Not Miser Not Monk: Begging, Benefits and the Free Gift

by Tom Hall
Cardiff University

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 4,

Received: 3 Nov 2005     Accepted: 17 Dec 2005    Published: 31 Dec 2005


This article considers the idea of the 'free' gift, in particular relation to begging and the receipt of social security benefit and in reference to ethnographic research with the homeless in London and the South East of England. The article draws attention to the potential for both 'dole money' and spare change to signify, socially, in ways which wound. This is to recognise the Maussian connotations and moral framing to contemporary exchanges which mark out people as poor, even where the intention might be to give freely.

Keywords: Begging, Benefits, Deservingness, Friends, Gifts, Strangers


1.1 In his historical study of the relationship between the casual poor and middle classes of Victorian London, Gareth Stedman Jones (1992) refers to a perceived demoralization of the metropolitan lower orders linked in part to the indiscriminate giving of alms. Such indiscriminate generosity was, in the view of writers of the period, destructive of the social order; it discouraged thrift and self-help and led instead to idleness and dissipation (1992: 251). Gifts to strangers were damaging the social fabric. The same anxieties are still with us today, just like the poor. Standing at the city centre cash machine we worry about whether and how best to give to the homeless; newspapers carry comment on ‘clever paupers’ – persistent beggars, dole ‘cheats’ – who take gifts for granted or play the system; and indiscriminate givers are still scolded for the well-intentioned damage that they do. Clear ups and crack downs intended to clean the streets of anti-social behaviour and undesirables – rough sleepers, ‘squeegee merchants’ – frequently include diversionary schemes to cater for the rashly generous.[1] Cash that we are told would have fed addictions goes instead to charities. Giving to beggars is not easy.

1.2 This article considers the sociological significance of begging (see Dean, 1999) in the wider context of gifts, giving and exchange; its principal concern is to consider gifts to beggars and other exchanges as vectors of social relationship and hierarchy. As such, the article is spanned by two theoretical traditions concerned with social ties. Aafke Komter (2005) denotes these as gift theory in anthropology and sociological thinking about solidarity. Following Komter, whose book is a careful attempt to bring the two traditions into synthesis, it is appropriate here to recognise renewed disciplinary and inter-disciplinary interest in both gift theory and solidarity (see Berking, 1999; Godbout, 1998; Godelier, 1999; Komter, 1996; Osteen, 2002; Turner and Rojek, 2001). The revival of interest in Durkheim, particularly his sociology of religion, is relevant here also (see Alexander and Smith, 2005), as is recent sociological attention to questions of trust and civil society (see Tonkiss and Passey, 2000). These literatures provide a general backcloth to what follows, against which the real focus of the article is rather more modest and particular, and also elementary. The article sets out from, and later returns to, and so should be seen as in dialogue with an article published in Sociological Research Online in 2000 by Ian McIntosh and Angus Erskine, titled “Money for nothing”?: Understanding giving to Beggars. This is its modest, particular focus. Following McIntosh and Erskine, but as an exercise in more than ground clearing, it also engages with Marcel Mauss’ originary contribution to our understanding of gifts and exchange. This is its elementary, foundational focus.

1.3Money for nothing”? (McIntosh and Erskine, 2000) contains much that is or ought to be of interest to sociologists of exchange. The article looks at the city centre begging encounter, the fleeting interaction between supplicant and passer-by, which the authors describe as ‘a money relationship with a stranger within the context of a metropolis’ (2000: 4.2). This encounter is shown to be a troubling and troublesome one, more complicated than most urban money transactions. McIntosh and Erskine suggest that the ordinarily slick anonymity of cash does not quite suffice or satisfy so far as giving to beggars goes, precisely because giving to beggars is so one-sided. Beggars ask for something for nothing, and the decision to give is thus informed by considerations other and more complex than the purely ‘economic’. Such considerations include evaluations of (un)deserving status, akin to those that informed Victorian puzzlement about how best to give.

1.4 The empirical basis for McIntosh and Erskine’s article is contemporary: a series of tape-recorded interviews conducted in Edinburgh, on the city’s ‘busiest and most famous street’ (2000: 2.2). The interviewees are not beggars themselves but, instead, those asked to do the giving: those on ‘the “other” side of the begging interaction; those who are asked for money’ (2000: 1.6). These respondents discuss their reasons for giving, or not giving, to beggars and their attitudes towards begging in general. My aim in this article is partly complementary, in that I have something to say about what beggars think of and say about those who do the giving. Before which, I have something to say about the receipt of social security payments – state ‘handouts’ intended to meet the needs of strangers (Ignatieff, 1994) – and about exchange between friends, between those who do know one another but who, in the example I want to discuss, have very little to spare. Considering these questions – money to strangers, and gifts, reciprocated or otherwise – I hope to make a contribution to the sociological understanding of the ‘free’ gift, an admittedly difficult category: no such thing, some might say. I draw throughout on ethnographic research with the homelessness in London and the South East of England.

