Linda Milbourne and Mike Aiken reflect on ethical values for research and action, drawing on discussion from the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in September 2017
Much is changing in the voluntary sector (VS) research field with many new connections and developments but we argue that there is a need to confront the political challenges and orthodoxy both within the research community and in the wider world.
Firstly we outline the current context and some transitions in research, and then point to ways that researchers could rethink and reframe debates.
Current context for voluntary sector research
Austerity has been profoundly damaging to the fabric of local communities, with no shortage of evidence on the dramatic increases in homelessness and the use of food banks over the last few years, along with a recently published JRF report on UK poverty. Yet the current Conservative government appears to deny the extent of widespread poverty, hardship and social inequalities. This increasingly raises questions about the position of many civil society organisations which, for some thirty or so years, have sought to locate themselves within the political mainstream of a now impoverished and rapidly privatising welfare provision. In parallel, such positioning has largely suppressed or silenced their campaigning roles, effectively separating most welfare charities from advocacy and campaign groups.
Up until recently, research in the VS field (particularly in the UK and US) has tended to be internal looking: exploring historical developments, teasing out definitions and features of the voluntary sector (as distinct from other sectors), focusing on volunteering roles, and often viewing issues from the inside out, rather than exploring shared interests across a wider range of research or practice fields. This research has also been distinct from work on social movements and activism.
We recognize that this is changing, and that the scope of VS research has broadened, with studies drawing on different theoretical frameworks and international perspectives, illustrated by papers presented at the September conference (such as on refugee movements, involvement in public health, criminal justice, education and housing). This marks a valuable shift to address common welfare concerns, to study crossover and differences between sectors and countries, and to draw on a wider frame of reference through which to conceptualise debates.
Challenging the starting point
However, much VS research still seems caught in the inevitability of market discourse, with the focus on competing for funds and contracts assumed as an accepted and acceptable way of life. This all too readily allows altruistic motivation to cede to competition and self-interested pursuits, and as Nancy Fraser argues more widely, has led to a crisis of caring and ethics in society. A critical analysis of the VS’s role in shoring up contractual cultures and more recently, corporations with questionable practices, is clearly called for but we need much more than criticism.
Outlining a society where people feel abandoned by government and public institutions can’t cope, Stuart Etherington has recently called for a rethink of the role of ‘civil society’. His model advocates citizens as co-creators of outcomes, emphasising a much bigger role for community based organisations and local level democracy, to counteract increasing disillusionment with state and political systems. We don’t disagree with the need rethink the role and positioning of organisations within civil society, nor with criticisms concerning the disregard of ruling politicians. However, the renewed emphasis on voluntary association and citizen’s action is overly reminiscent of defunct Big Society schemes which floundered without adequate resources and infrastructure. Seeking to build local connections and trust in an untrustworthy world is laudable but it doesn’t pay the rent, and this proposed ‘way forward’ for the common good completely fails to address underlying structural causes of poverty. While some civil society organisations engage in proffering voluntary ‘band-aid’ but can do little to effect real change to the root causes of poverty, others are encouraged to rely on engaging with the kind of debt structures that led to financial disasters ensuing from the banking collapse which logically should have seen the death of neo-liberal economics (Crouch, 2011).
Therefore, we need to challenge the basis of the politico-economic regime, highlighting its increasingly destructive social outcomes for too many people in our society. Much discussion has highlighted the space that can be found for improvements within current arrangements even in the worst regimes – the wriggle room that allows VOs to deliver at least some aspect of their original missions – and it is argued that this is better than nothing. However, seeking improvements in competitive commissioning and procurement practices or shoring up welfare gaps through voluntary action is not enough; instead, we need to confront the dominance of market discourse and the causes of our current ‘so-called’ austerity and construct more logical alternatives for allocating social resources.
Applying ‘band aid’ or addressing causes?
‘Band aid’ work, while hard to criticise, may be a distraction from understanding and confronting the causes of poverty, and can add instead to shoring up ‘common sense’ myths about the need for austerity policies, in turn resulting in normalising injustices and inequalities. Many forward looking charities, campaigning organisations and social movements within civil society have historically assumed a role in challenging such norms: for example, those engaged in the anti-slavery movement or the suffragette movement; and later, those who fought to establish social housing, universal welfare benefits and a public health service. More recently, groups have challenged people traffickers, violence against women and campaigned for ethnic minority, and gay and lesbian and transgender rights; or focused around shared issues in a locality or neighbourhood. This illustrates the multiple ways that formal and informal civil society groups have refused to adopt supposedly common-sense understandings and have been prepared to confront injustice and seek social change. This is civil society at work, deliberating values, actions and wider political consequences and researching supporting evidence.
Such challenges and alternatives enable a different vision, premised on recreating ideas of care, welfare and justice across society. In this way, civil society organisations can collaborate in aspirations for a more just society, rather than colluding in neo-liberal arrangements, supporting corporate profits and the destruction of public welfare systems and social gains built up over more than 150 years. Failing to assert alternatives and accepting ‘the way things are’ also entails acceptance of long-term and growing destitution as an inevitable fallout. A different vision also demands that we confront and distinguish wellbeing in society from the rapidly privatizing welfare state, essentially re-examining the contradictions between financial accumulation and care, and between markets, individualized gain and wider social welfare and equality.
Creating alternatives then depends on a better informed analysis of the increasingly punitive nature of neo-liberal regimes, which critics (eg Davies, 2016[iv]) argue are unsustainable, with the erosion of wages and multiple support structures. As activist researchers, we therefore need to draw on a wider arena of thinking than has often been the case, and to explore the interconnected features of civil society organizations engaged in social welfare and wider social action. This means creating alliances across broader research fields and shared interest groups to examine and challenge the attrition of civil society’s rights, irrespective of sector or type of organization.
This argues the need to examine changes among civil society roles more widely beyond welfare provision and to recognize that constraints on civil society have seen the erosion of democratic freedoms around the world – including the freedom to speak, act and move about freely. This freedom – or independence – has been prized in traditional VS narratives but is now restricted by law, contract and ideology. It’s been easy to fall back on ideas of association – an unproblematised vision of altruistic organisations but we need to explore conflicting narratives. Not all CSOs are benign. They may promote separatist and exclusionary interests which benefit a few but damage many. The rise of racism and violence following the Brexit vote offers one example but history provides others – such as the rise of fascism in the 1930s from rich associational life. This means acknowledging difference, being unafraid to challenge assumptions about the benefits of voluntary associations, and pursuing research analytically and critically.
Locating voluntary sector research in its wider socio-political context
One message for research then is to dig deeper and think outside the box. Within the research field and the wider world this means overcoming significant ideological challenges, some of which activists have been taking on. Future research needs to challenge current discourse, and collaborate across sector boundaries and interest groups. It needs to shift its focus to embrace a broader world view which explores CS roles and values in relation to wider political, social and economic changes in society, including social movements, campaigns and virtual worlds. That’s not ignoring the need to understand detailed features and finer arrangements but detailed local experiences also need to be located and understood within the bigger picture.
If we omit to make these wider connections, we risk narrowing our research perspectives and excluding crucial debates and experiences that are currently challenging society – especially concerning the erosion of democracy and freedoms and destruction of public welfare. Civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in sustaining the values of democracy and democratic freedoms, and as researchers, we have a critical role in sustaining that
2 Etherington, S. (2017) ‘Voluntary Action: a way forward’ CASS Centre for Charity Effectiveness, November 2017.