New year: time to bring politics and values back in

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[1]  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[2] 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[3]).

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

1 Fraser, N. (2016) ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’ New Left Review, 100 (July–August), 99–117.

2 Etherington, S. (2017) ‘Voluntary Action: a way forward’ CASS Centre for Charity Effectiveness, November 2017.

3 Crouch, C. (2011) The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

4 Davies, W. (2016) ‘The new neoliberalism’. New Left Review, 101 (Sept.–Oct.), 121–34.

 

Youth action, activism and eduction: Call for papers and posters

Youth action, activism and education: Continuities, changes and possibilities

Thursday 15th March, 2018

Canterbury Christ Church University, UK

This free one-day conference will explore international, national and local perspectives on the changing nature of youth action, activism and the associated implications for education.

The programme will include keynote speakers and papers which will introduce and raise key aspects of this topic. We also welcome papers from researchers from across the career stage and located in a diverse range of fields, which may span education, youth studies, voluntary action, activism and participation in civil society organisations.

To present a paper or poster, please send an abstract (up to 250 words with your email and institutional affiliation) in Word format to andrew.peterson@canterbury.ac.uk. Your abstract should outline your proposed paper, showing how the issues you raise will contribute to the themes for the day.

Download the full call here.

The deadline for abstracts is 10th January 2018.

Places at the conference are limited, and registrations will open mid-January.

 

Book now for ‘Leading through challenging times’

Bookings are now open for the next VSSN day conference on 23rd November 2017, hosted by the Open University Business School in Milton Keynes:

Leading through challenging times: can the sector respond to the wider crisis of political and civil society leadership?

The programme and abstracts are available to download here and promise a diverse and critical engagement with issues of leadership in theory and practice.

VSSN members pay only £35, saving 50% on the full conference fee.

The conference includes the VSSN AGM.

We look forward to welcoming you to Milton Keynes in November.

 

 

What makes for a strong Voluntary Sector Review paper? Eight points to consider

This blog post was originally published on the Policy Press blog on 18 August 2017.

 

Rob Macmillan, Nick Acheson and Bernard Harris, editors of the international Voluntary Sector Review journal, present 8 tips for submitting a strong paper. 

Rob Macmillan, Nick Acheson and Bernard Harris

As editors of Voluntary Sector Review (VSR), we attract a wide range of international article submissions, covering the whole range of topics around voluntary and community action, non-profit organisations and civil society. We often reflect on what makes for a strong paper.

Full-length research articles in VSR, normally no longer than 8,000 words in length, may focus on empirical findings, methodological issues, scholarly or theoretical inquiry, and applied analysis of relevance to practitioners and decision makers. We welcome submissions from all parts of the globe, and encourage all of our authors to highlight the international implications of their work.

We know that the whole process of submitting a paper can be daunting and onerous for authors – something you’ve been working on for a while has finally been given over for an external judgement of its potential value. Preparing a good paper for submission is an art rather than a science, and through our experience as editors and authors we have drawn together a list of eight helpful points to consider before you submit your paper.

1. What is the paper about and why is it important?

Be very clear on what the paper is about, starting with a clear statement of the issue that it addresses, together with an explanation of why the issue is of interest to and important for readers of the journal. You need to provide good reasons for readers to read on and subsequently remember your article.

2. Critical understanding of the literature

Embed the issue the paper addresses in the relevant literature, with a critical understanding of the most important and influential previous articles and books in this area.

3. Intellectual, theoretical, policy or practice context

Make sure you set out clearly the intellectual, theoretical, policy or practice context that informs the article.

4. Methods

Where you are reporting empirical findings, make sure the research design, data collection methods and analysis techniques used are described in sufficient detail for readers to be able to understand how the study might be replicated, and on what basis the conclusions are being drawn. Where prior literature provides the basis for the article (in addition to or instead of empirical findings), explain how it was sourced, selected and reviewed.

5. Key findings

Set out the key findings relevant to the issue addressed in the article in a systematic way, relating them to earlier work covered in the literature review. Authors often try to say too much here, overloading their submission with empirical findings such that the point of the article is obscured in empirical detail.