Gifts, free gifts and those deserving of them

2.1 In his celebrated essay The Gift, Mauss (1954) appears to set up a series of binary oppositions: socially embedded gift economies versus modern commerce; reciprocity versus profit; the social whole versus the individual. McIntosh and Erskine pick up on this, and to some extent run with it, taking sociology to task for focussing only on ‘reciprocated market exchanges – the domain of homo-economicus and rational man’ and thereby overlooking ‘the role of the “gift”, and “non-utilitarian giving generally’ (2000: 1.2). Which is reasonable enough, only we know that market exchanges are socially embedded too and that making profits can signify socially; and we know there is utility – advantage, profit, interest certainly – in the giving of gifts, today as ever.[2] I am not persuaded that these dualisms help us very much. Selfish, interested exchange and generous, disinterested giving are pure type abstractions: they provide us with a way of talking about exchange but are not descriptive of it. Our lived experience is one in which these pure types combine in a more complex interplay of human reciprocity (Hart, 2000: 195).

2.2 Mauss surely recognised this. And though his essay might seem to sketch out a contrastive model of gift and market economies in developmental sequence, primitive/archaic to modern, his central and underlying thesis is universal: that reciprocity is central to the task of being human together. Here it is the middle ground that matters, away from pure types. Thus Mauss enjoins his readers to be reciprocal: neither saintly altruists, giving away all that they have, nor selfish individuals, grasping all that they can get: neither monks nor misers.[3] This side to Mauss’ thinking does not come out as well as it might in McIntosh and Erskine’s article. Certainly gifts are very much a feature of any person’s exchange repertoire in modern market economies, as McIntosh and Erskine do acknowledge. We all practice a mixed economy of exchange, as givers, beneficiaries, buyers, sellers, seekers after profit and seekers after a good deal else besides.

2.3 What we all learn from Mauss, and what he surely intended we should learn, is that gift-giving enables social relations to be made and maintained. The Maussian gift is sticky – implicating, socially entangling (Laidlaw, 2000: 632). It does not take too much to recognise this, that gifts constrain return and obligation. And yet we are accustomed to thinking of gifts as free. A gift is something freely given; it costs the recipient nothing. The distinction to be made here is between the sociology of the gift – sticky, compelling – and the ideology of the gift – free, disinterested. Not that the latter blinds us to reality. In practice, we know that most gifts are anything but free and disinterested, even if they insistently advertise themselves as such; even if we so often talk about them as such.

2.4 In contrasting the giving of gifts with market exchange, McIntosh and Erskine do not distinguish consistently between the sociology and the ideology of the gift. Sometimes they bundle the Maussian in with the ‘pure’ gift, equating gifts generally with non-reciprocation. Only most gifts are reciprocated, the requirement to reciprocate being one third of Mauss’ universal injunction: to give, to receive and to return. Nevertheless, some gifts do seem very like free gifts, given with no hope or expectation of return. Gifts to beggars, to those asking for something for nothing, seem like free gifts, and these are the gifts that McIntosh and Erskine are principally concerned with.[4] They describe giving to beggars as an interaction occupying a ‘grey area between routine market exchanges and the obligations of gift giving’ (2000: 1.4). The logic to such a description is apparent: there is no profit in giving to beggars, yet it is a monetary interaction with a stranger; there is no obligation, nothing entangling, yet spare change handed to a beggar in the high street is a gift, of sorts, given in person and perhaps signalling a fleeting solidarity. So we have market exchange at one end of the spectrum, Maussian gifts at the other, ‘free’ gifts in the middle. But for all the seeming logic of this formulation, I do not entirely agree. I will try to explain why at the end of the article.

