Struggling with Meaningfulness when Context Shifts: Volunteer Work in a German Refugee Shelter

Mona Florian, Jana Costas, Dan Kärreman

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


This article draws on an ethnographic study of volunteer work in a German refugee shelter to explore how individual experiences of meaningfulness are intertwined with shifting discursive and organisational contexts. At the beginning of the so‐called refugee crisis, societal discourses portrayed this volunteer work as extraordinarily meaningful – a state we capture through the metaphor of ‘overflow’. This ‘overflow’ mobilised volunteers and was an important point of reference for framing their work experiences as meaningful. Later, shifting discursive and organisational contexts challenged their framings. Instead of letting go, however, the ‘overflow’ triggered volunteers to reframe their experience in dysfunctional ways in order to sustain their sense of meaningfulness. This paper reveals how shifting societal discourses feed into individual experiences of meaningfulness, shows how individuals may respond to such shifts in problematic ways and theorises the nature of such shifts in drawing on Swidler’s notion of settling contexts.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Management Studies
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)589-616
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • Meaningful work
  • Refugees
  • Settled and unsettled contexts
  • Societal discourses
  • Volunteer work

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