Volunteering: The Human Face of Democracy

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Abstract
Since the mid 1990s, following the reception in Australia of Robert Putnam’s theory about social capital, volunteering has been seen as a means of expanding democracy. Social researchers have stressed the role of friendly social networks and informal civil associations in generating reserves of trust and social capital. The broad social benefits of trust are now widely recognised as having the potential to sustain and renovate economic and political institutions. Robert Putnam uses volunteering as an index of civic participation and argues that the immanent decline of volunteering signals a potential crisis for democracy. In this paper, we challenge Putnam’s thesis from two directions, empirically and theoretically. Using information about time spent in volunteering from 1974 to 1997, it can be shown that, far from the decline in volunteering Putnam predicts, there is likely to be a significant increase in the total number of volunteer hours supplied. While this does give us some reason to anticipate an expansion of democracy in the future, we will argue that Putnam also underestimates the democratising potential of volunteering by ignoring the relationships of care in which volunteering is anchored.
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Wilkinson, Jennifer
Bittman, Michael
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2002
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Working Paper
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