Voluntary Sector Review: A new journal

Voluntary Sector Review is a new journal published by The Policy Press in collaboration with the Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN). The journal publishes high-quality, peer-reviewed, accessible papers on third sector research, policy and practice. Below you will find an extract from Pete Alcock’s article ‘A strategic unity: defining the third sector in the UK’. To continue reading the rest of this article and all the others featured in the first issue of Voluntary Sector Review please encourage your institution to sign up for a free trial or subscribe.

Extract from A strategic unity: defining the third sector in the UK by Pete Alcock

The need for definition

Academics, policy makers and practitioners all need to be able to define the terms they use in discussion, and in particular to be able to delineate the key concepts that they rely on. Academic debate is often focused on disagreement over definition of core terms, and differences found in academic research are often the product of different definitions and approaches underpinning research questions. Too often perhaps academics end up talking at ‘cross purposes’, using the same terms to mean different things, and this is true for practitioners and policy makers too. It seems sensible therefore to begin by trying to define key terms, and this may be particularly important for a relatively new field of academic research such as third sector studies.

The focus of this paper is on the use of the term ‘third sector’ in the UK. It seeks to explain why this concept has arisen in recent academic debate and to explore how we might understand and even define it, differentiating this from other key terms such as the ‘voluntary sector’ and the ‘community sector’. This is a contested field, however, and both the definition and the existence of a third sector have been subject to debate and disagreement. There is debate and disagreement because there are different perspectives being brought to bear, including the perspectives of policy makers, practitioners and academics; and more broadly in international debate there are distinct cultural and political legacies arising in different national settings. Differing perspectives are based to a large extent on the beliefs, agendas and constraints that drive protagonists. For instance, the aims of policy makers (and more especially politicians) may be to introduce wide-ranging policy instruments that can bring about major change in social and economic activity; whereas practitioners in particular settings may be seeking to defend the mission and structure of their organisation against pressures to change or disrupt it. By contrast, for academics the pressure is to establish a reputation for developing new, and perhaps controversial, approaches to research.

These different agendas mean that the notion of a third sector is inevitably a contested one, and may lead some to challenge the relevance of the concept itself. These challenges are expressed in discourses – the language and the messages that we use to communicate when we write or talk about our concerns. It is through discourses that concepts are created and exchanged, and within discourse we can identify the different definitions that protagonists produce from within the agendas and constraints that they are operating. (For a general discussion of critical discourse analysis, see Fairclough, 1995; Finlayson, 2007.) As we might expect, within these various discourses the notion of a third sector has been differentially defined – it means different things to different people. However, not all discourses are of equal importance or impact. Those of powerful interests speak more loudly, and perhaps more articulately, than others. We will return later to examine the ways in which more powerful discourses in the UK have been shaping our understanding of a third sector in recent years, in particular through the policy actions that have flowed from these interests; and we will explore, to some extent at least, why this has been happening.

However, this is an academic paper and it is informed by the legacy of academic debate about the notion of a third sector and the key differences and core themes that have emerged within this. There has been quite extensive academic debate about the ways in which a distinctive sector might be identified and defined, and about the relationships between definition and measurement, and definition and policy, which flow from this. Understanding this legacy can help us to understand how current debates can be identified and explained.

To read the rest of this article and all the others featured in the first issue of Voluntary Sector Review please encourage your institution to sign up for a free trial or subscribe.

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