Why Does Social Action Occur?

Clearly, social action occurs at the level of individual behaviors (such as charitable giving, volunteering, and voting) and at the level of collective actions (such as community organizations, political campaigns, and social movements). But, in many ways, social action is a curious phenomenon. For a variety of reasons, social action simply should not occur. There is no press of circumstances, no bonds of obligation, and no requirement that people involve themselves in the affairs of their communities and society. Moreover, it is effortful, and it has opportunity costs, potentially taking people away from their work, their leisure, their friends, and their families. Why, then, does social action occur? Why do people get involved in the first place? And, why do they stay involved, often doing so for extended periods of time? The question of “why” is, of course, the question of motivation—a question that has been addressed in theory and research.

The Role of Motivation

Across many forms of social action, investigators working from diverse perspectives and with diverse methodologies have focused on the role of motivations in understanding why people engage in it (for a review, see Snyder & Omoto, 2007). Specifically, researchers have searched for motivations that move people to seek out opportunities to initiate social action, and the motivations that sustain their actions over time.

Let us examine some of these motivations in the context of one form of social action in which the role of motivation has been extensively studied—volunteerism. Every year, millions of people around the world volunteer. These volunteers provide (among other services) companionship to the lonely, tutoring to the illiterate, counseling to the troubled, and health care to the sick. In the United States, it is estimated that some 61 million people (approximately 30 percent of the U.S. adult population) volunteered during 2005-2006 (U.S. Dept.

of Labor, 2008). Whereas the United States has long had relatively high rates of volunteerism, voluntary action can be found in countries throughout the world (e.g., Curtis, Baer, & Grabb, 2001).

Volunteerism is also an important source of helping. The helping and services of volunteers are often provided on a sustained and ongoing basis, and they frequently fill gaps in services and programs that support individuals and communities. According to one estimate, volunteers contribute more than 15 billion hours of volunteer services each year, which if it were paid labor would be worth about 240 billion dollars (Independent Sector, 2001). Volunteering delivers benefits not only to individuals and communities, but also to volunteers themselves, including positive effects on self-esteem, academic achievement, personal efficacy, confidence, optimism, health, and even a longer life for those who offer assistance to others (for a review of the literature, see Snyder & Omoto, 2008).

Volunteerism is, in addition, a special form of helping (for discussion of the features of volunteerism, see Snyder & Omoto, 2008; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005; Piliavin & Charng, 1990; Wilson, 2000). As is the case with many forms of social action, volunteering is performed on the basis of the actor’s volition without coercion or bonds of obligation; as such, volunteerism differs from many other forms of helping, such as that which occurs when a person provides care for an aging parent or a sick spouse. Moreover, volunteering involves some amount of deliberation and planning (volunteers decide not only whether to help, but also where to help, when to help, and how to help); as such, acts of volunteering are not reflexive acts of assistance such as those that occur when bystanders respond to emergencies. In addition, volunteering typically extends over time—weeks, months, and years— rather than being limited to one-time special events (such as walks or runs for charity). In addition, the acts of volunteering are typically undertaken without expectation of material compensation or as part of one’s job; as such, there is what may appear to be (and perhaps actually be) a self-sacrificing, virtuous, selfless, and altruistic quality to volunteerism. Finally, volunteers usually give their time to organizations that seek to assist causes and people who desire to be helped and even actively seek to be helped.

The prevalence ofvolunteerism, its conceptual importance for understanding the nature of helping, and its practical significance as a way that people work for the common good, all help to define volunteering as an important social phenomenon, worthy of scientific inquiry, both basic and applied. The key question in such scientific inquiry is: Why does volunteerism occur? And, among the answers to that question are the motivations behind volunteering. For, what seems to characterize volunteers, and to distinguish them from nonvolunteers, is the integration of the values and ideals of helping into motivational agendas that link the good that volunteers do for others to good done for the self. That is, volunteers seem to be motivated to use volunteering as a way to do something for themselves (to boost their self-esteem, to make friends, to gain skills) at the same time as they do good deeds for other people. This answer to the question of why volunteerism occurs emerges from research that has articulated the motivations that promote it.

Much of this research has involved studying volunteers in service with community-based organizations, often following them over months and years as they move through the course of their service (for a review, see Snyder & Omoto, 2008). Our work has been guided by functionalist theorizing that emphasizes the purposes served by action and the role of such purposes in initiating, guiding, and sustaining action (e.g., Snyder, 1993; Snyder & Cantor, 1998). In the case of volunteerism, a functional analysis concerns the needs being met, the motives being fulfilled, and the purposes or functions being served by volunteer service (e.g., Snyder, Clary, & Stukas, 2000).

Research guided by functionalist theorizing has revealed that quite different motivations can and do underlie the very same actions. Thus, several people may all engage in the same form of volunteerism, but do so in the service of quite different motives, motives that can be identified and measured with reliability and validity. In fact, several inventories have been developed to assess motivations for volunteerism (e.g., Clary, Snyder, Ridge, Copeland, Stukas, Haugen et al., 1998; Omoto & Snyder, 1995), and these inventories have revealed strong family resemblances in the motivations identified across distinct groups of volunteers who span a wide range of ages, and who serve on behalf of a great variety of causes and concerns in many countries around the globe (for a review, see Snyder & Omoto, 2008).

Among the motivations identified by these inventories are personal values, including humanitarian concern about others and personal convictions, including religious and spiritual values. Another motivation is community concern and the desire to help a community, whether or not the volunteer is a member of the community. Some people volunteer for career reasons, seeking to bolster career and networking opportunities or to obtain career-relevant experiences, and others volunteer to gain greater understanding or knowledge about a problem, cause, or set of people. Other motivations for volunteering include personal development

(e.g., developing skills, testing oneself), esteem enhancement (e.g., to feel better about oneself or bring stability to one’s life), and social concerns (e.g., to meet people and make friends).

These functionally oriented motives, which weave together actions in the service of others and the quest for benefits to the self, are intimately and intricately linked to the processes of volunteerism, differentiating volunteers from nonvolunteers, predicting the behavior of volunteers, and guiding and directing the course of volunteer service. Let us now consider research relevant to these aspects of volunteerism.

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