The blooming of the voluntary nonprofit sector (VNPS) after the 1970s led to increased academic interest in VNPS research. Contributions to this field stem from very different disciplines, such as political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and marketing. Almost 40 years ago, Smith (1975) designated that “scholars concerned about voluntary action research should consciously seek out cross-disciplinary inputs (p.248)”. Later, Katz (1999) indicated that there is a strong tendency toward a new and multidisciplinary field in social sciences after the 1970s. Nonetheless, uncovering the interdisciplinary nature of VNPS research is rather difficult. Moreover, it is harder to understand how this new field reconstitutes this knowledge and establishes new areas of research.
In the past 40 years, some academic studies have reviewed VNPS knowledge through the use of literature reviews. For instance, Tomeh, (1973) and Smith (1975) conducted literature reviews on voluntary organizations and voluntary action. Pugliese (1986) and Layton (1987) wrote an annotated bibliography of philanthropy and volunteerism. Likewise, Smith (1994) developed a comprehensive account of American social science literature on participation and volunteering in voluntary associations between 1975 and 1992. Lately, some literature reviews have attempted to concentrate on a few major issues in this emergent sector, most notably Mercer’s (2002) account of the role of NGOs in the politics of development and Bekkers and Wiepking’s (2011) overview of empirical studies in the charitable giving literature.
Shier and Handy (2014) have investigated the trends of VNPS dissertations and theses between 1986 to 2010, and their findings contain statistical descriptions of the historical developments, main themes, and research topics present in these publications. The result is a visualization of the interdisciplinary linkages in this field of research. However, the study employed a manual labelling method to the abstract only; therefore, only primary thematic analysis can see from the main findings. Although this research demonstrates a clear trend in dissertation theme, there is a lack of comprehensive and in-depth interpretation of the academic context on a greater basis.
Consequently, this paper attempts to fill the research gap by applying Scientometrics to VNPS research. Scientometrics was first introduced by Nalimov and Mulchenko (1969) to describe the study of all aspects of the literature of science and technology such as growth, structure, interrelationships and productivity. According to Hood and Wilson (2001), this method can be applied to analyze the practices of researchers, the organizational structures, research and development management, and the role of science and technology policies. Scientometrics is a useful method for describing, visualizing and understanding the knowledge network of a research field. However, there have been few studies using this method in social science (For example Katz, 1999, and M. Chen & Liu, 2015).
The foremost purpose of this study is to describe and analyze the knowledge network and flows in VNPS research quantitatively. 5,107 articles and 203,541 references are sampled from Web of Science’s (WoS) Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) database in this study. Hence, this enormous citation data will analyze by utilizing different algorithms, and the results will be visualized via different citation network diagrams, a novel approach in this area. The paper is structured as follows. First, a detailed exposition of the data and methods underpinning this study is provided, followed by presentation of the empirical results which are grouped into four categories: trends of knowledge construction in the field of VNPS in social science;
1. knowledge building at the institution, county and individual levels;
2. the change and continuity of research foci; and
3. collaboration network analysis.
The paper concludes with a reflection on the implications of the study with respect to VNSP research and other social science fields, as well as suggestions for future studies.