Volunteering as Performance: The Dynamic between Self-Interest and Selflessness within the Volunteer Industry



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This thesis investigates volunteering as performance. In exploring this topic I discuss a dynamic between self-interest and selflessness in the observable performance of service through the social mechanisms of volunteerism. I argue that self-interest is a prominent motivation for volunteering, but its overt performance is kept in check by norms that emphasize selflessness. My argument centers on addressing this lack of acknowledgement toward self-interest within vernacular culture.

My research draws examples from an individual, organizational, and global volunteer perspective. Ethnographic research was conducted for this study with a student group that organizes one of the American Cancer Society?s Relay For Life fundraisers. Within this organization, I conceptualize volunteering as a performance that requires a social actor to not just ?do? service, but also ?show do? and/or ?explain show do? their behavior in front of an audience. This presentation culminates in a cultural performance where participants at Relay For Life perform a narrative of selflessness.

Expanding my discussion of volunteering to a global perspective, my last chapter addresses volunteer tourism. I argue that the self-interest of both volunteers and volunteer travel companies reduces the recipients of volunteer tourism to essentialized and exociticized cultural "Others." I advocate for the overt acknowledgement of self-interest not only because self-interest is present, but also because it is a central dynamic that constructs volunteerism as performance.