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date: 17 October 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Contemporary debates about meaningful work have drawn on ideas of autonomy and freedom, vocation or calling, dignity, and self-realization, informed by classical sociology. The third sector appears to offer an ideal space for meaningful work given its social, political, and environmental aims, and its assumed independence from state and market. This chapter takes a sociological approach to exploring if and in what ways it fulfills this ideal. It reviews what is known about the sector’s paid and unpaid workers and then focus on three different fields within the sector: social service, political activism, and humanitarian aid. Drawing on empirical studies of workers’ subjective experiences and motivations, we explore what makes this work potentially meaningful. We highlight diversity in how meaningfulness is experienced, how understandings are shaped by social position and life course, and the paradox that meaningful work in the sector can also be the source of stress and burnout.

Keywords: autonomy, burnout, calling, meaningful work, third sector, nonprofit

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