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Beyond ‘the paradox of our own complicity’: the place of activism and identity in ‘voluntary sector’ stories from Manchester and Auckland

Kyle, Richard G; Kearns, Robin; Milligan, Christine


Richard G Kyle

Robin Kearns

Christine Milligan


This paper problematises ‘sectors’ as the core organising concept for spaces within social policy and ‘third sector’ theory and practice. It does so by drawing on (auto) biographical narratives from a cross-national study of activism in the UK and New Zealand that explored activists’ experiences of, and motivations for, movement between the statutory and voluntary sectors. We argue that the perpetuation of sectoral thinking represents a paradox with which scholars have largely been complicit. That is, by embarking on ever more refined definitional exercises, the concept of sectors in general, and the tri-sectoral map (comprising state, market and third sector) in particular, remains uncontested. Through identifying reasons behind inter-sectoral shifts, we show how sectors are both enlisted and ‘erased’ by activists to achieve their aims, thus demonstrating the fuzziness of sectoral boundaries. (Auto)biographical approaches allow us to unpack the importance of time and place in shaping people’s activism. We conclude that if researchers can learn from activists, and tread a fine line between the utility and futility of sectors as a conceptual and empirical reality, then we might escape the paradox. Thus, new pathways through ‘third sector’ spaces can be explored and alternative policy solutions, free from myopic ‘sectoral’ thinking, can be envisioned.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 9, 2014
Online Publication Date Nov 26, 2014
Publication Date Apr 3, 2015
Deposit Date Jan 19, 2015
Print ISSN 1464-9365
Electronic ISSN 1470-1197
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 16
Issue 3
Pages 315-331
Keywords boundary crossing; sectors; narrative; activists; identity; Manchester, UK; Auckland, New Zealand;
Public URL
Publisher URL
Contract Date Jan 19, 2015

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