Volunteering in the super-diverse city: How young urban volunteers negotiate belonging

Volunteering in the super-diverse city: How young urban volunteers negotiate belonging

Astrid Mattes, Marie Lehner, Ilona van Breugel, and Ursula Reeger

Volunteering is widely understood to foster community building, and therefore it is often also studied in the context of integration, for example asking how volunteering can help refugees in their transition to the labour market. Whereas there is no lack of studies demonstrating the positive impact of volunteering activities on individuals and communities, there is limited understanding of linkages between the two in light of super-diversity. Moving beyond socio-economic integration, how does volunteering affect volunteers’ sense of belonging? What does this furthermore mean in the context of increasingly diverse cities?

In this article, we address the question of how young volunteers in Rotterdam and Vienna negotiate belonging in their super-diverse, urban surroundings. Our exploratory study builds on the VOLPOWER study, a cross-national research project on volunteerism, in which we have collected qualitative and quantitative interview data from volunteering youth. We are interested in the potential of volunteering to build means of identification for newcomers and locals alike, and in volunteers’ individual politics of belonging.

Our research contributes to the conceptualization of belonging, to capture societal identification processes more comprehensively than concepts such as integration do. We demonstrate the parallels and differences in the identification processes of newcomers and locals in terms of feelings of belonging in urban areas, transformed by volunteerism. Thereby we aim to demonstrate the limits and potential of volunteerism as a policy instrument to facilitate social inclusion against the backdrop of increasing diversity.

Volunteering – navigating through a complex field
Volunteering is a complex phenomenon that interests various scientific disciplines. Accordingly, there are many different definitions of volunteering. However, all definitions share a focus on the non-obligatory and unpaid (or at least not fully remunerated) nature of the work, and on how volunteering serves to benefit others. One may distinguish between formal and informal types of volunteering. In our study, we focus on formal volunteering, taking place within formal organisations or associations.

Volunteering is also understood as a form of civic engagement. Especially in US-American Political Science, the relevance of volunteering for the functioning of democracy has been debated for decades, not least due to Robert Putnam’s famous book “Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community” (Putnam 2001). Here, the author argues that a functional society needs engaged citizens with social connections and interactions but finds social capital to be declining due to individualization processes. Despite the fact that Putnam’s social capital approach was severely criticised by certain scholars who considered his arguments an oversimplification, volunteering is commonly seen as advantageous to the empowerment of volunteers and therefore as a key to active citizenship. Overall, social scientists agree that a thriving volunteering sector is a benefit to society.

In a study on adolescents volunteering in community sport, Verthongen et al. (2017, p. 191) find that the volunteers indeed developed “both personal (e.g., taking initiative, taking personal responsibility) as well as interpersonal competences”. Some scholars also argue that the actual experience of volunteering is an under-researched element of volunteering. However, research attention is now slowly shifting to the volunteers themselves (beyond motivations to volunteer). The potential of volunteering at an individual, organisational, and societal level, and the ways, in which volunteers interact, are growing in importance. Although the benefits of others are furthered through volunteering, the benefits for volunteers themselves are not so clear. In our study, we are interested in the ways in which volunteering influences the individual politics of belonging of young volunteers in urban contexts. We want to know whether they benefit from their engagement through empowerment and a strengthened feeling of belonging to their city.

Belonging – grasping processes of community building
‘Politics of belonging’ concerns individual processes of identification, individual and collective processes of boundary drawing, as well as formal politics of membership. It therefore is a suitable concept to grasp the fluid life realities of young adults in super-diverse settings. Contrary to the concept of integration, belonging does not presume a group of insiders into which a group of (yet) outsiders need to integrate, but assumes that individuals each negotiate their means of belonging in different ways. Following Hedethoff and Hjort, “belonging constitutes a political and cultural field of global contestation (anywhere between ascriptions of belonging and self-constructed definitions of new spaces of culture, freedom and identity), summoning a range of pertinent issues concerning relations between individuals, groups and communities.” (2002, x). In our interviews, we asked the volunteers about their individual feelings of belonging according to the concepts of inclusion and exclusion, and in relation to their current place of living. These questions illuminate the different angles and multiple layers of the complex concept of belonging.

