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Social Forces 80.3 (2002) 1125-1126

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Book Review

Visions of Charity:
Volunteer Workers and Moral Community

Visions of Charity: Volunteer Workers and Moral Community. By Rebecca Anne Allahyari. University of California Press, 2000. 285 pp. Cloth, $45.00; paper, $17.95.

Visions of Charity: Volunteer Workers and Moral Community is a comparative ethnography of the volunteer experience at two daily meal programs for the urban poor in Sacramento, California. While each program provided meals for the poor, they defined, justified, and practiced this work in markedly different ways and with differing consequences for volunteers. Rebecca Ann Allahyari presents a compelling and scholarly analysis of the construction of moral communities and moral selves in the Catholic Worker-inspired Loaves & Fishes and Salvation Army meal programs she studied.

Allahyari's selection of research sites and roles maximized her exposure to a diverse group of volunteers, differing sources of volunteer involvement, and contrasting organizational views of caring for the poor. As an overt participant observer, Allahyari worked as a volunteer beside other committed volunteers at each setting, enabling her to collect rich observational and interview data. Loaves and Fishes volunteers were middle-class, white, predominantly female, and worked in teams recruited mainly through churches and synagogues. Salvation Army kitchen volunteers came from Salvation Army shelters or the Alternative Sentencing program and were mainly working-class men of color. One-time volunteers also worked at each program, usually for holiday meals.

Allahyari's historically grounded overview of Catholic Worker and Salvationist principles lays a solid foundation for understanding the visions of charity volunteers encountered when they joined the Loaves & Fishes and Salvation Army communities.

Defined as "moral rhetorics about caring for the poor," the visions of charity upheld at Loaves & Fishes and the Salvation Army differed significantly. Allahyari demonstrates how staff at Loaves & Fishes advocated and strove to practice the Catholic Worker ideal of personalist hospitality, which meant attending to "the dignity of the poor by steadfastly meeting their entitlement to food and shelter." [End Page 1125] On the other hand, the Salvation Army meal program, following its Salvationist roots and influenced by the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, emphasized the need for the poor to alter their behavior. Promoting "disciplined self-help" emphasizing "social control and behavior modification," the Salvation Army "worked with local government to reward the honor of those individuals who demonstrate their willingness to work."

The sophistication of Allahyari's examination of the social foundations of moral community shines in her attention to how practical problems faced by charity staff members affected organizational practices of visions of charity. Her vivid description and analysis of holiday fund raising and volunteer coordination shows how meeting needs for money and volunteers challenged strict adherence to organizational moral ideals.

Allahyari's notable comparison of the moral selving of committed volunteers at Loaves & Fishes and the Salvation Army shows in stark contrast how organizational and emotional cultures shaped moral selving of volunteers. As moral entrepreneurs, Salvation Army and Loaves & Fishes staff members formally and informally socialized volunteers into their moral communities. In these ideological contexts, Allahyari argues, volunteers found important resources for the social-psychological and emotional processes of "moral selving," which she conceptualizes as "the work of creating oneself as a more virtuous, and often more spiritual, person." Allahyari shows the multiple and complex ways that volunteers combined the visions of charity learned through their volunteer work with other moral rhetorics and experiences in their lives to construct a moral self.

Allahyari ends her book with an interesting discussion of the politics of charity. Her application of her theory of moral community and moral selving to address charges that volunteerism hinders fundamental social change is particularly intriguing. She maintains that charity organizations with politically progressive visions are more likely to present possibilities for volunteers to see work for social change as part of creating a more moral self. This argument raises many new questions, providing fresh material for future research and debate.

Visions of Charity is rooted in solid qualitative research and fully informed by a diverse body of relevant sociological and social psychological...


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