Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Thomas Janoski


This dissertation examines the practices and social constructions of volunteering in Southern Africa. Grounded in structural and cultural theory, I focus on volunteering as the product, rather than the raw material, of political processes. My approach stresses the volunteers’ perspectives, yet centers on critiques of dominance. In doing so, I destabilize the view of volunteering as inherently pro-social behavior, or as intrinsically characteristic of deepening democratic systems.

Combining evidence from Afrobarometer surveys and twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in South Africa and Zambia I show how meanings and practices, not just resources and capital, shape the socially constructed nature of volunteering given specific historic, economic and political conjunctures. The findings reveal that contemporary practices of volunteering in Southern Africa are a consequence of poverty, paternalistic exchange relationships, and state-civil society partnerships undergirded by foreign development aid.

The dissertation is structured around four empirical points. The first concerns who volunteers. I identify characteristics of Africans who are most likely to actively belong to voluntary groups, and pinpoint the role of foreign development aid and poverty in shaping the volunteer landscape. The second highlights the positive connection between civic culture and active voluntary group membership in Africa, but I argue that this association does not inherently translate into greater democratic gains for a country. The third emphasizes “why” people volunteer. I document the exchange nature of volunteering, revealing its practical function for maintaining social cohesion and augmenting social capital, while simultaneously entrenching social hierarchies and paternalistic inequalities. The fourth point offers a theory linking three orientations to volunteering with activities in three different types of civil society. These view can be “allegiant,” “opportunistic,” or “challenging” and steer people toward volunteer activities that match their inclinations to enhance, confront, or preserve given social systems.

Throughout this dissertation I illustrate how volunteerism aids residents of complex, diverse societies to define new social relations, craft compatible identities, and make meaning of social change. I present an effort in doing a sociology of volunteerism from Africa, rather simply in Africa, which increases the generalizability of existing theories of volunteerism to post-colonial, developing country contexts.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)