Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Ian McIntosh and Angus Erskine (2000) '"Money for nothing"?: Understanding Giving to Beggars'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <>

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Received: 6/4/2000      Accepted: 25/5/2000      Published: 31/5/2000


This article explores the nature of the begging encounter. It does this through an investigation of people's attitudes towards, and experiences of, being approached by people begging. The data are derived from interviews with people who work in the centre of Edinburgh and are regularly involved in begging encounters. The begging encounter is often a problematic one and we argue that this is, in part, because of the ambiguous nature of the interaction. The nature of the giving involved is frequently unclear and quite unlike other monetary interactions that we are normally involved in. Moral considerations regarding how 'real' or 'genuine' beggars are became crucial when deciding to give or not. Ambivalence and contradiction were common characteristics of understandings of, and attitudes towards, those who beg.

Ambivalence; Begging; Genuineness; Giving; Reciprocation


Alvin Gouldner, some time ago, pointed our attention to the difficulty in a market economy of understanding people who seem to want 'something for nothing' (Gouldner: 1973:267). A begging encounter, we argue, is often fraught with such difficulty. How do we understand and experience such an interaction where we are apparently being asked for 'something for nothing'? As Simmel suggests, 'Most relationships among men [sic] can be considered under the category of exchange. Exchange is the purest and most concentrated form of all human interactions in which serious interests are at stake' (quoted in Levine 1971:43). Further, as Simmel states, '...all contacts among men [sic] rest on the schema of giving and returning an equivalence' (Gouldner 1960: 162). Very often, however, this 'equivalence' may not be obvious, or understood in the same way by those involved. As we argue below, this is a central characteristic of the begging encounter.

The role and place of the gift and/or non-reciprocated giving has long been established as a central topic for anthropologists (Firth 1973; Lewis 1976; Levi-Strauss 1969; Malinowski 1922; Mauss 1954). Mauss argued over seventy years ago how 'the economy of gift-exchange fails to conform to the principles of so-called natural economy or utilitarianism' (Mauss:1954: 69). Social policy analysts such as Titmuss in his classic work (Titmuss: 1977) drew our attention to the importance of understanding the close connections between the social, the moral and the economic within such forms of giving, donation and taking. Feminist social policy analysists have alerted us to the nature of, and constraints upon, giving within the family (Finch and Groves 1983; Finch and Mason 1993; Land and Rose 1985; Ungerson 1987). More recently, Culpitt (1999) has observed that to understand the nature of the welfare state we need to understand giving in the broadest sense. However, with some exceptions (Berking 1999; Gouldner 1960, 1973; Schwartz 1967; Simmel in Frisby and Featherstone 1997), giving has not been central to sociological analysis. Instead of giving, the gaze of sociologists has predominantly fallen upon the more public (and masculine?) world of reciprocated market exchanges and interactions - the domain of homo economicus and rational man. Meanwhile the role of the 'gift', and 'non-utilitarian' giving generally, within modern society has generally been seen as peripheral to the main workings of the economy or polity; a side-show to where the action is, or even a relic from previous social formations. However as O'Neill suggests:

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 this article, then, we seek to explore one aspect of giving by concentrating upon the 'begging encounter'. In contrast to the bulk of interactions in public that we are normally involved in, the begging encounter entails an interaction where the equivalence is not immediately apparent and the norms of obligation are unclear, particularly to those being asked for money. Those who beg are often viewed with some suspicion; a troubling presence on the street. As Gouldner suggests:

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)

Within market societies, where reciprocated exchanges are a normal and routine part of public life the begging encounter can thus be a perplexing one. It involves a confusion of moral issues with monetary calculations and exchanges and an, albeit brief, emotional involvement of varying intensities with someone who is, more often than not, a complete stranger. In addition, giving to a beggar rarely conforms to the aforementioned norms and rituals of gift exchange. We also do not think that begging can be usefully conceptualised as being part of the so-called 'informal', 'hidden' etc. economies as many of the interactions within these areas do not differ widely from the norms of the more 'formal' economy (Harding and Jenkins 1989; Henry 1978). In addition most forms of donation and charitable giving involve a significant voluntary input that is often not readily apparent when giving to beggars. It is thus an interaction, with which many of us are familiar, which seems to operate in that grey area between routine market exchanges and the obligations of gift giving. It is a central concern of this article, then, to examine some aspects of this 'radical ambiguity', which Gouldner refers to, in relation to some of those who are often perceived to 'want something for nothing' - those who beg.

