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Summer 2011
Feature Article #2 by George K. Floro
"Achieving Civility in the Agricultural Sector"

Click here for "Basics for Revitalizing Collective Life"
Part I: "Craft for Inquiry and Practice"
Part II: "Clarity for a Necessary Social Movement"
©2009 All Rights Reserved

Anyone for Voluntarism?

For ten years, while publishing Voluntarism Review and Reporter (1986 to 1995), I made use of voluntarism as a sociological concept in the fragmented field of voluntarism (volunteerism, philanthropy, and non-profit organization). Published three times a year it was a publication of SVSP (Studies of Voluntarism and Social Participation). The two variables, voluntarism and the classic variable in early American sociology, social participation, were put in the name of the group. They were used, as well as a larger list of guidelines, in an ongoing search for new sources, published and unpublished. Much current research and practice (covered in reviews) and numerous service groups (covered in reports, sometimes followed up several times during the ten year period) exhibited social realities for which voluntarism seemed to be an appropriate variable.

Only one of my several colleagues in the field seemed to notice and he, Jon Van Til, without referring to my work, suggested an alternative: "pervasive voluntarism" (August, 1990, pp. 3-4). That was better than nothing but did not get to the social reality in its many forms nor to its potential for the integration of knowledge -- overcoming fragmentation of the field. In an essay he submitted to Voluntarism Review and Reporter he sees value in the concept especially as a metaphor, and he acknowledges its positive side as a reality in collective life. Even as a metaphor, it would be great if put to work, adopted perhaps because a variable applied to the complex social reality is off limits for it has a dark side that frightens people or for some other reasons it is not an acceptable option. (Maybe people who supply grant money don't like it!) Professionalism is not inclined to build upon what cannot be lifted up and legitimized. Van Til himself has a very strong commitment to science (1988, pp. 199-216). Phillips does also but insists that the bureaucratic distortions in it must be removed before there can be any new age of enlightenment for science (2001. p. 3-17). Some scholars in the field of voluntarism or some part of it have left out any passion that does not advance democracy. Hard core opposition within the group could bury the issue once and for all time by definition: voluntarism being synonymous with volunteerism! Out in the world an obstruction can be found in a philosophy of limited options: "free will" vs. some degree of order.

Not all metaphors are very useful. Calling voluntarism energy or creativity -- giving it an "acceptable" name -- may do nothing for a learning process about what is happening in society or how troublesome contradictions in the world can be resolved. If one gets outside of the bureaucratic status and profession building processes, discovery is the goal. Variables have work to do that just another name and even metaphors, though helpfully they may carry a load, cannot be expected to fulfill. (Of course, that is a metaphor about using a metaphor – carrying a load.) Voluntarism as passionate commitment is not just the result of other forces; it is itself a source of social transformations, some very reassuring and some frightening -- having a light side and a dark side.

Since 1995 I have looked elsewhere for explanations for lack of concern among elitist colleagues apparently caught up in much more interesting pursuits. One line of exploration sprang from awareness of the role of professionals in legitimizing existing normative systems, even some deeply flawed situations. The speculation was that science belonged to the elite and voluntarism belonged to the grassroots. I was not being divisive. In the dichotomous learning component of Mills/Phillips "sociological imagination" (Mills, 1959; Phillips, 2001) the elite and the grassroots are being brought together. They need each other. In this situation where sociological imagination is applied, nothing of general significance may likely happen until the two are brought together. Individuals and groups often perpetuate endless seesaw conflict in dilemmas or contradictions. Some scholars may want to keep this situation because they are entertained by absurdities. (The seesaw is a favorite metaphor used by Phillips in his critique.)

Jane Addams gained much understanding -- made discoveries -- when, demonstrating sociological imagination. At Hull House, the settlement community center in Chicago, she tried to bring poor immigrant families (lower class people) together with people in a privileged class for a shared life. Much that she learned came from failures when it didn't work (Lasch [editor], 1965, p. 124ff).

C. Wright Mills can be caught speaking too smugly from an elitist role and setting intellectual requirements that lay people (grassroots people) may not be expected to adopt, but his imagination approach can bring the elitist and grassroots together for new understanding of complex social realities.

