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Ethnographies of Poverty and Marginality in Non-Profit and Charity Associations

Special issue call for papers from Journal of Organizational Ethnography

Guest Editors

Hugo Valenzuela García (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Miranda J. Lubbers (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
James Rice (University of Iceland, Reykjavík)

This Special Issue acknowledges the growing interest in non-profit and charity organizations. This Special issue may be useful for an academic audience and for practitioners alike. This is an open call and we invite anyone interested in this topic to contribute to what will be the first edited collection of journal articles focussing on this emerging research topic.

Important dead-lines: We invite authors to submit their manuscripts by the end of 15 January 2018. Papers submitted will be selected through a process of double-blind review. Initial accept/reject decisions (after reviews) will be made by March 2018. Authors with accepted manuscripts will receive feedback at this time and final papers are due end of June 2018. Final acceptance decisions will be made by July 2018. The deadline for submissions is 15th January 2018, with publication estimated in 2019.

The maximum length of papers is 8,000 words. Authors are advised to familiarise themselves with the journal's author guidelines available in the “write for this journal” section on the homepage (http://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/products/journals/journals.htm?id=joe).

For further information, please contact the Guest editors: Dr Hugo Valenzuela Garcia: hugo.valenzuela@uab.cat, Dr Miranda J. Lubbers: Mirandajessica.Lubbers@uab.cat, or James Rice: james@hi.is

Ethnographies of Poverty and Marginality in Non-Profit and Charity Associations

The withdrawal of the welfare state and the advancement of neoliberal policies have driven a number of changes and contradictions in the non-profit sector: while politicians increasingly exhort grassroots citizenship to actively engage in voluntarism, non-profit organizations have been forced to rely more heavily on funding from the private, the corporate and the banking sectors leading to new organizational forms and practices in order to attain higher levels of ‘efficiency’ and, in turn, higher pressures of accountability and auditing (see Strathern, 2000). In consequence, in these spaces professional managers are gaining greater control, contrasting with the old ideal of voluntary civic engagement (Clemens & Guthrie, 2011: 7).

Poverty and marginality in urban and modern societies is one of the gravest challenges in the political agendas of many “developed” countries. The recent economic and financial crisis and the dismantling of the Fordist welfare state, one of the neoliberal era’s hallmarks, intensifies this situation (Dickinson, 2016). Skyrocketing unemployment rates, rising living costs, and increasing economic burdens (mortgages, rents, taxes…), coupled with the deterioration of public aid, have pushed many households to rely more heavily on non-profit and charity organizations to cover basic needs such as food or housing. Official Eurostat figures show that of the 500 million people living in the EU, a staggering 119 million are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The Red Cross Europe alone has over 1.3 million staff and volunteers delivering care and support to the most vulnerable people and communities. In the US, during the same period, Americans donated almost $400 billion in private charity and 64.5 million U.S. adults volunteered a combined 7.9 billion hours of service.

Despite the recent interest for NGOs and humanitarianism in the Third World (see Fischer, 1997; Redfield, 2005; Bornstein, 2009; Minn, 2017), charitable organizations in Western societies have rarely been the object of anthropological research. Although in the Western tradition charity organizations have been often associated with Christian philanthropy and poverty alleviation (Bonner et al., 2003; Cohen, 2005; Neumann, 2007), today institutional poverty relief transcends its religious meanings and has very different faces: guilds, fraternities, urban NGOs, private initiatives, social enterprises, non-profit organizations, foundations, etc., becoming a central issue in liberal policies (O’Connor, 2001). This Special Issue is specifically devoted to the ethnographies of non-profit and charity associations in Western urban settings that are active in the areas of poverty and marginality in the post-welfare state era.

An ethnography of charitable and non-profit organizations may shed light on the social processes through which poverty as a policy objective becomes institutionalised and practiced (Green, 2006), providing a dense, qualitative description of the mundane daily discourses and practices, its driving moral principles, and both the social roles of the actors involved and their particular perceptions. As Ybema et al. (2009:1) put it, “although the quotidian experiences of people working in organizations may, to some, hardly seem exciting, for organizational ethnographers much of the intriguing ‘mystery’ of organizational life is hidden in the ordinary exchanges of ordinary people on an ordinary sort of day”. Further, an ethnographic approach to the institutional context in which poor and marginal persons are assisted allow researchers to focus on the relationship between macro-structure (poverty policies, welfare state, citizenship, etc.), the meso level (society, networks of non-profit organizations, etc.), and the micro level (ethnography in local settings), offering a complete picture of interest for policymakers, practitioners and scholars alike.

At the structural level, discourses and policy of poverty and marginality have taken shape through a series of oppositions that reproduce social imaginaries of the deprived: sustenance and deterrence (i.e., to warrant eligibility), deserving and undeserving (e.g., good and bad poor), non-rights and rights (e.g., need, duty, citizenship…) (Asen, 2002). While some authors wonder whether we are tending toward a three-sector model (State, market and voluntary sector) (Rifkin, 1995), others envisage a pervasive top-down influence from the hegemonic discourse to the micro-logic of the charity daily practices. Rozario, for instance, in the context of contemporary American humanitarianism, identifies the influence of entertainment-oriented mass culture, “a creation of a sensationalistic mass culture in the form of presentation in print and film of vivid accounts of suffering" (Rozario, 2003:481). Furthermore, Lupton (2011) considers that charitable and non-profit organizations, in the way they are commonly practiced, may in fact increase dependency and marginalization.