It is worth emphasising that we cannot hope to explain the often vexed nature of the begging encounter solely in terms of financial or economic considerations given the very small amounts of money that individuals usually hand over to beggars (Murdoch 1994). Ten pence dropped in the street as you rush for a bus or a 20p coin sucked into a vacuum cleaner will give little cause for concern for most people but this is generally not the case when being asked for similar amounts from a stranger on the street.

Until now most literature on begging focuses upon those who beg, their activities, strategies and experiences (Dean 1999; Fooks and Pantazis 1999; Gmelch and Gmelch 1974; Heilman 1975; Meir-Dviri and Raz 1995; Murdoch 1994; Shichor and Ellis 1981; Wardhaugh 1996; Williams 1995) and rarely looks at those on the 'other' side of the begging interaction; those who are asked for money. While much of this literature adds greatly to our knowledge and understanding of why people beg, and their experiences of doing so, it tells us little of the experiences of those who are asked to do the giving. This is a somewhat surprising silence given the long history of debates and moral panics about the beggar (Erskine and McIntosh 1999; Viles and Furnivall 1869). In an effort to fill this lacuna we want to shed some further light on those often problematic encounters across an 'open palm' (Heilman 1975).


To explore these issues we inquired of people's attitudes about, and experiences of, begging encounters via 55 in-depth interviews. Edinburgh was chosen as a suitable (but by no means definitive or 'typical') location for our research. Although, of course, we have to be careful about generalising on the basis of our findings from this particular locale the fact that there have been recurrent moral panics about the 'begging problem' (cf. The Scotsman, 10 September 1997 and 11 September 1997, The Daily Record 21 May 1998) in Edinburgh attracted us to that city.

We decided that interviewing a sample of Edinburgh's population who worked in the city centre would be the best way to access a group of people who regularly encounter people begging. We interviewed workers in two large department stores located on Prince's Street, the busiest and most famous street in Edinburgh. The staff we interviewed came from a range of occupations (sales people, designers, managers, warehousing, security etc.) with differing lengths of service and a variety of positions within the stores and who worked different shifts. Women formed the majority of the workforce in each department store and this was reflected in our sample, of whom 38 (of 55) were women. All the people we spoke to had encountered people on the street asking for money and all of them reported this as a common, almost routine, part of arriving at, and departing from, work. All the interviews, each of which lasted between 30 to 45 minutes, were taped and then fully transcribed. The pilot interviews took place in a semi-public space off a canteen, whilst the majority of interviews took place in two private offices in the store.1 The questions ranged across a number of related themes; interactions with, and perceptions of, people begging; attitudes towards charitable giving and understandings of the 'welfare state'. At this point it is worth commenting that we found no correlation in our research between gender or age and attitudes towards beggars and a propensity to give, or not to give, to beggars. Although the interviews constituted the heart of our research it was augmented by regular periods of observation along Prince's Street and surrounding areas.

That our methods adds to the understandings of a more quantitative approach, such as the large scale survey proposed by Adler (1999) aimed at quantifying the extent of begging, is exemplified by the people we interviewed who reported encountering people 'begging' regularly. Often those we interviewed drew upon a stock of 'typifications' (Schutz 1972) of 'beggars'. Such constructions of 'typical' or 'real' beggars became strongly held even to the extent that it would be confused with actual 'begging activity'. This became clear to us when we were told of the prevalence of begging in Edinburgh, particularly on Prince's Street: 'Everywhere you look there is someone asking for money' (Woman 20's)[1]. Another woman noted that, 'I mean, I have always seen begging, I have never known anything different and I just always expect it now ... I'm just used to seeing it, I'd think it was funny if I didn't see it. You just get kind of used to it' (Woman 20's). However, based on our own observations of Prince's Street, we saw many individuals who could have coincided with people's own constructions of 'beggars' but actual begging activity was less prevalent. This makes the precise quantification and measurement of begging on the streets of cities such as Edinburgh a difficult task.