I consider much of what I attempted to do in my study of voluntarism among those wonderful elitist colleagues a failure -- crowded out by an all-out profession building process -- to be the premier association to represent an academic-practitioner field. I had done similar work in professional circles that did not end up that way. For thirteen years I was editor of the official journal of the Wisconsin Sociological Association and helped put so much of the "voluntary spirit" into that group that it would take years and years to get rid of all if it. What I discovered from the work and study within the Wisconsin Sociological Association is what I called "the working sociologist" (Floro, 2004). Too bad for the over-professionalized and the smooth operators who have mastered the bureaucracy of science at the expense of what Bernard Phillips calls a more interactive approach to learning!

In 2003 I did a paper on voluntarism in which four sources of dichotomous learning are summarized (Floro, 2003). Here is what was said about learning from elites vs. the grassroots:

(To add dichotomous learning [as a major aspect of sociological imagination] there are some requisites. In accord with both Mills and Cooley, the research must be part of the scholar’s life. Mills also insists upon an ongoing series of studies, in contrast to a series of isolated projects. One builds studies beyond earlier inquiries but continuities are to be evident.)

(The ideal contrast for sociological imagination in this situation is social volition (or the social will) vs. the normative order and processes of control. Both make essential contributions, without which nothing is likely to lead to acceptable [significant] outcomes.)

The grassroots vs. elitists dichotomy was the last of the series to provide an important place in the ongoing inquiry. The forces of resistance attracted suggest that the entire society has been professionalized and while most people have grassroots roles these are well subordinated in the "real" world, which is driven by status and power forces and public issues. Social scientists sometimes seem to have drawn the wrong conclusions from the work of Ferdinand Toennies: any attempt to restore a life fulfilling function to social participation is considered a retreat into a gemeinschaft social order which has been replaced by the gesellschaft, where professionalism reins supreme.

Resistance to the dichotomy may not be too different in its force than the resistance that pacifism receives when media are caught up in wartime strategy forming (what must be done because of power and status risks) and enemy making processes.

Such barriers had to be overcome to take it into the inquiry. . .Being in a research and development group, that, with few exceptions, restricted leadership roles to persons in grassroots producer roles (were goat raisers) increased an awareness to both grassroots and elitist roles within the organization and beyond. Becoming aware of control forces in an increasingly centralized national society led to an awareness of people being restricted to their grassroots roles. My own work history was framed with being a fisherman in Lake Erie in Ohio at the beginning and a goat raiser in West Texas at the end. In between was the adventure of being a sociologist – one of the elite. After inhibitions were overcome what became apparent was that for the most part the situation was not some people against others but some roles in the same people rising up to challenge participation in other roles or some of one’s roles being eliminated by excessive controls in a centralized society.

Working through this is covered in papers presented at academic conferences, including those of WSA. At WSA in 1997 was a paper entitled "Beyond Activism and Professionalism to Collaborative Participation or the Citizen Sociologist" held at Rockford, Illinois. The next year at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society in Portland, Oregon and again in Waukesha, Wisconsin at the WSA meeting I presented a poster exhibit entitled "Collaborative Research at the Grassroots." The next year at the Southern Rural Sociological Association meeting in Memphis, Tennessee a paper was given exploring "Where Have All the Grassroots Gone?" The boldest paper in the series was given at River Falls in 2000: "If Voluntarism Belongs to the Grassroots (as science and professionalism belong to the elite)." The next year in Lexington, Kentucky at the Southern Rural Sociological Association annual conference, sociological imagination was demonstrated in this ongoing inquiry. A paper was presented on how both grassroots and elitist contributions could be brought together in a grassroots certification program. The title was: "Exploring the Nature and Potential of Grassroots Certification Programs for Bringing Change in Animal Agriculture." The next year at the WSA I gave a paper that attempted to assure fellow sociologists that it was safe to let the grassroots into sociological research activities. (I had seen this at a rural development center during fieldwork at San Miguel Tzinacapan in the state of Puebla in Mexico. The researchers from the people were called "village scholars.")

