Questing for meaningfulness through narrative identity work: The helpers, the heroes, and the hurt

Sarah-Louise Weller, Andrew D. Brown, Caroline A. Clarke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What identity narratives do those engaged in dangerous volunteering fabricate and how do they help satisfy their quest for meaningful lives? Based on a three-year ethnographic study of QuakeRescue, a UK-based voluntary, search and rescue charity, we show that volunteers worked on identity narratives as helpers, heroes and hurt. The primary contribution we make is to analyse how meaningfulness (the sense of personal purpose and fulfilment) that people attribute to their lives is both developed through and a resource for individuals’ narrative identity work. We show how organizationally-based actors attribute significance to their lives through authorship of desired identities that are sanctioned and supplied by societal (master) narratives embedded in and constitutive of local communities. In our case, the helper and hero identities dangerous volunteering offered members were seductive. However, their pursuit had ambiguous and sometimes, arguably, negative consequences for volunteers who had seen action overseas, and our study adds to understanding of how organizational members’ quest for meaningful identities may falter and sometimes fail.

Original languageEnglish
JournalHuman Relations
Early online date17 Aug 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Aug 2021


  • desired identities
  • ethnography
  • identity narratives
  • identity work
  • meaningfulness
  • volunteers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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