Fifty at fifty: long term patterns of participation and volunteering among the 1958 NODS Cohort at age 50

Working Paper 119

March 2014

Fifty at Fifty (50 at 50) combined longitudinal quantitative data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Survey, i.e. the National Child Development Study (NCDS), with qualitative biographical interview data from the associated Social Participation and Identity Study (SPIS) to investigate long term patterns of participation and volunteering. Fifty interview transcripts were abstracted for analysis from the SPIS. These related to individuals who presented three distinct, and intrinsically interesting, patterns of participation within the NCDS data – non-participants, perennial participants, and frequent participants at age 50. At odds with most previous findings on the characteristics of participants vis-a-vis non-participants, quantitative data records indicated that these individuals shared numerous demographic traits. The SPIS data seemed potentially well placed to illuminate why these relatively similar individuals demonstrated noticeably different patterns of participation.

The study’s major contribution is to the debate around data triangulation, in terms of the role methods play in defining and measuring participation and volunteering, and the potential for certain methods to ‘miss’ particular forms or levels of these activities. Comparing between the datasets, at times noticeably different narratives of participation emerged with alignment being poorest for those individuals identified in the quantitative data as non-participants. For these individuals, the SPIS often revealed a diverse range of occasional, past and informal involvements. Religious participation, too, produced divergent stories in the datasets. Further, the qualitative transcripts revealed a greater number of associational affiliations than the quantitative data while, conversely, trade union and political activity was rarely mentioned in the qualitative interviews, even though the quantitative data indicated that it was widespread. Several factors might explain the ‘gap’ between the datasets. Key amongst these are: (1) the timing of key life events, and the consequences of these transitions upon subsequent participation, (2) the way the NCDS appears to privilege ‘joining in’ with associations over other forms of participation, and (3) the pathways through participation that were picked up in the qualitative interviews, and those that were not pursued. 

Multiple forms of participation and volunteering were identified amongst the 50 interviewees while multiple motives drove these activities. There were similarities in motive between the three types of participant but, notably, relevant to the frequent and non-participants, altruistic motivations played a more central role in perennials’ long-term commitment. Triggers, both people and events, were important in providing opportunities for individuals to participate in desired and unfamiliar ways, but these were not equally accessible. Conversely, workplace factors, such as shift work and self-employment, had a major impact upon an individual’s ability to get and stay involved. Future research investigating the precise impact and mechanisms of these catalysts will provide further valuable insight into participation and volunteering pathways.

 

Research contacts 
Katherine Brookfield, Jane Parry and Vicki Bolton