2.5 What McIntosh and Erskine convey very well is the extent to which moral considerations are brought to bear on the decision to give. They describe these considerations as ‘characterised by a deeply held ambivalence’ (2000: 3.1) In any case, those interviewed certainly do fret about whether or not to give. A lot of this fretting, and the eventual decisions made, seem to turn on the question of authenticity and on notions of deservingness, and, tied to deservingness, notions of individualism. Although McIntosh and Erskine find ‘little evidence amongst those we interviewed of a shared “culture” … in relation to giving to beggars’ (2000: 8.2), their respondents’ worries do have a cultural pedigree. Contradictory and confusing evaluations of the poor are to be found ‘[t]hroughout recorded history’ (Lewis, 1965: xliii), and the categories ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ have been a part of the stock of cultural knowledge in Britain for centuries (Howe, 1990: 2). In worrying about whether or not to give to beggars in Edinburgh’s city centre, McIntosh and Erskine’s interviewees are taking their part in a longstanding, culturally and politically charged, debate – about the poor, who they are and whether and why they are with (the rest of) us. Nor does the worry stop with the decision to give. There are further anxieties. How much to hand over? Where will the money go? One respondent talks about giving foodstuffs – a pack of crisps or a can of juice – rather than cash: ‘“I wouldn’t give them money because I believe, I’m positive it goes on drink and drugs.”’ (2000: 7.4). There is an echo here of the Maussian gift, a gift not entirely alienated from the giver, at least to the extent that they can be cross if it is not spent as they would wish. This raises an issue which I want to pursue further; the possibility that ‘free’ gifts can and do signify. Mauss was certainly aware of this. ‘The gift not yet repaid’ he writes ‘debases the man who accepted it, particularly if he did so without thought of return … charity wounds’ (Mauss, 1954: 63). Charity wounds. Gifts signify and can carry penalties, even if – especially if – they are given without expectation of return. In what follows, I discuss some of these issues, this last one in particular, in reference to my own research with homeless people, some but not all of them beggars.

Bed-sit rooms and benefits

3.1 In this section I draw on an ethnographic study more fully reported elsewhere (see Hall, 2003). The fieldwork requires some introduction. In the 1990s I spent over a year living with and close by a number of people most of whom were homeless when I first met them, many of whom remained so, off and on, throughout the time that I was in contact with them. During this time I stayed in various hostels, night shelters, resettlement units and bottom-end, private rented accommodation in and around London and the South East of England. I spent by far the biggest chunk of my fieldwork with a collection of intermittently homeless teenagers moving through hostel and rented bed-sit accommodation in a town called Southerton (a pseudonym). The hostel was a smallish voluntary sector project offering emergency overnight accommodation to local young people. The bed-sits were bottom-end rented rooms let by some of Southerton’s less esteemed landlords. Poorly maintained, and managed with indifference and occasional intimidation, these rooms were both undesirable and disreputable: cheap, shabby and a locally recognised hub for drug use and general misbehaviour.

3.2 Public commentary on ‘the homeless’ commonly confuses category and group: ‘the homeless’ is a category, not necessarily a group. Categories are not real in the way that groups are. Accordingly, fieldwork in Southerton had more to do with getting to know and being with groups than it did categories. The young people I knew in Southerton – assorted ‘DSS’ tenants,[5] teenagers and troublemakers running into difficulties and out of options at the grubby end of their local housing market and falling back on emergency hostel accommodation in extremis – were a group, of sorts. They were much more immediately and obviously this than they were members of a category ‘homeless’. And there was more to their being a group than a mechanical solidarity – young people hitched together because their lives were pretty much the same. They were an interdependent bunch: implicated in one another’s daily affairs as a network of friends and acquaintances and hangers on. This was a patchy network certainly, more than a little fuzzy at the edges, sparse in places and constantly reconfiguring; but it was extraordinarily dense elsewhere, stringing together clusters of close, intense association.

3.3 Networks take on, and facilitate, different forms – rivalry, sociability, alliance, gossip; also exchange. The networks these young people were involved in were, among other things, networks of exchange. Hard up and hard pressed as they often were, they looked out for one another, in little ways, lending money and pooling incomes and sharing or swapping, exchanging, possessions. This was one of the things that kept them going and also one of the things that kept them together – the exchange of money and goods. One way or another, directly or indirectly, sometimes very circuitously and at several removes, they all owed one another, and were bound together by these threads of debt and obligation. If you were to describe them as a group – not a category, and something more than just a local aggregate of people with a set of lived circumstances in common – this was one of the ways you might do that.