6. Contribution to knowledge

Identify the extent and ways in which the findings and discussion contribute to new empirical knowledge about the issue or better theoretical understanding of the topic. There is a balance to be struck here: be confident in the conclusions you draw, but don’t overstate the case.

7. Implications for future research, policy or practice

Draw out the implications of the study for future research, policy or practice – in the country which is the primary focus of the article, but also more broadly where appropriate.

8. Argument, structure, and signposting

Finally, check to see whether there is a clear, well-signposted, structure and thread of argument running through the paper, so that readers can quickly gain a secure sense of the paper’s development from introduction to conclusion.

On receipt of a submission, we will always make an initial editorial judgement before we send a paper out for review, and we may ask you to revise the paper before doing so. We encourage reviewers to provide constructive feedback to authors in order to help improve papers, and we will provide guidance on how to proceed if the decision is one of ‘revise and resubmit’. The peer review process can be exacting but it is rigorous and invariably leads to better quality papers.

We would encourage you to get in touch if you have an idea for a paper but are not sure of its suitability. We’ll always aim to provide helpful guidance, though, of course, we cannot provide any guarantees of publication.

If you would like to submit a paper you can find the Journal’s aims and scope, and instructions for authors on the Voluntary Sector Review website. You will also find further information about submitting Policy and Practice articles, along with details of the relevant editors for these sections.

 

More about Voluntary Sector Review

To submit an article consult our instructions for authors.

For news about all the latest issues and free articles sign up for our e-newsletter and follow the journal on Twitter @VSRjournal

Ask your librarian to subscribe or sign up for a free institutional trial.

‘Border Crossings’ day seminar – bookings now open

Bookings are now open for the VSSN day seminar in Glasgow on Thursday 18th May, ‘Border Crossings: Implications for Civil Society in a ‘Dis’-United Kingdom’.

This timely seminar will consider the implications for the third sector and civil society of changing relationships within the UK and between the UK and Europe.

Read the programme and abstracts and book your place online here.

We look forward to seeing you in Glasgow!

 

New Researchers Sessions – Call for Papers deadline extended to 31st May

2017 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference – New Researchers Sessions

The New Researchers Sessions run alongside the annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, which this year is taking place in Nottingham on 7th and 8th September.

The Call for Papers for the New Researchers Sessions is now open.

The aim of the sessions is to give new researchers (i.e. those who are new to research or who are new to the voluntary sector) an opportunity to:

  • present their research
  • get constructive feedback in a supportive (and fun!) environment
  • meet other new researchers and network
  • network with established researchers and practitioners

These events are organised by the Voluntary Studies Sector Network (VSSN), National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR).

The deadline for abstract submissions has been extended to 31st May. There is also an opportunity to be considered for the Campbell Adamson Memorial Prize.

For more information, visit the New Researchers Sessions page.

2017 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference: Call for Papers

Information is now available about the 2017 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, organised jointly by VSSN, NCVO and the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR).

The conference will be held in Nottingham on 7th and 8th September.

The call for papers is now open and will close on 2nd May 2016.

You can find out more about the conference, its themes and how to submit a paper from our events page.

Further information will follow shortly about opportunities at the conference specifically for new and early-career researchers.

Voluntary Sector Review: Call for Editor and Practice Editor

The Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) and Policy Press invite applications for two positions on the Editorial team of Voluntary Sector Review:

  • Editor, from January 2018 to December 2020
  • Practice Editor, from summer 2017 to 2020

Voluntary Sector Review (VSR) is a journal with a growing international profile that publishes high-quality, peer-reviewed, accessible papers on third sector research, policy and practice.

The new journal Editor will join the current team of two Editors: Rob Macmillan (University of Birmingham) and Nick Acheson (Ulster University and Trinity College, University of Dublin).

The new Practice Editor will replace a current Practice Editor, and will focus on editing practice-oriented papers.

Both postholders will work closely with the VSR Editorial Management Board and Policy Press.

Full text of the Call for Editor can be downloaded here.

Full text of the Call for Practice Editor can be downloaded here.