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Divergent Frames of Cooperation as a Challenge for Civic Engagement

Wed, July 13, 4:30 to 6:00pm, TBA


Volunteering often means working together with others. Cooperation is even a key characteristic of volunteering in the German definition. Nevertheless, little in the way of either empirical research or theoretical work has apparently been devoted to cooperation among volunteers. In our view, this is due to the tacit assumption that actors in civil society have a prosocial attitude, seeking contact with others and cooperating with them – as is conceived, for example, in the context of a neo-Tocquevillian understanding of civil society. In contrast, our analysis of narrative interviews reveals the ambiguity, difficulties and tensions underlying cooperative relationships. We adopt the critical perspectives shared by Lichterman and Eliasoph (2014), who also reconstruct different patterns of collaborative action on the basis of qualitative empirical research, observing volunteering as processual action that can be contradictory in itself (see also Shachar et al. 2019 for a similar perspective).
As part of a research project on the withdrawal from civic engagement, we collected 61 narrative interviews and 10 group discussions. On the basis of the reconstructive procedure of the documentary method (Bohnsack et al. 2010), we are looking for the framings and opposing perspectives with which volunteers describe their experiences and lend them meaning. In this perspective of the sociology of knowledge, we analyse the communication of an implicit and action-guiding knowledge concerning practice (see also Philipps and Mrowczynski 2021).
Our analysis shows two frames within which volunteers talk about cooperation: On the one hand, volunteers refer to themselves as puzzle pieces dependent on others. Typical of this frame is, for example, the emphasis on horizontal relationships in cooperative work on a larger, emergent whole. This view of many different people working together as equals, each making a small but important contribution, frames these narratives in a similar way. Contrasting with this is a frame in which volunteers refer to themselves as independent game pieces. Such narratives are typically characterised by vertical relationships in terms of individual responsibility and leadership in cooperation. They also share an emphasis on individual skills, rational decision-making and, not infrequently, autonomy from established milieus, traditions and emotions.
In our view, this result seems significant, as the frames document two different ways of dealing with a common problem for action: volunteering always involves coordination and cooperation that must be realised in some form. The two frames of orientation show how the problem of cooperation can turn into a conflict: for example, in negotiating the relative importance of individual skills and responsibilities or in the question of collaborative decision-making in volunteer work. This lecture aims at a reconstruction of these ideal-typical frames and their (conflictual) relationship. Against this background, we call for further research that inquires into the conditions of action and contexts that underlie the different frames.