A justification for adopting this dichotomy, as is presented in this set of papers, is that the credibility of elites is so strongly questioned among the grassroots that at least part of one’s inquiries might be done with grassroots identities, collaborating with others in grassroots roles. Another conclusion was the professional practitioners and the professional academics – both sets of elitists whose association I had valued so highly, did not represent the most fertile ground for the study of voluntarism. The most fertile field was at the grassroots, for coming to understand both the light and dark sides of passionate commitment in social life. The grassroots also provided an opportunity to stand outside the elitists’ social world with its acceptance of much that was intolerable as the "natural" condition.

This short essay begins with the question: Anyone for voluntarism (as a social variable -- more than the name of a fragmented field)? -- for the study of its dark side in social realities which threaten contemporary civilizations? It is on the same social dimension as negative prejudice, which is pervasive in troubled societies. The positive forms or structures and process of voluntarism are on this dimension as well and are also designed to transform human societies.

Maturity of a field of inquiry, which may include establishing a series of specialized "sections," may lead to increased fragmentation. Where the realities studied are very complex, as in the social sciences, and where dichotomous analysis to cope with complexity is neglected, one can expect more bureaucracy, less learning, and less attention given to problems and issues of general importance in the society.

What needs to be done goes beyond profession building and struggles to establish careers -- especially when these are imbedded in current seesaw struggles leading nowhere. A breakthrough is available in legacies of scholars like Mills and Phillips. They tell us that it is dangerous not to resolve the major contradictions in the society, something possible through the creation and integration of knowledge. Ignoring the knowledge in social science, Phillips warns, leads to problems of "relative deprivation," "negative reinforcement," and "conformity" (p. 32). That is dangerous!

People with diverse backgrounds are not coming together into a larger life -- the volitional foundation in social resources for the light side of voluntarism is not being generated to create and preserve an interactive normative order. -- Dangerous because destructive resources are being generated, sometimes recklessly, on the dark side of voluntarism.


Floro, George K.

2003 Creating Foundation for Sociological Imagination Out of Selected Dichotomies to Gain an Understanding of Happenings in Contemporary Society. Paper presented at the WSA annual meeting on October 10-11, 2003


2004 "Imagination Strategies for Social Analysis: A Research Note for Working
Sociologists." Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Sociological Association at Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

Lasch, Christopher [editor]

1965 The Social Thought of Jane Addams. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Indianapolis, New York, Kansas City.

Mills, C. Wright

1959 The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, Bernard

2001 Beyond Sociology’s Tower of Babel. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Van Til, Jon

1988 Mapping the Third Sector: Voluntarism in a Changing Social Economy. The Foundation Center.


1990 "Sector, Industry, and Spirit: Metaphors in a Maturing Field." Voluntarism Review and Reporter, Volume 5, August, pp. 3-4. A revised version of the keynote presentation to the Conference of the Association of Voluntary Action Scholars, meeting in Seattle, Washington, September 29, 1989.



WE THE (passionate and collaborating) PEOPLE

Proposed agenda for Volunteers, Donors, and Nonprofit Group Workers who join in collaborative study

With continual rededication to the spark of passion for life and work, service to others, and self-reliance, we come together in collaborative research to pursue the following objectives:

*Create a community of participants -- collaborators;

*Affirm commitment to pervasive goodwill in group life;

*Recognize ill-will in human relationships and not panic;

*Acknowledge opposition as well as support for the generation of enthusiasm and firm commitments;

*Resist and challenge opposition to freely given service to others, in voluntary and paid work sectors;

*Prepare ourselves to resist attempts by government or the sources of power behind government to weaken the will of the people;

*Overcome the fragmentation of the triad (service, giving, and organizing);

*Locate individual and group cases in which serving (volunteerism), gift giving (philanthropy), and organized (not for profit) voluntary service effort are fully integrated and unified in attempts to bring down barriers to community;

*Expose a dark side when this serving, giving, and organizing (voluntarism) is depressed by 1) excessive controls, and 2) goodwill resources exploited to enhance status claims rather than to bring down the barriers set by negative prejudice;

*Expect ideological (or status driven) opposition to prejudice to be divisive and attempt to further weaken passion for life;

*Become sensitized to pervasive negative prejudice and, at least tentatively, make overcoming that negative prejudice a distinctive contribution of each one of the passionate roles;

*Explore the community building potential of work freed from negative prejudice;

*Look for strength and social order based upon commitments and persistence;

*Look for situations where the will to be or do something speaks louder than a means or ends course of action;

*Search for the people most directly engaged in the service-gift giving-organizing work;

*Form a distinctive identity for collaborators as people with passion for life and work;

*Become more tolerant of, or open to learn from other people of passion.

