June 30, 2008 | Working Papers

Constructing Meaning Through Service: Beyond Beliefs and Actions

Authors: Chris Gauthier

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Much of the literature on community service has sought to investigate the factors that compel individuals to participate. These studies have tended to investigate service using rational choice models or socialization and human capital perspectives. While this literature is useful it fails to address an important dimension of service, specifically the meaning that service has for individuals and how their service activities correspond to their vision of meaningful social change. This study proposes that there are different domains of service defined by the intersection of the type of work that an individual engages in (actions) and the individual’s vision of how meaningful social change occurs (belief). Rational choice or market models would predict that individuals serve exclusively in domains that align belief and action; however, drawing on in-depth interviews with college age volunteers, the data presented here suggests that volunteers often engage in service activities that do not conform to expectations. Despite the tension between action and belief, these individuals still see their service work as meaningful. The ways individuals make meaning of service that is out of step with an ideal alignment of belief and action outcomes are explored.

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