Bureaucratized Morality, Institutional Durability: Organizationally Mediated Idealism in the Peace Corps

Sunday, 10 July 2016: 11:30
Location: Hörsaal III (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
Meghan KALLMAN, Brown University, USA
Worldwide, millions engage daily in channeling their social values through occupations. Some do it through entering “helping” professions, by working for social organizations, or by becoming activists. A striking similarity among these occupations is that organizations mediate them. A daily context that can influence participants’ experiences, organizations can both amplify and diffuse ideals, and engender cynicism. This project thus looks at how altruistic aspirations interact with bureaucratic routinization, to understand what happens when individuals with lofty social ideals enter an organization that may be inconsistent with those ideals. My case study is Peace Corps, which is, like many other social organizations, a necessary compromise between participant ideals and the mundane realities of being a sustainable bureaucracy. Using data from an ongoing cross-national comparative study between Peace Corps programs in three countries, interview data from more than 140 returned volunteers and staff, I show how bureaucratic organizations (through which most idealism in the US is channeled) mediate people’s social commitment. Findings suggest that volunteers are similar in important ways to other activists, both in terms of collective identity and political motivations. Volunteers have similar needs as activists (collective processes, etc.) that the Peace Corps, understanding itself as a knowledge rather than as an activist organization, does not meet. Lacking structures for dealing with the “big” questions about development and international relationships, volunteers experience a decoupling of the program’s goals and what they perceive it to do. They resolve this cognitive dissonance via a) increased conservatism, in which they come to understand the recipients of services as unworthy, or b) in a critique of the organization itself. I develop a clearer theory of the effects of “on-the-ground” workers in ideologically motivated fields that, instead of focusing on the psychological elements of burnout, emphasizes the structural-organizational factors that act on participant ideals.