From Social Science to Social Policy

Reflecting on the messages of research on social action, it is tempting to speculate about the implications of the scientific study of social action for social policy. In the case of volunteerism as a form of social action, as we have seen, its importance in providing much needed services to individuals, communities, and society is well documented. Moreover, volunteerism (and, more generally, helping behavior), as we have also seen, has been linked to better health, greater optimism, and longer life, suggesting a possible adaptive value and evolutionary significance of volunteerism as well as other forms of helping and social action.

Accordingly, it has been argued (e.g., Snyder & Omoto, 2008; Snyder, 2009) that social policies that facilitate volunteerism (and other forms of social action) might be in the interests of society. In societies in which the ideals of volunteerism are widely shared, and in which substantial amounts of helping are provided by volunteers, the knowledge generated by scientific inquiry into volunteerism becomes a valuable basis for informing social policies designed to encourage volunteerism and to optimize its effectiveness. However, words of caution should be voiced about going so far as to mandate volunteerism and other forms of social action or even to offer strong and substantial rewards for such involvement, lest such mandates and rewards have the unintended effects of undermining intrinsic motivations for taking action on behalf of society, as suggested by some studies of students in campus based volunteer service programs involving academic requirement and credit (e.g., Stukas, Snyder, & Clary, 1999).

In addition, if it is true, as it has been said, that “a society is judged by how well it responds in times of greatest need” (Watkins, 1989), networks of civic engagement and social action may be the building blocks of a society well able to respond to the needs of its citizens and to meet the challenges that confront it. Moreover, to the extent that organizations, communities, and society are built on the principles that scientific research has documented as important in promoting social action, it is possible that positive consequences for individuals, communities, and society may result.

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