VolunTourism Trips Inside VolunTourism.org Resources Global Education Media Contact Us Home


The Weekly Review
The VolunTourist Newsletter
Newsletter Archives
Research Forum
VolunTourism.org Blog
The VolunTourist Webcast

Site Map
The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 6 Issue 1 Highlights


Study and Research


Dr. Nancy McGehee
Virginia Tech

For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, I would like to present a fairly theoretical piece that I had been working on for some time. As is often the case with emerging areas of research, a theoretical foundation has been difficult to establish in voluntourism.  The inherent contradictions in the discourse of voluntourism, particularly concerning the interplay of oppression and human emancipation, beg to be deconstructed with a critical theory lens. I will present a more in-depth version of this paper at the upcoming meeting of the Sustainable Tourism Conference held on the island of Crete, April 21-23, 2010.

I welcome your feedback!   


While great strides have been made in a short time in the area of voluntourism, debate persists as to the language of voluntourism, what constitutes voluntourism, how voluntourists view themselves, and how communities that host voluntourists view the phenomenon.  As is often the case with emerging tourism-related research, a theoretical foundation is vital to help address these debates, but it also difficult to establish.  While some of the work in voluntourism has utilized strong theoretical frameworks, much lacks a rigorous theoretical foundation.  Researchers may be quite excited and passionate about the subject of voluntourism but simply unfamiliar with the host of theoretical options available to them.

Critical Theory

Critical theory offers perhaps the richest ground from which to cultivate a theoretical foundation for voluntourism. Issues of power, domination, and oppression are central to critical theory: who has power, who does not, and why (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2003).  Originators of critical theory did so with the ultimate goal of human emancipation (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 244), which is achieved through the exposure of power relations in all circumstances of domination and oppression, both subtle and obvious, followed by the application of consensus or “real democracy” (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 250) as the location for cooperative, practical, and transformative activity (Habermas, 1978). While critical theory originated in the broader social sciences, it has garnered attention from tourism researchers as well.  This has been exemplified most recently by the publication of Tribe’s (2008, p. 245) work in a top tier journal whereby he discussed the importance of critical theory to tourism overall as both a valuable theoretical concept for research and as “vital to the management and governance of tourism.”   

As with any other well-developed theory, there are numerous critical traditions and perspectives. Not surprisingly, there are inevitable disagreements and tensions amongst and between critical theorists. For the purposes of this paper, the focus will be on the general commonalities and basic assumptions of critical theory adopted from the work of Kincheloe and McLaren, which include:

All thought is fundamentally mediated by power relations that are social and historically constituted;

Facts can never be isolated from the domain of values or removed from some form of ideological inscription;

The relationship between concept and object and between signifier and signified is never stable or fixed and is often mediated by the social relations of capitalist production and consumption;

Language is central to the formation of subjectivity (conscious and unconscious awareness);

Certain groups in any society are privileged over others and, although the reasons for this privileging may vary widely, the oppression that characterizes contemporary societies is most forcefully reproduced when subordinates accept their social status as natural, necessary, or inevitable;

Oppression has many faces and that focusing on only one at the expense of others (eg class oppression versus racism) often discounts the interconnections among them;

Mainstream research practices are generally, although most often unwittingly, implicated in the reproduction of systems of class, race, and gender oppression (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2003, p. 280-281).

Those armed with a basic understanding of voluntourism will most likely recognize that the inherent complexity and contradictions of voluntourism beg to be examined with a critical lens.  The following is a discussion of the potential role of critical theory in voluntourism research, accompanied by research propositions for the application of critical theory to the phenomenon of voluntourism.  The author then demonstrates how the various propositions are interwoven together to create a cohesive theoretical model.

The interviews focused on identifying good practices by using positive questions. While problems and challenges still arose in interviews, the focus was to approach such issues in a more constructive and positive manner. The preliminary results from the research were then placed on a blog so that the participants could comment and share their opinions.