3.4 Not that they were in a position to be all that generous with their money and things, having little of either. Money was always short. Every day of my fieldwork there was someone, usually two or three people, out and about, flat broke and ‘on the scrounge’: knocking on doors, calling in at the hostel, walking round the town centre, looking to borrow money. Come giro day you could expect to be pestered by any number of friends, and would-be friends, to lend a little money. This was an acknowledged nuisance. Even so, it could be a good move to help out as you never knew when you might need a favour. Lending money was a sort of insurance. With £60 in your possession, and with friends in need at your heels, you might choose to farm out as much as half – £10 to John who’s sleeping on the floor of the bed-sit that Shane got into last week, £20 to Tony who you used to share rooms with back at the hostel. Later that day, still flush, you might buy a pack of twenty cigarettes for Susan. These were kindnesses – gifts of a sort, to be returned certainly, but given voluntarily (i.e. to someone – to John, and not, on this occasion, to, say, Lee) – and at the same time a protection against the future; against the sure knowledge that, if not passed on, £60 would burn a hole in your pocket leaving you with nothing. Money saved – held on to – was soon enough money spent; but money lent was money banked. A week on, now broke and down to your last cigarette, you could call round the hostel to see Tony, who ought by then to have had his giro. That’s £20. Then a walk across town to Shane’s bed-sit to find John. And if John is out then Susan is only two doors down. And if Susan doesn’t have your cigarettes yet, perhaps she’ll get her boyfriend to buy you ten – an interim indication of her intention to settle up in full when her money comes in on Wednesday. And so on.

3.5 Such everyday reciprocity, the give and take of friendship, was a daily part of my fieldwork. It made for a network of exchange and obligation, tying people in to one another. Again, it was the middle ground that mattered. Those who didn’t share as they ought were not shared with – were not worth knowing, were ignored; and those who lent too freely were readily exploited, sometimes bullied out of their cash and belongings, but not taken seriously, as friends. In between were those it paid to know; those who could be relied on to make good their debts and were, in turn, due what was owed them. So, friends make gifts, and gifts, in turn, make friends (Sahlins, 1974: 186); make society. Gifts integrate, and enhance solidarity; they create obligations that have to be honoured if you’re going to stick around.[6] This is Mauss’ elementary thesis. If Susan gives me twenty Lambert and Butler then there’s something between us that perhaps wasn’t there before: a social relationship, born of a gift. Generosity and self-interest combine here. For all that these young people were hard up, it was not in their interests to be cheap or stingy, to ignore the claims of others: better to be generous, and to profit from this.[7]

Bad claimants

4.1 As readers will have gathered, the principal, external, source of income feeding these various exchanges was social security. This was where most of the money to lend to friends, or to borrow from them, came from in the first place. And what did this exchange, this transfer of funds – state to claimant – prompt or sustain by way of social relationship and reciprocal obligation? The answer is, not very much at all.

4.2 Relations between my fieldwork informants and friends and the staff at the local offices administering their benefits payments and job search were strained and indifferent. These young people were among the most difficult of the claimants processed by the various offices associated with the payment of benefits to young people at that time. Their personal circumstances were invariably convoluted, which meant their claims were convoluted too – non-standard, awkward; but more than this they were ‘problem’ claimants: pushy, sly, uninformed, careless, demanding; not ‘deserving’ at all in the eyes of some of the officials they dealt with (see Howe, 1985; Cullen and Howe, 1991). Deserving or not, they certainly shared a vigorously cynical attitude towards benefits, which sometimes spilled over into overt attempts to “blag” and defraud money from the DSS. This practice was not quite commonplace, but it was common enough; strategies for “getting one over” the DSS were frequently discussed and collectively affirmed, and past petty triumphs, although few and far between, were celebrated. Deceit aside, there were plenty prepared to boast, in a breezy way, about “dossing” on a benefit income, “working for the government” for “easy money”. This always struck me as big talk, a little too brash to quite ring true; but even so, the point holds: this transfer of funds – benefit payments received – was treated with (conspicuous) unconcern and some disdain. The money mattered, very much. But nothing much beyond that. They didn’t owe the DSS a thing; this was money for nothing … “getting paid for doing nothing”.

4.3 Why this seeming indifference and denial of obligation; and why the strained quality to brash statements about “easy money”? The reasons are complex, and take us back to Mauss. Obviously enough, this was money from strangers; it came from no one they knew or wanted to know (and strictly speaking, as a bureaucratic imbursement, came from no one at all). As such it didn’t imply or engender relations in the same way as money from persons did or could. Not that there weren’t strings attached – forms to fill in and sign, conditions to agree to, supervision, interviews; but these were unwelcome ties – tiresome, intrusive, demeaning – and as such they confirmed an already established and resentful suspicion that the DSS was rather more geared to mistrustfully obstructing claimants than to assisting them. Indeed, almost everyone passing through the hostel and the nearby bed-sit properties had a tale to tell of the capricious and impenetrable workings of the benefits bureaucracy – needless delays, inexplicable decisions, obscure calculations. These accounts circulated constantly as a sort of blackly comic entertainment, but also as a means of shoring up a particular, local understanding: that benefits were a hard won income, something you had to battle for and connive at and wrangle over; something you had to “beat the system” to obtain. The seeming contradiction here – hard won “easy money” – derived from a single source: the shared but unspoken recognition that social security benefit was a stigmatised income. Insisting otherwise, insisting that this was a hard earned and/or carelessly exploited income, was to stave off the unwelcome recognition that it was neither of these things; that it was really a handout – “dole money”,[8] the receipt of which was demeaning.

