Ian McIntosh and Angus Erskine (2000) '"Money for nothing"?: Understanding Giving to Beggars'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/5/1/mcintosh.html>
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Received: 6/4/2000 Accepted: 25/5/2000 Published: 31/5/2000
There is no society whose members do not understand the language games of economic exchange and of gift exchange. Thus we create a historical fiction when we separate gift economies from exchange economies on the ground that the former is primitive, primordial or paradisial while the latter are modern, individualistic and rational. (O'Neill, 1999: 133)
In a society such as our own - with a market economy and a strongly utilitarian culture - those who want something for nothing are commonly viewed as flawed, distorted, or incomplete. Thus, there is sometimes a radical ambiguity in our perception of those who want something for nothing. (1973: 267)
... to them it has just become a way of life. So I mean they are doing that almost as their job as it were ... I mean it is just what they have to do to survive basically but, on the other hand, I can see why people do get upset about it, especially if they are making people feel uncomfortable at the same time. (Woman 20's)
I think sometimes you feel ... embarrassment isn't the word I would choose, but there are times where maybe you don't look or have eye contact maybe because you are not going to give ... it is difficult sometimes. (Woman 40's)
I mean, some strangers, normal people, walking down the street if they look at you in a certain way you'll think, oh oh, kind of thing and you will feel just that little bit kind of vulnerable as it were. So someone sitting there begging is going to have the same sort of thing. I can't really explain why I feel more vulnerable to something like that. In a way it is not like a normal sort of thing, they are not like everyone else as it were ... not like the rest of society ... They are doing something different just by being beggars and that may not be their fault. It's just the way it is. It is a sense of not knowing, basically. (Woman 20's)
I think if they were sitting there just doing nothing on the floor and that was what their choice was then I'm less likely to give ... I don't know it really depends on me, how I am feeling and what they are like. (Woman 20's)
... money economy brings along with it the necessity for continuous mathematical operations in everyday life. The life of many people is filled out with determining, weighing up, calculating and reducing of qualitative values to quantitative ones. This certainly contributes to the rational, calculating nature of modern times against the more impulsive, holistic, emotional character of earlier epochs. (quoted in Frisby and Featherstone 1997: 252)
I'd always weigh up the person concerned. If I thought it was somebody that was genuinely needing money, fair enough ... I try to weigh up the situation ... It's hard to distinguish, I know, but you just like to think you can guess. (Woman 40's)One man thought he could tell the difference:
The difference? Because if you read their eyes sometimes you can tell, if you look in their eyes, aye, whether they are lost or not. (Man 40's)
The impression they give off is a major part in the decision whether you give money or not but at the same time there is no way of telling whether someone has just put on old clothes or whatever just to look the part. (Woman 20's)
That old boy on Saturday he didn't look like he was homeless or desperate ... He was well-groomed, he looked clean. I thought 'you shouldn't be doing that'. I mean I might be totally wrong but I mean normally a homeless person isn't particularly well-groomed. (Man 20's)
I mean I don't mind giving to a genuine beggar ... the older guys, who have] just had enough of life ... the tramp that's wandering the streets and never caused anyone a problem. (Man 50's)
I feel sorry for the old guys, they've been on the road for years ... that weather beaten look they've got ... just their appearance on their face, maybe you can get make-up, I dunno, but they just look genuine. (Man 50's)
I do feel sorry for them but they do annoy me. I just wish they could get themselves sorted out, do something for themselves ... but I guess it could happen to us all. (Woman 30's)
I do feel resentful, I feel like saying to them 'excuse me, I'm sure you could get work if you really wanted it'. You know basically they are just scrounging off the dole, not all of them, but there must be a good majority probably getting dole money and then sitting out there getting tax free money and they are making a fortune out of it ... They can't get work so they are on the dole and they are going to beg for some extra money. I think society has caused it to happen to them. (Man 50's)
I suppose there is nothing that could be done because there is always going to be beggars and there always has been beggars ... It's all over the world so I mean I don't think they will be able to erase it all. (Woman 20's)
You've got certain ones that will probably do drink and drugs ... and you have got other ones that probably have a £100,000 house somewhere, jump into their car and, you know, it's easy money for them. I think the genuine ones will probably drink and probably do drugs. (Man 50's)
[You] are about to put money in the hat and the mobile phone goes off, things like that. (Woman 40's)
Then again you have got some of them with their blankets which they interchange and someone else comes along and it's the same dog and the same blanket basically ... it's like a trade really. (Man 40's)
People fall through the net. I think there is help there, there is a back up but, yes, people do fall through the net. (Woman 40's)
Well, they probably abuse the system anyway. OK, there may be some genuine ones but you get a lot that actually abuse the system ... or you have ones that ... you know leave their car parked somewhere else and come out and sit and beg. (Woman 40's)
I work hard for my money, I don't see why I should give somebody else money just for the sake of it. ... I mean I give to, I give to charities and that sort of thing ... so I have got my own thoughts on what I give money to. (Man 50's)
The reason why we work here is to get money. I mean, that is the main reason you work, to get money to pay your bills and that and you feel ... if you've got to work why should you give your hard earned cash to 'these'. You feel like saying, you know, away and find a job, you know, away and get help and get a job. (Woman 40's)
I think I would help anybody but not when people have the attitude of somebody-owes-me-a-living. (Woman 40's)
Quite often when I see them I would walk near the edge of the pavement rather than walk past them. (Woman 50s)
There is often two or three people sitting there, you know, begging or whatever and that can be quite scary. It's just a feeling of ... not knowing what is going to happen and feeling vulnerable more than anything else. (Man 20's).
If somebody is doing something for which they should be rewarded ... if they are doing something constructive. ... They are giving something to everyone else and they in turn get something back as opposed to sitting doing nothing but making people feel uncomfortable. (Woman 20's)
... at the same time it is a funny thing to actually draw the line between someone who is begging and someone who is actually, you know, selling the Big Issue or busking or whatever. (Woman 20's)
I mean, I wouldn't mind giving a beggar a packet of crisps or something or going buying them a can of juice or something like that but I wouldn't give them money because I believe, I'm positive it goes on drink and drugs. (Woman 40's)
I mean, that is why they are doing it, they are wanting money, but I don't think they are wanting money like to pay for food, they want it for drink. I know it is, I've seen them. They've always got drink with them. (Woman 40's)
No, I mean at the end of the day if you think somebody is a genuine case and you give them money you can't stand there and say I am only giving you this on the provision you tell me what you are going to buy with it. (Woman 30's).
It is a monetary relation that lies on the periphery, if not completely outside, our normal routine understandings of such exchanges and has the potential to undermine and usurp a central social relation around which gravitates much of our understanding of social and economic life and the smooth running of our daily routines. (McIntosh and Erskine 1999, see also Goffman 1971)Also, it is a 'gift' that sits uneasily within the obligations of gift-exchange (Mauss 1954) as it is a gift that the giver does not expect to be returned.
2Despite national and local debate and media coverage on the 'problem' of 'aggressive begging' we found little evidence of this in our research. A more common source of complaint centred on those asking for money for charities with collection tins:
I don't like it thrusted at me, yeah it does make me feel uncomfortable. If I want to give I'll give. There's so many people doing it. ... I do admit I tend to avoid them, if I hear one of them things rattling. Its not that I am tight and I don't want to give them money, it's just that I don't want to feel it thrusted under my face. (Woman 20's)
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