Voluntourism Propositions

Tour operators and promoters of voluntourism commonly cite the ideals of giving back or contributing to society by helping those in need, while simultaneously creating an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding.  Many voluntourism organizations offer opportunities for participants to learn about the complex socio-economic and political issues that are the cause behind the inequalities they may see in the host communities, or between the host communities and themselves. Critical theorists may characterize this as an attempt to provide a mechanism by which they “uncover the winners and losers in particular social arrangements and the processes by which such power plays operate” (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2003, p. 281).  In this context it could be argued that the goals of many voluntourism organizations align closely with that of critical theorists. In particular, both include the notions that 1) certain groups in society are privileged over others and 2) the first step in reducing these inequalities is via the exposure of the power relations that exist between various social groups. 

While these efforts are commendable, it is arguable that the very foundation of voluntourism serves as a stronghold for the privileged (McGehee & Andereck, 2008). The voluntourism industry itself establishes power relations between the economically and socially powerful volunteer tourists (who are, by nature, in possession of enough economic power that they have the discretionary time and income to travel to a distant destination) who can pay to volunteer and can stay for several days to upwards of several weeks, and the less powerful host communities (who are, by nature, being exploited or dominated by forces that place them in the position of being “voluntoured”). This relationship in itself completely shatters any notion of human emancipation, and in fact achieves quite the opposite, perpetuating inequality (McGehee & Andereck, 2008). Conversely, it should be stressed that there are numerous voluntourism organizations which are adamant about equalizing power relations between volunteers and members of the host community. Many have the ultimate organizational goal of putting themselves out of business. That is, to eliminate the oppression that exists within the communities the voluntourism organizations are serving and as a result, be no longer needed.  Therefore, the following proposition is suggested to frame future inquiries:

Proposition 1: Depending on the ways in which the voluntourism industry is organized, there are potential inherent contradictions of the idea of voluntourism organizations as power equalizers if, in fact, the industry itself may be perpetuating its own existence, and in turn, perpetuating inequality through its goals and actions (Figure 1).

Critical theorists argue that there are multiple forms of power beyond merely the economic; in fact, it has been characterized as a theory which embraces the “rejection of economic determinism” (Kincheloe & McLaren 2003, p. 281) and recognizes other forms of oppression that are often race, class, and/or gender based.  Voluntourism could potentially be developed as a mechanism of emancipation, aimed not directly at those who are most obviously economically oppressed (e.g. members of the host community), but also aimed at the more economically comfortable but nevertheless emotionally and spiritually hamstringed proletariat (the working and middle-class volunteer tourists). 

Voluntourism has tremendous emancipative appeal to the economically secure but over-worked and sensory-overloaded working and middle classes of the West who suffer from a lack of human interconnectedness (Putnam, 2000).  The working and middle classes are expected to work longer hours and consume more so that the capitalist machine can continue to grow, often leaving no space for genuine human interaction.  The television, cell phone, ipod, and the computer all fight for our attention, distracting us from the cultivation of human exchange in both our homes and our communities.  This perspective conjures images of technology as the modern distraction formerly assigned to the church by Marx as the “opiate of the masses” (Marx, 1844).  Voluntourism could provide one possible method of resistance as an emancipatory outlet for this kind of oppression of the working and middle classes.  While not in so many words, voluntourism operators often portray the benefit of escaping capitalist production and consumption through a voluntourism experience, and as a result, acting as a catalyst for changing participants lives when they return home.  This notion is strengthened by past research where voluntourism has been identified as a potential cultivator of agency for the volunteer tourist (McGehee & Santos, 2002).  Ideally, this could provide a method of resistance to the oppression that is “reproduced when subordinates accept their social status as natural, necessary, or inevitable” (Kincheloe & McLaren 2003, p. 281). 