4.4 This would surely have saddened Mauss, who had higher hopes for systems of social security as emergent forms for the making and maintaining of a reciprocal solidarity. Although much of Mauss’ celebrated essay is taken up with a consideration of ‘archaic’ societies and ancient texts (Douglas, 1990: x), he had the society of his day very much in mind in his consideration of the gift, and returns to this directly in his concluding comments, suggesting that a familiar and necessary solidarity, expressed through reciprocity, could be seen resurfacing in the modern world in burgeoning state and corporate schemes for social insurance. This was a transformation he welcomed as a return to a sort of general reciprocity in which all give so that all could receive. If he was making a prediction here then he was wide of the mark; and he ought not to have been, because his essay recognises explicitly that which ought to have given him pause for thought: gifts, as well as being a source of solidarity, obligating persons one to the other, are also and at the same time a means of signalling inequality. It is better to give than to receive; the unreciprocated gift, for as long as it remains so, is a dishonour; charity is wounding. Whatever the potential of the welfare state to foster and give expression to a group morality, it also always had the potential – undeniably realised – to reproduce a sort of class system, setting tax donors and tax recipients apart from one another and in unequal relations (Hart, 2000: 194). Social citizenship in Britain has never managed to shake off the association with charity and, hence, moral judgement, as late twentieth century ‘underclass’ anxieties bear witness (see Morris, 1994: 159).

4.5 Finally, in this section, a note on begging. No matter how short of money they were, the idea of begging for loose change in and around the town centre was not one that any of Southerton’s young homeless were prepared to consider; it was not even discussed, other than in jest. The possibility of someone seeing you – a friend or family member – was too awful to contemplate. Those who had begged, and there were a few, had only ever done so away from home, having jumped the train to London, typically, to rough it for a couple of days and let some or other local difficulty blow over. Begging on the streets of the London was nothing to boast about, but it was at least possible because there you could be sure that the passers-by you were asking for money would be strangers.

Begging at the Elephant

5.1 I have also begged for money from strangers in London, not with any of Southerton’s young homeless but in an earlier phase of the same period of fieldwork. Before I came to Southerton I spent some time in and around central London in the old government resettlement units – large accommodation units and hostels for single homeless men. These units were the last of the old ‘spikes’, relics of the poor law workhouses, and have all since been closed down and sold on, or substantially modernised and handed over to local authorities and voluntary sector organisations to run. When I stayed there they were on their very last legs and the provision was anything but modern. I spent two months in three of these units before leaving London. Each was different, but the essentials varied little; once you had stayed in one of these lodgings you knew what to expect when you booked into another.

5.2 I was resident longest at Launcelot Andrews House, which was also the first of the units I booked myself into. Booking in for the first time was a disconcerting experience. Arriving late at night I was ‘interviewed’ by a solitary security guard through a grill in a Plexiglas screen. My details were recorded – name, date of birth, height, colour of eyes, distinguishing marks, previous convictions – and I was issued with bedding, a copy of the rules of residence and a notice sternly prohibiting the use of drugs on the premises, and pointed up the stairs to the dormitories. The security guard stayed below. My bed was on the second floor, one of eight beds bunched together at the far end of a dorm of 24. This put me together with John, a recovering heroin addict and prolific petty thief; Mal, a wearily laconic long-term resident, in the same bed for almost a year now; Sean, recently released from prison and likely to return there very soon; and Sean’s younger brother Keith. Soon after I arrived we were joined by Paco, a Portuguese sailor as far as we could make out – he spoke no English. The two remaining beds stayed empty that night and were filled with a succession of one-night stays thereafter.

