Book Review: Volunteers: A social profile

Book by Marc A. Musick and John Wilson. Published by Indiana University Press, 2008

Reviewed by Prof. Ram Cnaan

Twenty years ago I was able to read everything that was written on volunteers; today, Musick and Wilson demonstrate that it is no longer possible. This book is the most successful attempt to provide an authoritative review of the state of knowledge on volunteering, looking at hundreds of sources. For many reasons outlined in the first chapter, the field of volunteer study has reached maturity, with numerous scholars producing quality studies. The field is so diverse and rich that Musick and Wilson focus on a limited, although substantial, subset. The authors provide us with a thorough review of mostly sociological studies that attempt to answer the questions of who tends to volunteer, how much they volunteer (time and frequency), and for whom. This is the most authoritative text ever written about the sociology of volunteering, and I do not know of any other source that comes close to it in depth and coverage in any other discipline.

Musick is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, and Wilson is professor of sociology at Duke University. Wilson has published more than fifty articles on volunteerism, many in collaboration with Musick, and together they offer some of the most substantial works on volunteering, including the social resources theory which explains why people with social and human capital are more likely to volunteer. This book is an attempt to use their vast knowledge on the subject to review a large part of the existing literature.

The first two chapters of the book are general and can be useful to any scholar of volunteering. The authors devote a full chapter to the definition of volunteering. It was somewhat disappointing then that they elaborate on the complexity and difficulty of defining volunteers and leave the reader with no comprehensive definition.

The following fifteen chapters (3 to 17) are an amazingly rich journey into the sociology of volunteering. In addition to the review of the literature the authors provide the reader with their own results using a set of available surveys. Wisely, they do not include endless tables but instead refer the interested reader to a website where the relevant tables are provided.

The final chapters attempt to provide a quick review of the experience of volunteering and cover issues which are more relevant to volunteer managers. Chapter 13 is on volunteer recruitment and examines effective ways of recruiting volunteers and who is more likely to respond. Chapter 17 looks into recent trends in volunteering, focusing on volunteering by different generations. Part 5 of the book, “The Organization of Volunteer Work”, includes one chapter on volunteer tasks (what volunteers actually do and who is likely to do what); and a second on the role of the volunteer. The chapter on the role of the volunteer is the most interesting for practitioners, as it covers different aspects of volunteer management including motivating and retaining volunteers, incentives and recognition, relations with staff and clients, and job satisfaction.

Although the managerial chapters are well written, they are not at the same depth as the earlier sociological chapters. Numerous studies devoted to volunteer management and volunteer consequences are not cited in this part of the book. This section does disservice to the book as it misses issues such as the most recent forms of volunteering, including virtual volunteering and volunteer-tourism. Finally, the context of volunteering could have been enhanced by a discussion of group dynamics and the power of recruiting and managing volunteers through cohesive groups.

My various criticisms are minor and pale in comparison to the great achievement of this book. What Musick and Wilson have done is little short of a miracle. They assembled hundreds of sources and shed light on a major theme in the study of volunteering. This book is a very useful tool for all volunteer scholars and students. I take my hat off to the authors.

Prof. Ram Cnaan is the Senior Associate Dean and the Director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research in School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania. He is also the immediate past president of ARNOVA.            

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