It is also important to point out the necessity of emancipation of the working and middle classes as vital to the emancipation of their more oppressed counterparts, a la Kincheloe and McLaren’s “many faces of oppression” (2003, p. 281).  Critical theorists would argue that one’s emancipation is inextricably bound up in the other’s.  Hence, the research questions then become: is human emancipation in the critical theory sense only for those who are most oppressed, or is this also available to and necessary for the working and middle classes?  In the context of voluntourism, is it possible that a scenario exists in which emancipation can occur for both the volunteer and the voluntoured?  Is this, in fact, the only way in which true emancipation can occur? This presents another area of research which could benefit from the marriage of critical theory and voluntourism (Figure 2). A proposition reflecting this research focus could be stated in the following way: 

Proposition 2:  In order for emancipation of those most oppressed to occur, the working and middle classes must also be emancipated. Voluntourism, if developed correctly, provides a potential outlet for the emancipation of both the voluntoured within the host communities and the working and middle class volunteer tourist.

In a second example of the need for critical theory in voluntourism, any quick scanning of voluntourism websites reveals the urgent need to evaluate the portrayal of the dominant hegemony through the discourse of voluntourism. While not as well-documented as in mass tourism (Santos 2006, Santos & Buzinde 2007), an abundance of fascinating examples of the use of signs, signifiers, language, and images exists within the culture of voluntourism, all geared toward the maintenance of power and control and often perpetuating the dominant hegemony.  The images associated with some voluntourism operator websites are rife with examples of the subtlety of power relations between the volunteers and the voluntoured, particularly images that depict volunteers with the children of the host communities. The mostly Anglo-European, attractive, young, and vigorous volunteers are often depicted in protective poses with children, e.g. with their arms around them, bestowing them with material gifts (trinkets or inexpensive school materials), intellectual gifts (reading or otherwise educating them), or emotional gifts (hugs, smiles, hand-holding).  Rarely are members of the host community shown in positions of power or dominance over the volunteers, or even in neutral or equal positions.  It is very important to note that these images are very often not posted consciously as a way to perpetuate oppression, but quite the opposite. There is a great need to contextualize the images of voluntourism within a critical theory perspective, thereby exposing the unintended consequences.

In addition to images, the language or discourse of voluntourism operator websites certainly provides fertile ground to examine the social construction of “what can and cannot be said, who has authority and who must listen, and whose social constructions are valid” (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2003, in Tribe, 2008, p. 247) in the world of voluntourism.  The self-descriptions of many of the voluntourism organizations are a fascinating potential source of critical theory research. For example, organizations often do not use the term tourism but rather volunteer abroad, international volunteer abroad experience, expeditions, etc..  Host communities are not described as exploited or oppressed, but instead lack resources and face challenges, and the term sustainability is used liberally throughout a number of the websites.  The discourse of voluntourism in turn provides the building blocks for the social construction of voluntourism, and in turn works to perpetuate the dominant hegemony.  The deep critical analysis of voluntourism websites and other forms of communication and promotion would be a timely research focus. Therefore, the proposition for this line of research is as follows: 

Proposition 3: The discourse of voluntourism organizations reflects the dominant hegemony, which in turn manages the social construction of voluntourism.  The social construction of tourism then, in turn, feeds into and bolsters the dominant hegemony.

A close examination of these three propositions reveals potential for integrating them into a larger model that reflects the interplay of critical theory with voluntourism (Figure 4).  The model begins with the dominant hegemony and its relationship with both the discourse and social construction of voluntourism (Proposition 3). The discourse of voluntourism then in turn has an influence upon the goals and actions of individual voluntourism organizations. In their efforts within host communities, voluntourism organizations actions and goals then influence the actual degree of equality between the volunteers and the voluntoured (Proposition 1).  Both Propositions 1 and 2 include the actions a voluntourism organization takes toward the emancipation of the often- oppressed voluntoured, but proposition 2 adds the emancipation of the volunteer tourists as well.  All of these factors are crucial to the ultimate goal of critical theory, which is human emancipation, which then in turn has an influence on the dominant hegemony, completing the model (Figure 4).      

It should be very clearly stated that in no way is voluntourism the only influence on the dominant hegemony, nor is it the only possible answer to the quest for human emancipation for all. The model merely reflects the potential for voluntourism to contribute to the critical theory goal of human emancipation.