Super-diverse cities as sites of inclusion
Sociologist Steven Vertovec first introduced the concept of super-diversity in 2007. He argues that in modern societies, cities are more diverse than ever before. Leaving the one-dimensional ethnic approach behind, he argues that there are no homogenous groups in urban society but that these groups are all diverse. He adds legal status, labour market positions, gender roles, age, housing situation, and social networks to the picture (Vertovec 2007). Furthermore, new immigrants enter into urban societies that are already diverse, adding a new layer to super-diversity. A current example of such a new layer would be those refugees who recently arrived in Europe and its cities, particularly around the year 2015.

Vienna and Rotterdam are both super-diverse cities. They are and have been attractive for newcomers for many decades and are thus important arrival cities in their respective national contexts. Due to this continuous migration, both Vienna and Rotterdam are characterised by high levels of diversity. Sites of inclusion in super-diverse cities are to be found particularly on the local level of neighbourhoods as spaces of encounter and everyday relations. These super-diverse urban settings are the context in which young people volunteer and potentially ‘belong’.

In recent years, urban policy initiatives have increasingly promoted volunteering as a tool to foster conviviality in super-diverse contexts such as the UK capital London. Our research shows the multiple ways in which volunteering supports young people in identification processes. Nonetheless, we see that volunteering is not a panacea but rather a catalyst for identification processes that are not independent from contextual circumstances and structures of inclusion and exclusion.

Empirical findings: Means of identification of young volunteers in the super-diverse city
In the following, we describe some of the findings of our interviews with young volunteers in Vienna and Rotterdam.

a) Volunteering as urban like-mindedness and empowerment

Vienna and Rotterdam are described as liberal, multicultural cities, and young volunteers emphasize the element of companionship by choice as an important aspect of their sense of belonging. The interviewed volunteers describe their volunteering work as an opportunity to shape their surroundings in accordance with their ideas of the city, whereby their places of belonging emerge relationally. The volunteers emphasize how, through their volunteering, they chose the ‘bubbles’ they wanted to be part of. In this, the volunteers emphasize how their decision to volunteer is an outcome of their sense of empowerment and how it subsequently further strengthens their empowerment.

b) Volunteering sites as urban spaces of togetherness

Interviewees describe sites of volunteering as urban localities of emergent positive feelings of belonging, typically characterised by an urban, open, and inclusive attitude. This process relates to people as well as to places. Feeling at home in the city is closely tied to these experiences of inclusion within their volunteering organisation, as one of their ‘bubbles’ of belonging.

c) Volunteering enables inclusion but does not overcome exclusion

While volunteering forms one of the bubbles of inclusion and belonging for the volunteers, these might be partial and temporary, as they are limited in space and time, and might not overcome structures of exclusion in other areas of the city or country, for example. This becomes most evident in the way in which contradictory feelings of inclusion and exclusion simultaneously occur for the interviewees in the urban setting. Volunteering thus enables inclusion within a limited context, but does not entirely overcome exclusion.

The experiences of the volunteers in Vienna and Rotterdam show that beyond its socio-economic function, volunteering can also serve as an important locus of belonging (in terms of space, time, and relations), deliberately chosen by the young volunteers, enabling them to express and empower themselves. The experiences and relations resulting from volunteering strengthen the young volunteers’ growing sense of belonging to the city. It is a multi-layered process, in which volunteering forms one of the ‘bubbles’ young people chose as an urban place of belonging.

Hedetoft, Ulf & Hjort, Mette (2002): The Postnational Self: Belonging and Identity. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Putnam, Robert D. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New edition. Simon & Schuster.
Vertovec, Steven 2007. “Super-Diversity and Its Implications.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30 (6): 1024–1054.
Vertonghen, J., Theeboom, M., Buelens, E., & De Martelaer, K. (2017). Conditions for successfully increasing disadvantaged adolescents’ engagement in and development through volunteering in community sport. Social Inclusion, 5(2), 179-197.


Astrid Mattes is a political scientist and scholar of religion, working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Urban and Regional Research (Austrian Academy of Sciences). Marie Lehner is a social anthropologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Urban and Regional Research, specialized in empirical research and qualitative fieldwork. Ilona van Breugel is a post-doctoral researcher at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, specialized in (local) governance of migration diversity. Ursula Reeger is a migration researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and leads the Austrian Volpower team, located at the Institute for Urban and Regional Research.

Image Credit: © www.volpower.eu

Acknowledgements: This project has received funding from European Union’s AMIF Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund project Volpower: Volunteer and Empower: Enhancing Community Building and Social Integration through Dialogue and Collaboration amongst Young Europeans and Third Country Nationals under grant agreement No. 821619. Any dissemination of results here presented reflects only the authors’ view. The Agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.