Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

What's Pay Got to Do with It? Collective Identity Formation in the Americorps Program

Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

What's Pay Got to Do with It? Collective Identity Formation in the Americorps Program

Article excerpt

In the growing world of social service work (Parker, Costa, and Andreaus 2014), Social Service Organizations (SSOs) strive to attract and retain individuals to help provide vital social services to those less fortunate. In such organizations, social service workers and volunteers develop social capital, or a sense of goodwill or connectedness with fellow members (Adler and Kwon 2002), and they use that social capital to form a sense of solidarity with their organization. This sense of solidarity is often referred to as collective identity or "emergent shared beliefs about membership, boundaries, and activities" that individuals have with their organization and fellow members (Stryker, Owens, and White 2000:6). This collective identity formation is key to retention and recruitment because stronger identification with the group produces more motivated and dedicated members who stay more active and more productive for longer periods of time (Dugan and Reger 2006; Ryan and Deci 2000).

While the SSOs' methods for creating this social capital, and thus for fostering collective identity, vary, one potential form of recruitment and retention is to pay members or to give them other forms of external motivators. However, using self-determination theory (SDT), some researchers suggest that even small extrinsic rewards, or resources given to individuals in exchange for their service (Mottaz 1985), might work at cross purposes to developing a sense of collective identity (Deci and Ryan 2011). Specifically, extrinsic rewards might negatively affect individuals' internal motivation, because they would focus on their controlled motivation (i.e., being influenced by external factors like pay or job title) rather than on autonomous motivation (i.e., being influenced by their internal drive) (Deci, Koestner, and Ryan 1999).

The United States' national service organization, AmeriCorps, is a unique entity to use to analyze the potential effect of a certain type of extrinsic reward on collective identity formation in an SSO. In its promotional literature, AmeriCorps promotes an image of its members as selfless, committed to service, and altruistic (AmeriCorps 2012a). More concretely, members engage in a time commitment of 40+ per week, during which they often work a variety of demanding jobs, such as tutoring inner-city students or finding shelter for homeless youth. Thus, one might expect AmeriCorps members to develop a sense of collective identity with their fellow members in line with the image presented by the organization. However, AmeriCorps members receive modest monthly stipends, the ability to have their food paid for by government assistance, and an educational award of over $5,000 per year of service to pay for student loans. Thus, we are left with a situation in which individuals might form a sense of collective identity or in which their relationship with fellow members might be suppressed by the effect of tangible benefits.

Thus, in this exploratory analysis using in-depth interviews with 22 AmeriCorps members, I ask the following: Why do AmeriCorps members enter, and why do they stay with, the AmeriCorps program? How do AmeriCorps members conceive of their identities in the program, and do these identities align with that promoted by AmeriCorps? Finally, what influence, if any, does the extrinsic reward of pay have on collective identity formation?


SSOs are staffed by individuals focused on developing human rights, through formation of relationships of trust, with a goal of redistributing expressive or instrumental assets to those who are less fortunate (Gasker and Fischer 2014). Despite these honorable objectives, these jobs are often poorly paid, require long hours, and have high rates of burnout for employees (Thomas, Kohli, and Jong 2014). However, SSOs "have expanded in number, variety, scope and social importance and impact in many countries over the past 30 years" (Parker et al. …

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