two people grasping each others hands in a street

Public debate about voluntary action often focusses on headline levels of participation, which at times have become symbolic of the success or otherwise of government policies – we certainly saw this during the early years of Coalition government, when every slight uptick in volunteering was seen as vindicating the government’s policies. We don’t often talk about the converse of participation. In a conference paper this week at the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organisations and voluntary Action (ARNOVA) I look at the evidence.

Non-engagement in various pro-social behaviours has long been associated with certain socioeconomic and demographic traits including educational attainment, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, gender and health. The scale of it depends considerably on the surveys used, but few studies actually indicate that voluntary action is a majority pursuit, unless combined measurements are taken which encompass formal volunteering (through organisations) and informal voluntary action, as well as engagement in charitable giving and participation in associations. This suggests that our attention should be on the non-engaged as much as on the engaged. Given the acknowledged difficulties in measuring voluntary action, and the variations in the meanings that actions have for individuals, it can also be argued that a focus on simple binary oppositions between those who are not engaged, and those who are, may not be a productive direction for inquiry.

Non-engagement in voluntary action in the UK can be explored using an extensive range of quantitative and qualitative sources. These include cross-sectional social surveys of voluntarism; longitudinal studies of individuals (the British Household Panel Study (BHPS) and Understanding Society; the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCSD)) which track people regularly throughout their lives; and qualitative sources which explore in detail individual accounts of voluntary action (the Social Participation module of the NCDS; the Mass Observation archive). The qualitative work is structured to provide more detail on individuals’ understandings of their (non-)engagement and of the reasons for it.

The cross-sectional data provides estimates of the extent of non-engagement. The quantitative work seeks to identify non-engaged individuals across a number of dimensions and to differentiate them from the engaged population on a range of socioeconomic criteria. On a narrow definition of engagement, with a single measure such as regular formal volunteering, the proportion of the non-engaged is around two-thirds; on a broader definition encompassing formal and informal volunteering, as well as associational participation and charitable giving, the proportion who are non-engaged drops to well below a fifth. The analyses also summarise the available evidence about the reasons for non-engagement by individuals, reporting work on questions about barriers to engagement (which, of course, may not provide a complete account of why individuals do not engage).

Longitudinal surveys then provide a different perspective since they show a pattern of transitions into and out of volunteering “states” between surveys. As an example, the NCDS, which has tracked people born in 1958 for some forty years of their adult lives, , supplementing its quantitative data with qualitative interviews on participation, finds, in fact, a very small proportion of the population who never engage. It also shows the long-term effects of economic circumstances on subsequent patterns of engagement. Analysis of persistence in volunteering over time in the BHPS shows very strong social gradients between the regular volunteers and the infrequent or non-volunteers. Collectively the longitudinal data raises questions about the extent to which any one individual can be described as a non-volunteer.

Turning to qualitative longitudinal material, we can explore the rationalisations given by individuals for their trajectories of voluntary action. Data from Mass Observation used extensively by Rose Lindsey and myself provides a wealth of information from individuals gathered regularly through semi-structured pieces of writing over a thirty-year period. It provides rich insights into their own experiences of engagement, with a particular focus on the constraints of family context, responsibilities for unpaid care, and the demands of poor-quality, repetitive work. The NCDS Social Participation module, using a highly-structured interview schedule to prompt recall of lifetime patterns of engagement, likewise draws attention to economic and family circumstances which have constrained participation, in some measure reflecting long-standing sociological emphases on the importance of stable positions in labour and housing markets for social participation.

Unusually, both the NCDS and the Mass Observation material ask respondents about how they might envisage voluntary action in their future lives – the NCDS does this through questions asked at age 50 about how they thought their lives might look at the age of 60, while Mass Observation respondents were asked to consider their responses to the “Big Society” agenda of David Cameron’s government. This material sheds further light on what might persuade, or dissuade, people from becoming more involved in their communities, and suggests that unreflective calls to action will gain little traction.

The broad conclusions are as follows. Firstly, depending on the definition of non-engagement that is applied, the “problem” of non-engagement varies considerably. Secondly, in longitudinal perspective, we may reasonably question whether any individuals can be described as lifetime non-participants. Thirdly, the paper demonstrates the importance of triggers for non-engagement  and the need to understand these in more depth than is currently the case. We need to understand fluctuations, trajectories, and disengagement as much as engagement. Finally, in relation to persuading people to commence and continue engagement, there are strong messages in relation to the context for appeals to greater participation: recent British experience suggests that strongly affirmative messages, rather than austerity-driven narratives, are required.