This study offers a brief counter-note to the dominant functional analyses of voluntary action present in much of the current civil society discourse. It is argued that a functional approach, while explicating the structure of voluntary action at sector and organisational level, is challenged in offering a sufficient explanation of voluntary action at the level of the individual. Definitional difficulties regarding the volunteer and the voluntary organisation, and the demand-sided emphasis in the presentation of the relationship between organisation and individual are seen as symtomatic of this problem. A paradigmatic barrier to the exploration of the relationship between human agency and voluntary action is argued to lie at the core of the issue. Despite an an increasing body of research into volunteering which draws attention to individual reflexivity, value expression, and a concern with self-enactment, such work is not gathered yet as a coherent and alternative voice.
In this study the ‘putative agency’ of the individual is placed at the centre of the research proposition so as to examine the subjective experience relative to enagement in voluntary action. An interpretative approach is used for gathering the life-stories of individuals who have contributed significantly to the establishment and development of a variety of Civil Society Organisations. From an analysis of these narratives, a complex and multi-faceted image of the individual as ‘voluntary actor’ is proposed. Some of the implications of such an image for our undestanding of the relationship between the individual and voluntary action are examined.
Following postgraduate research in History, Andrew O’Regan spent 10 years working in Civil Society Organisations in Ireland before joining the School of Business, Trinity College. He is Programme Director of the Centre for Nonprofit Management there and teaches on undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. His research is concerned primarily with understanding the relationship between individual meaning and social identity, and the functioning of civil society organisations in the creation and enactment of values in society.