Making a Difference

For MA at Glasgow University

This project is a research dissertation analysing international volunteering and the tensions between marketing, motivations, and actual experiences of young volunteers abroad. It explores ideals, common practice, and the increasing commercialisation in international volunteering narratives.

It focused on qualitative insights and the experiences and reflections of young people going abroad to volunteer. To research this growing phenomenon, I conducted ethnographic research among young English teachers at Haining High School in China, as well as interviews with a variety of other returned volunteers.

I gained practical experience of designing and carrying out an ethically approved and rigorous research project using ethnography and in-depth interviews as research methods. I analysed the resulting data, and wrote up my conclusions in a 15.000 word dissertation relating it to a bibliography of wider sociological literature. I learnt to take into account the implications of my double role as researcher and participant, of the real-life messiness of social research and its methods, the significance of my ontological and epistemological position as a researcher.

Contrary to media stereotypes and much previous research, I found that young volunteers' narratives of volunteering abroad demonstrate awareness of the tensions between processes of self-actualisation and achieving a positive impact on global issues. They are informed, realistic, and often critical, and consider what they are doing a reflexive project. Negotiating self-realisation and global impacts, they often stress a sense of global collective identity where volunteering is not an individual experience but can contribute long-term to a global civic society. They also often stay involved and actively shape volunteering for subsequent volunteers, expressing agency and activism.