Searching and rescuing selves
: an ethnographic study of volunteer identities

  • Sarah-Louise Weller

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This ethnographic study explores the subjectively construed discursive identities of individuals in a third sector voluntary organization (QuakeRescue). The focus of the research is ‘identity’ with the ‘identity work’ of volunteers a key concept. The thesis aims to investigate how individuals articulate their ‘volunteer’ identities through narrative and the multiple and intersecting discourses they draw upon.The study is framed within a qualitative, interpretivist, inductive framework and employs a social constructivist lens. The thesis draws on literature in the fields of identity and discourse, including identity work, narrative and power. Data was co-created through 48 semi-structured interviews in a single case study, augmented by informal observations and a reflective journal. Documentary sources, including website data, were also collected and subjected to analysis. The ethnographic account tells how search and rescue volunteers in QuakeRescue constructed a ‘volunteer’ identity through discourse, the ways in which that identity was sustained, and the factors that presented challenges and tensions in enacting the voluntary work. The data presented were prepared through an interpretative thematic analysis of the interview transcripts and a reflexive commentary of the study is provided through vignettes of my experiences. The discussion contains three readings interpreting the data from a volunteering, identity and ethnographic perspective.The primary contribution is in developing the thesis that in volunteering to train to rescue others, individuals and particularly those who never actually deploy, are engaged in a search for meaning and processes of rescuing themselves. A secondary contribution is in providing a distinctive in-depth case study of the identities of voluntary workers who undertake risky and dangerous activities. Thirdly, the thesis demonstrates some of the conflicts inherent in ethnographic fieldwork, including some of the practical and methodological challenges, as well as the identity work that emerged in response to these conflicts.
Date of Award27 Jun 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorAndrew Brown (Supervisor) & Yiannis Gabriel (Supervisor)

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