Ambivalence: 'It's a case of not knowing, basically'

In our research, we found fixed and consistent views about the begging encounter to be rare. Many of those we interviewed displayed understandings of beggars that were characterised by a deeply held ambivalence. Bauman (1991:1) usefully defines ambivalence as involving 'the possibility of assigning an object or event to more than one category'. He continues by saying that such ambivalence manifests itself in 'the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and choose between alternative actions' (1991:1). Such ambivalence was common among those we interviewed and was expressed in contradictory narratives and a range of emotions about their experiences with beggars. One woman explained that:

... 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)

Ambivalent feelings are also evident in the emotions often stirred when one is approached by a person begging - another feature of the begging interaction that marks it off from most other forms of exchange and giving, as one woman told us:

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)

The ambiguity and ambivalence towards beggars emerged strongly in some interviews:

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)

To Give or not to Give?

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)

The begging encounter, no matter how fleeting and anonymous, is scarcely anything other than a troubling one. This is the case even with people, such as those we interviewed, who experience this encounter frequently and on a crowded street in Scotland's capital. There was certainly little evidence that many of them managed to develop a response to being asked for money that resembled Goffman's (1963) notion of 'civil inattention' or 'the 'blasť attitude' analysed by Simmel in 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' (Thompson and Tunstall 1971). Simmel argued that the:

... 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)

Based on our research it is clear that this 'matter-of-fact' (Frisby and Featherstone 1997: 252) and economic calculating attitude is difficult to maintain when asked for money by a beggar even though it does involve, primarily, a money relationship with a stranger within the context of a metropolis. The decision to give or not to give is rarely made on any clear rational grounds or after a process of precise calculation. As one man put it, 'I never know how much I am going to give ... sort of, just whatever comes out of my pocket. As long as it is not too much' (Man 40's).

Nevertheless a common element in such a decision involved a moral judgement whether those asking for money were 'genuine' or not. This was a judgement that occurred frequently in the interviews and it was the central element in participants' accounts, explanations and experiences of begging and was employed to decide how much to give and when to give. Whether a beggar was seen to be genuine or not impacted upon how they experienced the interaction and understood the activity. There was, however, little consistency in the way the judgement of 'genuine' was understood and applied and it showed great variation amongst those we interviewed. One woman alluded to the difficulties of accurately judging who is a genuine beggar when she said:

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)

Obviously appearance formed the basis of many assessments of genuineness, as the following comments indicate:

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)

For others, constructions of a genuine beggar involved quasi-romantic notions of the 'tramp' or 'knight of the road' :

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 work hard for my money'

When asked to explain the existence of begging many of those we spoke to vacillated between blaming the individual for their predicament or seeing them as the victim of wider social forces - a tension that recalls C. Wright Mills' (1971) enduring distinction between 'private troubles' and 'public issues'. As we have seen above, they also displayed a somewhat uneasy juxtaposition of anger, indignation and empathy:

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)

Other 'explanations' involved varying measures of sympathy and resignation that the 'begging problem' was one that would not go away:

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)

Some thought that many of those begging were not genuine because they were 'abusing the system' or pretending to be 'real' beggars to augment their income from the welfare state. This income was thought to be substantial; apocryphal tales and urban myths were common, as the following comments illustrate:

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)

A number of those we interviewed thought that there was no 'need' for begging as welfare 'systems' were in place which meant that, almost by definition, those begging were 'at it'. The following comments illustrate such scepticism:

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)

There was a deeply held notion which was evident amongst many of those we interviewed that, as O'Neill writes, 'No one should have to give, anymore than one should have to receive. ... In other words, no one should be obliged to give or receive more than is specified in exchange ruled by contract law' (O'Neill 1999: 141). Their moral obligations to strangers, it seemed, had been fulfilled via the workings of the welfare 'system' (Ignatieff 1984) and being approached by a beggar was seen as an extra burden, an intrusion. As one woman said, 'I don't believe in it. It's very much there but I think there must only be the exceptional case for someone to go begging ... they don't really need to go begging. That's how I feel anyway' (Woman 50's).

Moral Strangers? - 'I never know what to make of them'

It seems from our research that, for many, the beggar is representative of the 'other' (Bauman, 1991; de Beauvoir 1972; Said 1985; Valentine 1998) or a Simmelian or Schutzian 'stranger' (Schutz 1971; Simmel in Levine 1971) whose continual presence on the street does little to diminish their troubling nature. To paraphrase Simmel the beggar simultaneously combines a nearness and a remoteness (Levine 1971:147) or as Schutz would have it, 'Seen from the point of view of the approached group, he is a man (sic) without a history' (Schutz 1971: 97, see also Stichweh 1997). One of our respondents put it more simply; 'I never know what to make of them' (Woman 20's).