5.3 Sean was the main reason for this – his threatening and violent behaviour made life on the dorm very difficult for anyone he didn’t take to. I was lucky that he took to me. But Sean or no Sean, the unit was not the sort of place you would want to stay any longer than you had to. The facilities were minimal, and the conditions squalid. The dorms were something like a cross between a detention centre, a field hospital and a failing pub: strip lighting and brick walls in cream and grey gloss paint; prone bodies in narrow cots; tinny radio noise and coughing and shouting; fights; a thick pall of cigarette smoke, and the smell of booze and feet and vomit. The warning about drug use issued on my arrival proved utterly empty. Drug use was widespread and unconcealed. Mal and John were both on methadone, which they sold around the dorm in small doses and which Mal mixed with heroin when he could get it; Sean was a binge heroin user, injecting himself in the toilets then vomiting everywhere before retiring to bed; prescribed medication of different sorts – temazepam, valium, whatever could be scammed from the visiting doctor – was gobbled indiscriminately; cannabis was used casually, with no thought for the staff who were rarely seen upstairs and treated our dorm as a sort of no-go area. Everyone drank and smoked whenever there was drink and cigarettes to be had.

5.4 For a few hours at a time, this mixed menu of drugs and intoxicants could give life on the dorm a nightmarish, carnival intensity. But these excesses were not sustainable. Drugs, alcohol and cigarettes cost money, and money was in very short supply. Much more of our time was spent bored and broke, doing nothing much at all – making trivial conversation, reading magazines and drawing out a thin supply of tobacco. Paco spent whole afternoons doing press ups. Some days we scarcely got out of bed.

5.5 Clearly this was the setting for a different sort, or degree, of homelessness than that experienced by Southerton’s teenage home-leavers; much harsher and more dispiriting. I found it a taxing experience, miserable at times and physically wearing. Nevertheless, like all homeless hostels, Launcelot Andrews House was an active social setting (Liebow, 1995: 189). Although residence there could be nasty, brutish and short in all sorts of ways, it was also patterned by relations of friendship and alliance, and the security and satisfactions that these relations brought were essential. You needed friends at a place like Launcelot Andrews House. If you were on your own you were in trouble. Friends in the dorms looked out for and after one another, and, again, exchange served as an instrument and expression of these relations: friends shared, swapped and exchanged money and goods – cigarettes, medication, clothes, confidences; and they were friends because of these exchanges. As in Southerton, this involved a careful balancing of good and short measure. You couldn’t afford to be cheap, still less over-generous; a soft touch was soon exploited, Sean in particular was merciless in such cases; and, again, as in Southerton, this was not a closed circuit of exchange. Benefits were one source of external income, but not all that reliable, and always, it seemed, too distant. Other, brisker, means presented themselves: theft, shoplifting, drug dealing; police identity parades were an occasional earner – £15 cash to appear alongside suspects; John sold the Big Issue, as I did for a few weeks. Begging was another possibility, and openly acknowledged as such: hardly something to boast of, but one way among limited others of passing the time and maybe bringing some money back to the dorm. Sean, Keith and I spent several afternoons doing just that.

5.6 The rationale was always to make money, although there were times when there was something to be said for just getting a break from life on the dorm. Having decided to go out, we would walk to the Elephant and Castle, “swooping” for discarded cigarette ends on the way, and set up in one of the busier underpasses. We didn’t have a fixed pitch, and were sometimes chided for this by those who begged there regularly and did; but no one was going to tell Sean to move over and so we chose our spot much as we liked. Our strategy was a simple one: we sat Keith down on the floor with a paper cup and stood to one side, trusting to his youth and glum, grubby appearance to generate an income. An hour would usually give us enough for cigarettes and a can of glue and plastic carrier bag for Sean; another hour and we’d have enough for beer; from then on it was all profit, money to take back to the unit. Begging wasn’t something we worked particularly hard at and it is difficult to know how much we could have made from it had we applied ourselves and stuck at it. Instead, after two or three hours we’d usually tire of it and head back home. I would estimate that a full day spent working our pitch might have netted as much as £30 or £40, possibly more if we’d been more creative in appealing to passers-by. As it was we scarcely appealed to them at all – we had no cardboard sign,[9] no spiel or patter to draw people in, no chalked message of gratitude.


