Is mixed-method research into volunteering behaviour complicated by the lack of an accepted definition of volunteering? This was discussed in our previous post. In our monthly team meeting we had a lively discussion about this issue, asking a variety of questions, such as:
- Is it important or appropriate to define volunteering at this point in the project?
- Is it possible to define formal and informal volunteering?
- Are definitions more useful to quantitative analysis than qualitative analysis?
- Is it appropriate to enforce a definition of volunteering when using different methodological approaches?
What happens if put the question of strict definitions to one side? What are the different possible approaches that we could take within a project with a mixed method longitudinal framework? We decided that one approach for analysis of volunteering behaviours is to look at differences in individuals’ transitions in and out of volunteering over time. By not restricting the analysis to a certain definition of volunteering, this approach could enable insight into similarities and differences in different forms of volunteering, and into changes in volunteering behaviours over time. Trajectory analysis of very loosely defined volunteering behaviour could be an approach that opens up discussion between the different quantitative and qualitative methodologies that we are using.
From a qualitative perspective this approach should work well. During our meeting we read and discussed examples of Mass Observation writers’ responses to different directives, in particular the 1996 Directive ‘Unpaid work’ and the 2012 Directive ‘The Big Society’. This was an opportunity to look at how writers are describing and conceiving of their volunteering behaviours, as well as for the whole team to ‘meet’ some of the writers. We noted that volunteering mean different things to different writers. We agreed that undertaking analysis of writers’ descriptions of their volunteering, without our imposing preconceived definitions of volunteering onto these narratives, should allow us to gain an idea of the nature and shape of the volunteering and unpaid work that Mass Observers undertake across time.
But, when we use a quantitative approach, it is more difficult to allow the material to ‘speak’ for itself. The information we can retrieve on volunteering and unpaid work is restricted by the questions asked within the surveys that we are using: the British Household Panel Survey/Understanding Society, the General Household Survey/General Lifestyle Survey and the British Attitude Survey. By their very nature these questions impose definitions which are then reflected in the answers that people give. So our quantitative approach has to be different from our qualitative approach.
We decided to look at all possible types of volunteering, and search for similarities and differences in trajectories into and out of volunteering, within and across all these forms of volunteering. The different groups we will investigate are:
- All volunteers: all individuals who have responded positively to surveys asking about volunteering and caring for others.
- Formal volunteers: this includes individuals who volunteer for organisations, and people who view their volunteering as unpaid work
- Informal: people who don’t volunteer for organisations, but volunteer on an individual basis, this includes helping others and all forms of caring
The surveys we are using break caring down, into four types of categories. We intend to look at all of these, which include:
- Non-residential: individuals who provide care for people that do not live with them
- Residential: individuals that provide voluntary care for people that live with them
- Non-resident, non-relative: individuals who provide voluntary care for people that are not relatives that do not live with them
- Non-resident relative: individuals who provide voluntary care for relatives that do not live with them
We realise that for the quantitative work this trajectory approach is still underpinned by definitions of volunteering.
Your thoughts on taking this approach, as well as how best to integrate our qualitative and quantitative findings on volunteering behaviour trajectories would be greatly appreciated.