At the middle level, sometimes there is a mismatch between the decisions and priorities of social workers and those of policy-makers or administrators (Holm, 2002). On the other hand, it has been noted that the way in which day-to-day organizations such as day-care centres, workplaces or neighbourhood associations are structured effectively influence the opportunities of users or members of these organizations to get to know each other and create new links with both similar and different people (Small, 2009).

Fordist-Keynesian welfare regimes of the 20th century were built around what James Ferguson (2013) called “work membership” (Dickinson, 2016:271). Accordingly, organizations to assist the needy were somehow designed as a safety net for those who were expelled or marginalized from the labour market (addicts, disabled, mentally or chronically ill, ‘illegal’ migrants, single mothers, working-poor, etc.), who are in turn perceived as incomplete citizens or system-dependents. On the other hand, non-profit’s workforce are increasingly resorting on free-work carried out by volunteers (usually middle-class women) or rehabilitated ex-users. However, while charitable and non-profit organizations are built upon social ideals of philanthropy and altruism, the assistance (e.g., gift-giving) might produce and reproduce social inequalities (Rice, 2007; Hanson, 2015).

Non-profit and charity organizations are particularly suitable for an institutional approach. On the one hand, they involve various levels of actors (users, donors, volunteers, staff, etc.), settings (soup kitchens, urban gardens…), and rules (procedures, tacit norms, formal norms, etc.) with their own cultures (see Goffman, 1961; Foucault, 1995). For instance, particular norms and relationships of reciprocity have been described among users (Bourgois & Schonberg, 2009) or between users, volunteers and benefactors (Rice, 2007). Rules and procedures sometimes imply “re-education” in what are regarded appropriate daily routines and skills related with social reinsertion (e.g., punctuality, formality, saving, etc.) and “correction” of deviant habits (i.e., culture of poverty, Lewis, 1966). On the other hand, non-profit and charity organizations can been approached from diverse perspectives since they frequently provide other types of support beyond material assistance that are typically fulfilled by the family or closer acquaintances (e.g., emotional, medical, psychological support).

In order to better understand the institutional dimension of charitable (religious-based and non-religious alike) and non-profit organizations devoted to assist the poor and marginalised in modern societies, we welcome submissions on the proposed topics and questions, among others:

  • What does charitable and altruistic giving mean for both the disenfranchised and the benefactors (despair, shame, generosity, praise, paternalism, stigma…)? Do they involve some kind of class, gender or ethnic disparities?
  • Are poor-relief systems inspired by the pious desire to build a compassionate society, or are they primarily reactions to demographic trends, economic pressures or labour market tendencies?
  • Which are the underlying policies, moral drives, hegemonic discourses, and social perceptions underlying charitable and non-profit organizations that attend poor and marginal people?
  • How are norms created in different non-profit settings?
  • What type of support these institutions provide or neglect?
  • Do these spaces share a particular culture?
  • What kind of values and relationships are fostered from the institutions: brotherhood, paternalism, empowerment…?
  • Is there a particular pattern of age/class/gender among donors, volunteers, workers and users?
  • Do these organizations contribute to strengthening or weakening social networking? And how does the creation of these networks influence their subsistence strategies?
  • How are non-profit organizations shaping the image and values of the corporate sector?
  • How do these new models of efficiency and auditing influence the daily assistance of the poor and disenfranchised?
  • Studies of poverty and marginality from an institutional or social perspective are welcome.
  • Non-Western contexts may also be considered if they deal with the aforementioned issues.


Asen, R. (2002). "Visions of Poverty : Welfare Policy and Political Imagination". Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series. Michigan State University Press.
Bonner, M. D., Ener, M., Singer, A., (2003). Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts. State University of New York Press. Bornstein, E. (2009). “The impulse of philanthropy”, Cultural Anthropology, 24(4), 622–651.
Bourgois, P. I., & Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.
Clemens, E. S., & Guthrie, D. (2011). Politics and Partnerships. The Role of Voluntary Associations in America's Political Past and Present. University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, M. R. (2005). “Introduction: Poverty and Charity in Past Times”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 35(3), 347–360.
Dickinson, M. (2016). “Working for food stamps: Economic citizenship and the post-Fordist welfare state in New York City”, American Ethnologist, 43(2), 270–281.
Fischer, W. F. (1997). “Doing Good? The Politics and Antipolitics of NGO Practices.” Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 439-464.
Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.
Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor.
Green, M. (2006). “Representing poverty and attacking representations: Perspectives on poverty from social anthropology”. Journal of Development Studies, 42(7), 1108–1129.
Hanson, J. H. (2015). “The Anthropology of Giving: Toward A Cultural Logic of Charity”, Journal of Cultural Economy, 8(4), 501–520.
Lewis, O. (1966) “The Culture of Poverty”, Scientific American, Vol. 215 (4).
Lupton, R. D. (2011). Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.
Minn, P. (2007). “Toward and Anthropology of Humanitarism”, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance 51.
Neumann, C. (2007). Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts. Die Welt Des Islams. State University of New York Press.
O’Connor, A. (2001). Poverty Knowledge : Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-century U.S. History. Princeton University Press.
Redfield, P. (2005). “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis”, Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), 328-361.
Rice, J. G. (2007). “Icelandic charity donations: reciprocity reconsidered”, Ethnology; 46, 1.
Rifkin, J. (1995). The End of Work: Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. Tarcher/Putnam,US
Rozario, K. (2003). "“Delicious horrors”: Mass culture, the red cross, and the appeal of modern American humanitarianism", American Quarterly, 55(3), 417–455.
Small, M. L. (2009). Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. Oxford University Press.
Strathern, M. (2000). Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. European Association of Social Anthropologists.
Ybema, S. et al. (eds.) (2009). Organizational Ethnography : Studying the Complexities of Everyday Life. SAGE.