Social and civil participation, volunteering and the National Child Development Study: lessons for 'constrained times'

Dr Katherine Brookfield, University of York and Dr Jane Parry, University of Southampton. 

As we adjust to another national lockdown, where to help tackle the virus opportunities to meet with others and participate in collective activities have been curtailed, questions have been asked about the possible effects of these restrictions upon individuals. Contributing to this conversation, across three interconnected articles we recently used data from the National Child Development Study, (the 1958 Birth Cohort), and the associated Social Participation and Identity Study (2008), to explore long term patterns of volunteering and participation in meetings, groups and collective activities, and the effects of these forms of engagement on individuals. 

Our most recent article, ‘The long arm of the household: Gendered struggles in combining paid work with social and civil participation over the lifecourse, in Gender, Work and Organisation, explored how paid work, volunteering and various forms of social and civil participation are woven together over time. We unpacked a bidirectional relationship between these items, and highlighted the importance of household dynamics and gender in these interactions. Paid work's flexibility, autonomy, predictability, and intensity emerged as important elements in achieving, or frustrating, a sustainable work–participation balance: aspects that have been writ large under lockdown where long-assumed working practices have been fundamentally disrupted. We found that maintaining this balance could be ‘a job of work’ in itself, but individuals persevered in their efforts because of the benefits gained from incorporating social and civil activities, and volunteering, into their lives. 

Previously, in Going solo: lifelong nonparticipation amongst the NCDS cohort, in Leisure Studies, we focused on an ‘extreme’ variant of non-participation - lifelong nonparticipation - encompassing individuals who do not, and have never, taken part in collective activities, groups or volunteering. We identified ‘lifelong nonparticipation’ as a minority disposition associated with distinctive demographic traits being, for example, highly gendered and related to lower educational attainment. Time pressures arising from work and caring duties or, more precisely, the feeling of being ‘pressed for time’, were critical in explaining lifelong nonparticipation. More common than a complete absence of activity was limited, ‘informal’ and ad-hoc participation. Dictated by changing interests, work patterns and caring commitments, individuals presenting this behaviour dipped into and out of social and civil engagements across the lifecourse. Although rationed and erratic, meaningful benefits were still derived from these forms of participation. Our research highlighted that non-participation was related to inequalities, and under lockdown the vulnerability of those with heavier caring responsibilities has emerged as a key issue with affected individuals seeking to juggle paid and unpaid work without their usual support structures. On a more positive note, lockdown is providing an opportunity for new informal and digitised forms of participation to evolve, whose formats may yet prove to be more inclusive than formalised organisational frameworks which necessarily restrict participation to specific times and places. 

Our third article, Getting the Measure of Prosocial Behaviors, in Non-profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, investigated how methods shape estimates of volunteering and social and civil participation. We compared participation and volunteering data from the National Child Development Study and the associated Social Participation and Identity Study (2008). We evaluated the studies’ strengths and prosocial behaviour content, and considered possible links between their respective methodologies, and the scale and forms of participation and volunteering each identified. We found that the less structured style of the interview schedule employed in the Social Participation and Identity Study, which encouraged individuals to narrate their wider experiences of volunteering and participation, facilitated the identification of a multitude of prosocial behaviours and a range of benefits arising from these behaviours. A central argument in this paper is that surveys can ‘miss’ informal and ad hoc participation, yet these activities can bring valuable benefits to individuals and communities. There is some evidence to suggest that the pandemic has led to more people taking part in informal volunteering (Informal Volunteering - Community Life COVID-19 Re-contact Survey 2020) while there has been a boom in informal online social activities. To better capture activities that have emerged and thrived in the lockdowns, and which have brought comfort and support to many, survey designers could consider further how social and civil participation, and volunteering, are ‘typically’ defined in survey instruments. 


This work originated in a collaboration between TSRC and the National Child Development Study team at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and was funded by ESRC. We would particularly like to thank Sam Parsons and Jane Elliott for their guidance and advice in the course of the project.