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Volunteering as leisure activity

Whether it is leisure studies specialists looking at volunteering or voluntary action specialists looking at leisure, the result has been much the same: Neither field has been inclined to view its own subject matter through the eyes of the other. Still, significant exceptions exist, some of which will be reviewed here to show how the theoretical link between leisure and volunteering has evolved in recent decades.

Some of the earliest theoretical stirrings in this area came from Philip Bosserman and Richard Gagan (1972:115) and from David Horton Smith (1975:148) all of whom argued that, at the level of the individual, all leisure activity is voluntary action. More precise statements were made then and somewhat later by Max Kaplan (1975:394) and John Neulinger (1981:19), two leisure studies specialists, who observed in passing how leisure can serve either oneself or other people, if not both. It is presumed that they had volunteerism in mind, even though some amateur and hobbyist activities also have this dual function (e.g., community music and theater and sports such as curling and ice and powerboat racing). From the side of voluntary action research, Kenneth Boulding (1973:31) theorized that voluntary service borders on leisure, frequently even overlapping it. Alex Dickson (1974:xiii) observed that leisure is seen in commonsense as part of voluntary action, and does in fact “carry this spare-time connotation.”

Karla Henderson (1981; 1984) examined the leisure component of volunteering both empirically and theoretically. She noted that in the 1980s social scientists ordinarily regarded volunteering in the same way as they regarded paid work, as having an external, or extrinsic, orientation - the volunteer has a job to complete for the benefit of the community. This contrasts with the (volitional) view they hold of leisure as oriented by internal, or intrinsic, interests - the participant enjoys the activity for itself and for the self-expression, self-enrichment, and selffulfillment it may engender. Henderson found that her sample of 4-H workers in the United States defined their volunteering as leisure; for them volunteering was part of their leisure world.

A few years later Stanley Parker (1987) reported findings from research on a group of peace workers. He discovered that, whereas they worked as volunteers for the cause of peace, they considered this activity part of their leisure. Parker also completed a second study around this time centered on the serious leisure activities of two samples of volunteers, one drawn in Britain, the other drawn in Australia (reported in Parker 1992). Here he found that one person in five engaged in some form of activity classifiable as volunteering. Almost invariably, the people sampled described their volunteering as leisure, as primarily rewarding activity and as secondarily helping activity. Their leisure was nonetheless most substantial; in reality it was serious leisure. Robert Stebbins’ (1998) study of francophone career volunteers in Calgary and Edmonton in Canada revealed an even distribution among those who saw this kind of activity as leisure, work, or as a separate category distinct from these two (reported in Stebbins 2000b).

While Parker was studying peace workers, Susan Chambre (1987) was examining elderly volunteers. She reached similar conclusions: her respondents also defined their volunteering as leisure activity. As with Henderson, she wrestled with the extrinsic-intrinsic and the altruistic- self-interested dimensions, both of which pervade leisure volunteering. Volunteering is a work-like activity wherein a person accomplishes a task without remuneration. At the same time, the activity, which is freely chosen, provides many a satisfying experience. Chambre (1987:118) found, however, that the motives given by the elderly for taking up a volunteer role differ from those given for continuing in it. Although their sense of altruism often led them to volunteer in the first place, they were highly motivated by the intrinsic satisfaction they found there to continue in this role.

Working from Chambres conclusion that volunteering is leisure, Lucy Fischer and Kay Schaffer (1993:51, 106-08), set out to explore the patterns of costs and rewards the elderly experience when they participate in this kind of activity. Following a comprehensive review of the current research and case study literature, the authors concluded that certain costs (e.g., time, hazards, inconveniences) are typically offset by numerous special rewards. The rewards include the following: feeling competent to do the volunteer work, sensing ideological congruence with the organization, and being satisfied with the job done (i.e., work is interesting, professional growth is possible, personal skills are used). Self-actualization, self-enrichment, and opportunities for social interaction were also found to be highly appealing (Fischer and Schaffer i993:chapter 10). Moreover, it appears that the elderly are not alone in their feelings that volunteering is a highly rewarding form of leisure. Alexander Thompson and Barbara Bono (1993) found similar sentiments in their sample of volunteer firefighters whose activities fostered self-actualization, group accomplishment, and a special self-image.

Thomas Rotolo and John Wilson (2007) touch more obliquely on the question of volunteering when they observe that sex segregation in the workplace - the tendency for men and women to work in different occupations and jobs - remains widespread. Domestic chores are also sex-typed, but the extent to which sex segregation is found in other forms of non-waged work, such as volunteering, is unknown. The authors used maximum likelihood probit models with selection to estimate the incidence of sex segregation among volunteers in a nationally representative sample of adult Americans (N = 91,807). To explain this finding they note one line of argument which contends that any gender differentiation found in other work environments spills over into volunteer work. A competing argument, which is based on the SLP, contends that, in effect, this spillover theory overlooks an important characteristic of volunteer work: compared with work performed for pay or domestic chores, volunteering is an “agreeable obligation.” Volunteering is what we do in our “free time” where, presumably, we have free choice. According to this argument, neither men nor women need conform to the pattern of sex segregation found in other work spheres. Thus, women can either ignore the constraints placed on them at work and at home or look for ways to overturn them. Indeed, citing Arlene Daniels, they write that volunteerism can be an alternative career for women, a source of empowerment and freedom. Nevertheless, their study suggests that sports and recreational activities are highly gendered. That we are not compelled by need or social obligation to engage in or watch these activities seems not to abate the force of gender ideologies on our ideas about what kinds of activities are appropriate for men and women.

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