This paper represents an attempt to present critical theory and as a promising foundation for the study of voluntourism.  Three propositions were developed separately, then integrated together to create a model for each theory.  For the critical theory perspective, the contradictions of voluntourism, the potential for voluntourism to aid in the human emancipation of all, and the relationship between the social construction of voluntourism and the dominant hegemony were the primary factors of interest.  The propositions presented in this paper are far from exhaustive. In fact, it is the hope of the author that these initial propositions will generate discussion resulting in an even more comprehensive list. For example, originally the author planned to examine not only critical theory, but also social movement theory, feminist theory and dependency theory as well. However, the scale of such a project exceeded the parameters of this paper.  These are rich sources of theoretical opportunity for the study of voluntourism and should be examined in addition to the theoretical perspective mentioned in this paper.  

While the focus of this paper has been on developing propositions for voluntourism, it is also important to discuss the role of methodology in critical theory.  Critical theorists posit that science itself can be not only a tool of exposing power differentials but can also reinforce the power differentials acting as an instrument of oppression (Wilson, Harris, & Small, 2008; Habermas, 1978).   Hollinshead (1999) has pointed out to us on numerous occasions the value of critical theory, or more specifically, postmodern Foucauldian thought, as a way for tourism researchers to understand that the notion of neutrality in research is folly, and that our a priori understandings of “reality” should be recognized as part and parcel of our interpretations of tourism.  Critical theory provides not only theoretical frameworks for propositions but also methodological paradigms.  This perspective argues for a subject-centered approach, the recognition of power relations that exist between the researcher-subject, and the role of scholar activism. It is in that spirit that there is hope for voluntourism as a potential mechanism to be used toward the greater idea of the emancipation of humanity that is so crucial to critical theory.


Habermas, J. (1978). Knowledge and human interests. London: Heinemann.

Hollinshead, K. (1999). Surveillance of the worlds of tourism: Foucault and the eye-of-power. Tourism Management, 20(1), 7-23.

Horkheimer, M. (1982). Critical Theory, New York: Seabury Press.

Kincheloe, J & McLaren, P. (2003). Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In N.
Denzin & S. Lincoln (Eds.), The handbook of qualitative research (pp. 279-313). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.

Marx, K. (1844). A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February.

McGehee, N. (2002). Alternative Tourism and Social Movements.  Annals of Tourism Research, 29, 124-143.

McGehee, N.G. & Andereck, K. (2008). ‘Pettin’ the Critters’: Exploring the complex relationship between volunteers and the voluntoured in McDowell County, WV, USA and Tijuana, Mexico. In  S. Wearing and K. Lyons (Eds.), Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI.

McGehee, N & Norman W. (2002). Alternative Tourism as Impetus for Consciousness-Raising. Tourism Analysis, 6, 239-251.

McGehee, N & Santos C. (2005). Social Change, Discourse, and Volunteer Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 32(3), 760-779.

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Santos, C.A. (2006). Cultural politics in contemporary travel writing, Annals of Tourism Researc,h vol. 33(3), 624–644.

Santos, C.A. & Buzinde, C. (2007). Politics of identity and space: Representational dynamics, Journal of Travel Research, 45(3), 322–332.

Tribe, J. (2008). Tourism: A Critical Business. Journal of Travel Research, 46, 245-255.

Wearing S. (2004). Examining best practice in volunteer tourism. In R. Stebbins and R. Graham (Eds.), Volunteering as Leisure/Leisure as Volunteering, Oxford, UK: Wallingford.

Wearing S & M. McDonald (2002). The development of community-based tourism: re-thinking the relationship between tour operators and development agents as intermediaries in rural and isolated area communities. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 1(3), 191-206.

Wilson, E, Harris, C & Small, J. (2008). Furthering Critical Approaches in Tourism and hospitality Studies: Perspectives from Australia and New Zealand. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 15, 15-18.

Nancy McGehee, PhD., Virginia Tech University

 I hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum!  If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to The Voluntourist Newsletter, or e-mail me at: nmcgehee[at]vt.edu

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg VA

For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>

[Return To The Top]