An Update on George K. Floro for Former Professional Colleagues in Wisconsin and Elsewhere


George K. Floro, PhD, 1954, Emeritus Professor, UWEC, Executive Director of Studies of Voluntarism and Social Participation, Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Sul Ross State University, and researcher and Board Chair in Big Bend People & Goats, Inc.


Since leaving Wisconsin in 1984 after retiring from teaching, I have continued to attend the annual meetings of the WSA and participated regularly with paper presentations, which document general interests and developing professional activity. Former colleagues may be more likely to know what I was doing during the ten years between 1985 and 1995 when SVSP published Voluntarism: Review and Reporter. Out of this experience came sensitivity to elite (especially professional) roles and grassroots participation. The grassroots was difficult to find in the voluntary sector although it was often captured in the "reporter" section of Voluntarism: Review and Reporter. While struggling to discover more, Charles "Tuck" Green reminded me of an article by Harold Wilensky in AJS on the professionalization of "everyone" in the society. Wilensky’s writing added to the challenge: in the over-developed society the grassroots is well hidden. One must search for it. I have found the agricultural sector quite fertile for the search, but I want to remain close to voluntarism for the grassroots behind voluntarism is where passionate commitments are greatest, most promising, and at times most threatening.


The two ventures actually overlap several years, when I was active in ARNOVA, a highly professional association of practitioners and academic researchers, and in Big Bend People & Goats, a (501 [C] [3]) corporation of primarily grassroots participants in agriculture. That duality heightened sensitivity to the difference in roles. I was the professional director of a USDA research and development project on the one hand and like other professionals in community research committed to participatory research, and goat raiser in West Texas on the other – one elite and the other grassroots. Many times I felt that perfecting grassroots roles made me suspect among professional colleagues -- as if I had betrayed them! What I was proposing, for example, was different from activism, which has been well professionalized. One or more forms of sociological theory, including Marxism, give it legitimacy.


A lesson to be learned from all of this exploration of the grassroots is that elite and grassroots forces need each other. The leadership challenge in agriculture and elsewhere is to bring the two together in cooperative ventures, even though they would often much rather "fight" than "cooperate." Without working together, nothing very important is likely to happen. What can be done together can be far more than what each can do separately. The situation is not hopeless, because nearly everyone has both elite and grassroots roles. The experience is there, at least in most people, but not all. Of course, the professional elite is blessed and cursed by concern for higher status.


Since leaving Wisconsin I have been attending and participating in the Southern Rural Sociological Association meetings. At the most recent, held in Fort Worth, Texas, rural sociology colleagues presented me with an EXCELLENCE IN EXTENSION AND PUBLIC SERVICE AWARD. (My second service award; the first came from colleagues in Wisconsin.) The decision to make this presentation, I believe, followed a paper presentation I gave in 2000 at the annual meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. The paper featured a grassroots certification program for workers in small goat dairies. It brought grassroots and elites together, a project that took four years to accomplish. I am going to continue pursuing the study of grassroots and hope my elitist colleagues do not deem it some kind of betrayal. My grassroots goat raiser colleagues and I did a critique of the Grade "A" Pasteurization Ordinance of the federal bureaucracy. It was presented as a poster exhibit at the RSS meetings in Washington D.C. last year. That amounts to challenging a fortress!


In 1982, before retirement and the move from Wisconsin, I began a relationship with the International Goat Association, a professional group dominated by physical scientists. I have participated in all of their meetings since 1982, last year (2000) presenting a poster exhibit at the seventh, with a paper to distribute at the exhibit, on grassroots certification programs. The meetings were held in Tours, France.

Contact Chairman of SVSP Board of Directors --

    To contact Chair George K. Floro: P.O. Box 1495, Alpine, TX 79831; voice & fax (432) 837-2930; e-mail <gkfloro@sulross.edu>.

Other members of Board of Directors: J. Kenneth Davidson, Sr., Secretary; Charles S. Green III; Marlynn May; Kathryn M. Mueller.

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Date last updated: 06/17/09