We quite conspicuously did not ask, and did not say thanks. In part this followed the logic of our gambit – Keith as passive, suffering, youngster, head dropped – which worked well enough; but there was more to it than that. We wanted no contact, no interest paid beyond that required to prompt a fleeting cash donation. Of course we took something of an interest in those passing by – guessing who might give and who might not, and passing mostly mean comments on people’s appearance; but what was revealing was just how particularly unpleasant we could be about those who stopped to give money, once their back was turned, and especially anyone who stopped to talk. We had no time at all for those who used their donation as an entrée to some kind of social connection – to ask Keith if he was OK, to offer advice or kind words, to say something in solidarity about having been through hard times once themselves. Keith met these attempts at connection with monosyllables and we saved our vilest comments for these kind people as soon as they were out of earshot. I was struck by this casual, surly behaviour, in which I participated, just as I was struck by the casual, surly attitude towards social security in Southerton; and I see both as informed by the same underlying logic.

5.7 Begging at the Elephant and Castle, Sean, Keith and I were not worried, as Southerton’s teenage homeless were, that we would be recognised by a passer-by. This was London after all and these were surely strangers. But the point was that we wanted them to stay strangers, despite the fact that – because of the fact that – they were giving us something, for nothing. Such unreciprocated exchange had the potential to put us somewhere we didn’t really want to be, positioning us as recipients of kindness and subordinate in consequence. This was to be recognised in another way, also shaming: recognised for what, if not who, we were. In the same fashion, in Southerton, big talk about “easy money” was an attempt to deflect the unwelcome implications of a benefit income. None of us wanted the money, be it change in a paper cup or a giro-cheque in a manila envelope, to mean anything.


6.1 Such are the indignities of assistance. The unilateral gift debases and marks us out as less than others, and in this way gifts can leave us worse off: some gifts make us poor. Thus Simmel (1971: 178) argues “[t]he poor person, sociologically speaking, is the individual who receives assistance because of his lack of means”.

6.2 What can we conclude? If the reciprocated gift makes friends then it would seem that other sorts of gift, other sorts of handout do not. Benefit income and the proceeds of begging would seem to be gifts or handouts that make strangers and that only strangers make – and not just any stranger, as it happens, but the two archetypal modern strangers: the passer-by in the city street and the bureaucrat behind the counter. Of course, it is somewhere between these two poles – anonymous others and impersonal bureaucracies – that society is made and gifts are binding. But my argument here has not been that gifts from strangers need always entirely estrange. They may very well distance, but they do so within overarching social and cultural frameworks – this is certainly true of gifts to beggars and money to claimants. Similarly I have argued that non-reciprocated gifts are not always free, although they may sometimes appear so. ‘Free’ gifts are freighted with the potential to signify something about social relationships precisely because, and to the extent that, they are unreciprocated – again this is true of gifts to beggars and money to claimants. Such gifts are perilous because ambiguous: neither mutually implicating nor socially distancing, but both of these at once. This brings me back to McIntosh and Erskine and their discussion of ‘extra-economic’ exchange, in particular their conceptualisation of gifts to beggars as an intermediary category of free (non-reciprocated) gifts somewhere between the impersonal reciprocation of market exchange and the implicating reciprocation the Maussian gift:


6.3 This simple diagram is my own, but I think it displays McIntosh and Erskine’s ordering of categories of exchange well enough. As I have already indicated, I do not find this ordering persuasive, and I hope that the reader will see why. It seems to me that if utilitarian market exchange belongs at one end of the range then genuinely free gifts – altruism – belong at the other. Each, in pure type, is disinterested; neither is socially entangling. It is the Mausssian, entangling gift that belongs in the middle, and that would include ‘free’ gifts that wound. My preferred ordering looks like this:


6.4 If, as McIntosh and Erskine argue, gifts to beggars are free because non-reciprocated, then they have such gifts in the wrong place, but for the right reasons: ‘pure’ gifts to beggars belong in the right hand column of the second diagram. If, as I argue, a handout to a beggar is a gift with the potential to signify, socially, then they have it in the right place, but for the wrong reasons: handouts to beggars belong in the central column of the second diagram as gifts with Maussian connotations.[10]

6.5 I want emphasise in closing that my aim in this article has not been to ‘explain’ the begging encounter in an all-encompassing way, nor even to explain those begging encounters to which I have been party in any such way – there are a host of further and obvious considerations to be brought to bear upon the empirical examples I have presented if these are to be understood fully for what they are. Instead my aim has been to call attention to, and reflect on, the sociological category of the gift, and particularly that of the free gift, in dialogue with observations from ethnographic research with the homeless. I should add that the diagrams are of course a fiction, an attempt to abstract ideas from life; they are there to order thought, to schematise. In life, gifts – to beggars, to anyone – are messy, neither free nor unfree (and so belonging precisely here, or there) but both. This seeming contradiction is at the heart of the very logic of the gift:

Gifts evoke obligations and create reciprocity, but they can do this because they might not: what creates the obligation is the gesture or moment which alienates the given thing and asks for no reciprocation. (Laidlaw, 2000: 628)
Gifts have the power to constrain, to signify, because freely given; the voluntary character supplies the obligation. Charity wounds.


