Why are voluntary associations interesting? For social scientists they are interesting for three reasons…
- According to “neo-Tocquevillean theory” in political science voluntary associations are “schools of democracy”. The reasoning is that members – and especially those with lower educational qualifications – enhance their civic skills and political interest trough associational involvement, because some of the organizational activities and decision making processes resemble politics. Once trained, they may then start participating in “real politics” or non-institutionalized types of political involvement (demonstrations, lobbying, etc.). I have been working on this idea together with Tom van der Meer. Unfortunately, and despite the popularity of the theory, we never found solid evidence supporting it (Van der Meer & Van Ingen 2009; Van Ingen & Van der Meer 2015). And we tried hard.
- Many scholars think that voluntary associations draw a mixed crowd, more mixed than what people normally encounter at school, at work, in their neighborhood etc. Under the right circumstances, these interactions with “dissimilar others” may help reduce prejudices against, and adjust stereotypical images of outgroups. I’m slightly less pessimistic about this idea than I am about the previous one, although in a paper with Rene Bekkers (Van Ingen & Bekkers 2015) we showed that associational involvement does not increase members’ social (or generalized) trust. One reason might be that the right circumstances are not as often present as assumed, which is something I’m currently writing a paper on.
- Associational activities and connections to fellow members may provide people with (enhanced) social and human capital. There is a fair share of empirical support for this. For instance, through volunteer work people may improve work-related skills and meet others with relevant information or influence when seeking a job. In a paper with Matthijs Kalmijn (Van Ingen & Kalmijn 2010) we showed that ethnic minorities, older individuals, and those living in a single person household gain social support from joining a voluntary association. Another interesting application is whether associational involvement may contribute to “successful aging” (i.e. growing old without significant loss of well-being). I’m currently working on a paper together with John Wilson (Van Ingen & Wilson 2013) in which we study whether older individuals gain a sense of fulfilling meaningful roles from volunteering, especially after retirement.
On Wednesday 18 November 2009 I defended my Ph.D. thesis entitled “Let’s Come Together and Unite: Studies of the Changing Character of Voluntary Association Participation”.
You can download the final version of the thesis here, including a summary in Dutch (pages 203-213).
A video of the introductory talk of my defense (in Dutch) is available