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Call for Special Issue Papers

Critical theory, qualitative methods and the nonprofit and voluntary sector

A special issue of Voluntary Sector Review

Guest Editors

Dr Jon Dean (Sheffield Hallam University, UK) and Dr Kim Wiley (University of Florida, USA) 

Deadline to submit abstract and author biography: Friday 17th July


Over recent years, there have been moves to take what scholars have labelled a more ‘critical’ approach to studies of nonprofit organisations, philanthropy and giving behaviours, and the wider voluntary sector. Such a move has come from a view of the subject area as failing to examine political, systemic, and structural issues that may be shaping organisations and behaviours, and instead tries to ‘reveal the most profoundly buried structures’ (Bourdieu, 1996: 1) of the nonprofit world.

By taking a critical approach, perhaps drawing on feminist, queer, post-colonial, or postmodern theories, we can identify sources of discrimination and injustice in the sector and elevate ways of tackling them. Practically, these are messages that certain sections of the nonprofit sector – due to crises in safeguarding revealed by the Oxfam Haiti abuse scandal, or challenges to the lack of representation of people of colour in nonprofit leadership roles – are increasingly aware of and indicate some increased willingness to act on. At a time of interlocking social crises – of welfare, democracy, inequality, and more – theory can move from aloof observer to engaged friend (Law, 2015), helping us understand how what may be happening in a voluntary organisation today links to wider historical trends and social structures (Mills, 1959).

At the heart of much of this shift towards critical approaches has been a wider and greater belief in the value of qualitative research. Sometimes unhelpfully seen as a challenge to hegemonic academic ideas, especially in certain disciplines where nonprofit studies are generally located, applications of qualitative methodology supported by critical theory are used by some to pay attention to the everyday realities which produce statistical relationships between quantitative variables (Alasuutari, 2010). Others however view qualitative methods as merely different methodological tools that serve to answer different research questions. Ontologically positioned to help reveal the socially constructed nature of social relations, and epistemologically critically realist or interpretive ways of knowing, qualitative methods provide researchers with the tools to better reveal the ‘verstehen’ of people’s experiences and practices and make direct links between action occurring within and outside nonprofits.

Fundamentally, such approaches argue that if we know differently about society and its structures, then we are more likely to do differently (Eikenberry, Mirabella and Sandberg, 2019). Despite this, and as revealed by multiple panels at leading nonprofit research conferences, doctoral candidates and newer researchers especially have been frustrated by the lack of support for qualitative work in their disciplines, and that the value of this work gets overlooked. This is despite some of the most highly recognised scholarship in the field in recent years utilising both qualitative methods and critical theory, such as Eliasoph’s (2011) ethnography of volunteering and Krause’s (2014) interview-based exploration of aid agency’s logics of practice.

Further, while all researchers should be reflexive (Dean, 2017) qualitative studies are generally better at providing researchers with scope for reflexive work examining issues of positionality within data collection and analysis. The intimacy and embedded nature of qualitative work (Khan, 2011) creates ethical quandaries and dilemmas for researchers which can themselves be explored and solutions realised through applications of critical theoretical frameworks. Finally, qualitative methods frequently offer better opportunities for non-hierarchical research relations, including participant and community-led research approaches, meaning we shift from ‘research on’ to ‘research with’ relationships. Such principles underpin efforts to decolonise research methods (Chilisa, 2019; Smith, 2013) and to employ accessible methods (Gauntlett, 2007) that ensure all people can take part in research projects.

Call for papers

For this special issue of Voluntary Sector Review we are looking for articles that fit within such a brief. Any form of rigorous qualitative method can be utilised (e.g. interviews, focus groups, ethnography, visual methods, participatory methods, and others), as long as the project data is interrogated and understood through the application of suitable critical theory (e.g. feminist, post-colonial, queer, Marxist, critical race, postmodern, intersectional, and others). We aim to include about six articles including a geographic and demographic spread of authors and issues discussed, qualitative methods used, and critical theories applied.

Submission Instructions

If you are interested in submitting a proposal for this edited collection, please email an abstract of up to 500 words, outlining the article’s contents, including its methodology, critical approach and application of theory, and fit with such a special issue, alongside a 50 word author biographical statement, to both editors. All submissions must be received by Friday 17th July. Authors of accepted abstracts will be informed of the decision by 1st August. Full papers are due 1st April 2021.

All submissions elected by the editors will be invited to submit a full article through the Voluntary Sector Review submission system, which will then be subject to the journal’s usual double-blind peer review procedures. Invitation to submit a full article does not guarantee publication, and all decisions are ultimately those of the journal editors.

If you have any questions about potential submissions please contact the special issue editors, Jon Dean (j.dean@shu.ac.uk) and Kim Wiley (kimberlywiley@ufl.edu). If you want to submit an abstract, but the current COVID-19 crisis is causing you significant problems in this regard, we understand - please do liaise with us about this.

Please see our instructions for authors for information on how to prepare your article.


Alasuutari, P. (2010). The rise and relevance of qualitative research, International journal of social research methodology, 13(2), 139-155.

Bourdieu, P. (1996) The state nobility, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Dean, J. (2017) Doing reflexivity: An introduction, Bristol: Policy Press.

Chilisa, B. (2019). Indigenous research methodologies. Sage Publications, Incorporated.

Eliasoph, N. (2011) Making volunteers: Civic life after welfare's end, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Gauntlett, D. (2007) Creative explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences, Abingdon: Routledge.

Law, A. (2015) Social theory for today: Making sense of social worlds, London: Sage.

Khan, S. (2011) Privilege: The making of an adolescent elite at St Paul’s School, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Krause, M. (2014) The good project: Humanitarian relief NGOs and the fragmentation of reason, London: University of Chicago Press.

Mills, C.W. (1959) The sociological imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.

Eikenberry, A., Mirabella, R. and Sandberg, B. (2019) Reframing nonprofit organizations: Democracy, inclusion, and social change, Irvine: Melvin & Leigh.

Smith, L. T. (2013) Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples, London: Zed Books.