1The fieldwork and study on which this article draws were funded by a studentship from Wolfson College, Cambridge and by a Radcliffe-Brown/Sutasoma Award from the Royal Anthropological Institute. I am grateful to both institutions. Thanks also to those anonymous referees whose useful comments have helped me to bring my line of argument into sharper focus. Schemes for diverted giving have been among the strategies considered by the five ‘trailblazer’ councils – Westminster, Camden, Bristol, Leeds and Brighton – funded by the government to test ideas for tackling anti-social behaviour.

2 It doesn’t help here to refer to reciprocated market exchange as the domain of rationality, unless the implied inverse – that gift giving is irrational – is really intended. Much that we do is rational but not necessarily profit-motivated. The difficulty is that the word ‘rationality’ is polysemous. Marketist theorists of exchange find it convenient to ignore this, arguing that any and all rational aims and actions, because rational, are to be understood as profit-motivated – rational, that is, in the narrower economic usage of aiming to increase utility (see Davis, 1992: 20).

3 Mauss’ particular turn of phrase shows its age: ‘The life of the monk and the life of Shylock are both to be avoided’ (Mauss, 1954: 67). I have relegated this to a footnote and substituted miser for Shylock in the main text as the latter term is now considered offensive. Mauss was concerned with extortionate usery, and clearly usery and miserliness are not the same thing, but miser serves my purposes well enough – a miser as someone turned inwards, one who hoards and doesn’t share.

4 This might seem an odd topic for sociological reflection in so far as gifts that are free create no debts – no ties – and so might be said to have nothing to do with the making and maintaining of social relations; sociologically, a free gift means nothing, or is a contradiction in terms (Douglas, 1990: viii). Thus Laidlaw (2000: 617) argues that, even within anthropology where the category of the gift is analytically central, ‘[t]he notion of a “pure” or “free” gift has been largely neglected’.

5 The acronym DSS stands, or rather stood, for Department of Social Security. During my fieldwork, this was the government department responsible for the management and payment, of social security – benefit – claims, albeit through an executive agency called the Benefits Agency. For Southerton’s young homeless, DSS stood as a catch-all, shorthand term for a number of things: the benefits they received (I’ve been on DSS since I left home); the offices they dealt with in the pursuit of their claims (I’ve been down the DSS all morning trying to get things sorted); and the status of being ‘in receipt of benefits (I’m DSS aren’t I – like everyone else round here). Today social security benefits in Britain are managed and paid through the Department of Work and Pensions and its executive agency JobCentre Plus. There is no longer a Department of Social Security, although the acronym DSS is still widely used and understood.

6 Needless to say no one was keeping count of money and favours loaned and due in any formal, clerical sense (that one might book-keep in this way was as ludicrous an idea as it would have been humiliating a practice), but generally speaking people knew who was playing fair, and defaulters were soon sanctioned: if you owed too many people too much you had to lie low or leave town.

7 Carol Stack’s (1974) classic ‘ghetto’ ethnography All Our Kin describes a similar network of exchange and trading between friends and kin.

8 The OED entry for this word is instructive and includes the following: “dole, n.1 6. a. That which is distributed or doled out; esp. a gift of food or money made in charity; hence, a portion sparingly doled out; spec. (usu. the dole); the popular name for the various kinds of weekly payments made from national and local funds to the unemployed since the war of 1914-18. Phr. (to be or go) on the dole: (to be or start being) in receipt of such unemployment relief; also transf. and fig.”. Also “dole, v.1 1. trans. To give as a dole; to distribute by way of alms, or in charity. 2. To give out in small quantities; to portion or parcel out in a sparing or niggardly manner.” Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. 1989. OED Online.  Cardiff University. 30 November 2004. <>

9 The photograph accompanying this article shows a begging plea, spelt out on a sheet of cardboard, of a sort readers are likely to be only too familiar with. I took the photograph myself, with permission, on Prince’s Street, the site of McIntosh and Erskine’s Edinburgh study.

10 In suggesting this, I am not claiming to know the true nature of subjects’ – donors’ – actions better than they do themselves (see Godbout, 1998: 187). What I am arguing for is recognition of that which frames ‘free’ gift as hurtful. Intentions – goodwill, altruism, charity – are real; but gifts do hurt, as anyone who has ever begged will know.


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