, emotion, and personality have come from scholars such as Seppo Iso-Ahola, Roger C. Mannell, Douglas A. Kleiber, and John Haworth, appointed in leisure studies departments or allied units.

Political science appears not to include in its core conceptual framework the concept of leisure, whether its own or one imported from leisure studies. Leisure appears in none of its dictionaries. Still the concept has occasionally entered into contemporary analyses in political science. Thus, Davies and Niemann (2002:572-73), upon examining the relationship of leisure and international relations, found that it is during free time in everyday life when the vast majority of people can take an interest in world affairs. They do this by reading the newspaper, watching television, reading novels, or going to the cinema, doing activities that may be classified as casual leisure for most participants. It is through such uncoerced activities that the general, not-professionally trained public has access to what is happening in international relations. Possibly the best known link between leisure and political science is found in the voluminous literature on political participation, a central focus of nonprofit and volunteer research.

These academic dismissals of leisure as being in some significant way unimportant mirrors public opinion on such activity (Stebbins 2012:100). That is, leisure is sometimes seen today as frivolous, as simply having a good time, or in the language of the SLP, as casual leisure and the quest for hedonism. The image of frivolity fades off into that of leisure as a waste of time, because frivolousness is believed by some people to lead to nothing substantial (even while several benefits of casual leisure have been identified, Stebbins 2001c; Kleiber 2000; Hutchinson and Kleiber 2005). A related image is that leisure is unimportant, in the sense that there is little need to plan for it, that what we do in free time can be determined on the spot.

These are the principal headwinds that the followers of the volitional conception of volunteers and volunteering must fight when trying to theorize and do research in this area. A less inhospitable intellectual climate might well have generated a larger body of work for us to review. That said, the results over the 40-year period are still noteworthy, not in the least because they do tell us a great deal about the unpaid motivation of volunteers as well as the social and historical organization of their contributions to self and community.


1 Economics may be changing in this area. For example, Bruno Frey (2008), among others, has written about the economics of happiness, calling this new interest a “revolution” in his discipline. This is anything but the “dismal science” of economics, about which Thomas Carlyle wrote in the 19th century.

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