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Volunteering, social participation and democracy – the heart of matter

By Jennifer Wilkinson and Michael Bittman - posted Monday, 15 April 2002

In this article we suggest that volunteering shows us a more inclusive and human side of democracy than is normally represented in formal democratic institutions. When faced with official hype about extending social participation, we might expect some cynicism about the claim that volunteering has a democratising potential.

However, for those who give freely of their time and labour, there is a link between voluntary activity and the classical idea of a polis whereby politics refers to a realm of civic participation. When citizens volunteer to help others, social participation means more than just a set of strategies for balancing the budget.

Volunteering helps to remind us that, no matter how complex and distant some social institutions have become, the roots of any just political system are still deeply grounded in real social relationships based on trust and care. We believe that here, in the webs of social connection and the compassionate impulses that support them, lies a potential to renovate democratic practices and renew our sense of civility.


Volunteering social networks and social capital

Since the mid-1990s, social capital has rapidly become the dominant framework in Australia for interpreting volunteering. Both researchers and government agencies have readily accepted the links between volunteering, social capital and democracy.

However, in government practices aimed at maximising ‘social participation’ such as ‘The Mutual Obligations Requirements’, the concept of social capital has not been used primarily to emphasise the caring orientation of voluntary organisations or how they might expand our conception of what it means to be civil. Instead, they have an instrumental value for governments.

This utilitarian function is based on a quality economists call ‘fungibility’, that is, treating goods as interchangeable. On this view, the networks, norms and trust built for one purpose can be used for another. For example, a movement created to stage the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras can also be used to spread information about HIV/AIDS and safe sex.

Economists also distinguish between private and public goods. Whereas a private good is someone’s exclusive possession, public goods are not – one person’s use of public goods does not deprive others of them. The costs and benefits of public goods, which are not reflected in market prices, are called ‘externalities’.

As Putnam notes, the stock of social connectedness stored in social capital ‘can have externalities that affect the wider community, so that not all the cost and benefits accrue to the person making’ the actual social connection.

These two elements of social capital – their fungibility and their externalities – make the notion of social capital irresistible to governments. Not only do networks of volunteers represent a resource which can be redeemed at other levels, governments are also able to ‘free-ride’, since what those networks produce - good health, a lower crime rate and a general improvement in social functioning in virtually all institutions – is regarded as costless.


What is more, governments are able to justify all this in the name of maximising democracy through extending social participation.

However, all this emphasis on the utilitarian benefits of social networks has blinded policy makers to important differences in types of social capital and the sorts of social networks that have genuine democratising potential.

According to Robert Putnam there are two types of social networks – vertical and horizontal. Horizontal networks bring together ‘agents of equivalent status and power’. However, vertical networks, eg patriarchal families, link ‘unequal agents in asymmetric relations of hierarchy and dependence’, and are therefore capable neither of facilitating democracy nor of generating genuine civic-mindedness.

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This paper is an edited version of research undertaken by the University of New South Wales’ Social Policy Research Centre. The full paper, Volunteering: The Human Face of Democracy, can be found here.

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About the Authors

Jennifer Wilkinson is a Lecturer at the Cumberland College of Health and Sciences.

Michael Bittman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre.

Related Links
al Policy Research Centre
Cumberland College
Michael Bittman's home page
University of New South Wales
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