Economic and Social Research Council
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Countryside bearing the burden in "Big Society"

Empowering local people to help out in their communities is one of the flagship policies of the coalition government's 'Big Society'. However, new research suggests some communities are bearing more of the burden than others, with volunteering in rural areas significantly higher than in cities. The research by Dr Alasdair Rutherford, a lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the University of Stirling, will be discussed at an event as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) annual Festival of Social Science which runs from 2-9 November 2013.

The study showed that in Scotland, levels of volunteering are 2.5 times higher in the countryside than in large urban areas, despite the potentially greater costs of travel involved. People in rural locations volunteered more for organisations working with the elderly, health and safety, the environment, animals, local community work, hobbies and recreation.

Rural volunteers were more likely to be involved in service provision activities such as giving assistance to others, arranging transport and organising direct services. They were also more likely to be involved in coordination activities such as committee work, office work, and helping to organise events and activities. A greater number of rural volunteers also said that they volunteered with several organisations.

According to Dr Rutherford, the reasons for this difference in volunteering activity could be due to the higher costs associated with running public services in the countryside, meaning that there is an incentive for communities to cooperate locally through voluntary organisations in order to provide essential services. Alternatively the differences could be because of the types of people that live in rural areas.

Research shows that individuals of higher social and economic status volunteer more, possibly because they are more likely to join groups and organisations (including attending church). The likelihood of volunteering increases with the number of years in full time education, whilst age and marital status also count, as older and married people do more for their communities. Surprisingly having children seems to provide more opportunities to volunteer, as parents find that their social networks become larger and more extensive. The study also found that people with religious beliefs do more volunteering, whilst the people who volunteer the most are wealthy people living in poorer areas.

These findings suggest that policies aiming to increase voluntary participation in public service provision are likely to be more successful in some areas than others.

"Rural communities that already have high levels of volunteering may be better equipped to absorb additional voluntary roles, as the social connections and support structures are already in place," says Dr Rutherford.

"However, these communities may already be at full capacity, with available volunteers unable to take on any more responsibility for public service provision." He adds.

"Urban communities may have untapped potential but weaker networks, while more rural communities have better connections but risk overloading individuals. Regardless, different approaches will need to be taken by policy makers that take account of the local context if volunteering is to be supported; and if the impacts of cuts in formal service provision are not to fall disproportionally on some communities." He concludes.

Dr Rutherford will explore the themes of cooperation and altruism in his event 'Community Resilience under Public Service Reform' as part of the ESRC's Festival of Social Science on the 6th November in Edinburgh.

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. Event: The Community Resilience under Public Service Reform
    Organiser: Fiona Smith. Email:
    Date: 6 November 2013
    Venues: McDonald Rooms Conference Centre, Hanover Housing, 95 McDonald Road, Edinburgh, EH7 4NS
    Audience: Specific interest
    More Information:
    Community Resilience under Public Service Reform event website
  2. The support of community empowerment and resilience is a core element of public policy reform in Scotland. Underpinning these ambitions is the view that these are best achieved through 'co-production' and 'localism', involving public bodies, business, third sector organisations, and local communities themselves. This one-day seminar will examine the implications and opportunities arising from the policy ambitions for community empowerment and resilience at a time of public service reform (PSR). It will particularly focus on who is involved in achieving these objectives, where and how this is taking place, and the implications of this for future policy and practice, including what needs to change. Further details on the University of Stirling website
  3. The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place from 2-9 November 2013. With events from some of the country's leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives - both now and in the future. This year's Festival of Social Science has over 170 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events and a full list of the programme are available at the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

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