For some, the beggar appears to operate with a set of values, outlook and lifestyle - 'There is those who choose it as a way of life' (Woman 40's) - that is so different from their own that they found it difficult to comprehend. As one respondent told us: 'I don't always entertain beggars so much because I don't know enough about them and I don't know why they are there. I tend to wonder 'is it really necessary?' (Woman 40's).

The presence of the beggar, akin to O'Neill's 'moral strangers' (1999:143), was for many an undermining one and challenged the organisation and understanding of their own lives.

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)

For some the mere presence of the beggar on the street can be threatening, as the following comments illustrate:

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)[2].

Altruism or Reciprocity?: 'Money for nothing'

The lack of reciprocation ('money for nothing' in one woman's succinct phrase) was a constant source of irritation and consternation for most of those we interviewed. Contrasts were often made with buskers and Big Issue vendors. As we were told, 'they are actually doing something. I don't see that as begging. I see that as them trying to help themselves ... they are giving something' (Woman 40's). Another respondent informed us that:

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)

Some interviewees argued that buskers 'are trying to entertain you aren't they? ... They are giving something back' (Woman 20's) and 'I mean they [buskers] are actually doing something for you which deserves to be rewarded as it were, not just kind of sitting, you know, can I have some money, doing nothing' (Woman 20's). This was a common theme that emerged from the data although some were less sure of the distinction:

... 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)

Thus, the lack of any obvious return was seen by many to be problematic as was the 'passive' nature of many of those who beg. As we were told, 'There's quite a few along Prince's Street that just sit and beg but I don't tend to give to them to be honest' (Woman 20's). Another interviewee thought that, 'They should just do something to help themselves rather than just sit there or just walk about the streets and ask for money and drink all their carry-outs and all that' (Woman 20's).

For many 'where the money goes' is an important consideration before giving or not giving:

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)

But for others making giving conditional on the basis of such imperfect knowledge was not an option. The following comment was typical:

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).

The non-reciprocated nature of the giving is made all the more obvious given that the object of the request within the begging encounter is predominantly money. Money, of course, is the clearest symbol (Giddens 1990; Neary and Taylor 1998; Simmel 1990) of reciprocated market exchanges. Again, to quote Simmel: 'The functioning of exchange, as a direct interaction between individuals, becomes crystallised in the form of money...' (quoted in Craib 1997: 151). However, giving money to a beggar is unlike the majority of exchanges between strangers and in part that is why it is problematic. As we have argued elsewhere:

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.


In this article we have shed light on aspects of giving in relation to those who beg. This was an encounter and interaction that we found to be, very often, a problematic and troubling one. On the basis of a series of interviews we explored why this was the case.

As we have illustrated above people find it difficult to decide whether or not to give to beggars on any obviously 'rational' or 'calculating' basis. We also found little evidence amongst those we interviewed of a shared 'culture' or informal sets of rules in relation to giving to beggars that could be drawn upon by individuals. The decision to give or not involves an interweaving of economic, social and moral considerations which are often manifest in a deeply held ambivalence towards those who beg. The beggar's presence was, as we have seen, a catalyst for a range understandings and, at times contradictory, narratives: a mix of sympathy, resentment irritation and a range of other emotions. An ambivalence well captured by Simmel's reference to the stranger as being simultaneously 'near' and yet 'remote'. Attempts to gauge the 'genuineness' of the beggar were indicative of this. The begging interaction, we found, was disruptive of people's understandings of normal monetary interactions and, in some cases, basic principles on how people should organise and run their lives and relate to each other. Bauman puts it well when he suggests that 'Responsibility for the Other is itself shot through with ambivalence' (quoted in Delanty 1998; 116).

Much of the moral confusion [in some cases outrage: 'I just look at them ... I feel annoyed with them'. (Woman 50's)] which the beggars' presence caused was in part deflected onto broader appreciations and understandings of 'society', the 'state' and the 'system'. This illuminates people's understandings of the 'welfare state' and wider, more abstract, webs of moral responsibility to others and relations of giving and reciprocity. Beggars are seen to be, in part, 'moral strangers' but also close enough to us to be in some ways our moral responsibility - even those who took the 'hardest line' on not giving to beggars thought those who beg had been let down, somewhere along the line, by the 'system'.

The begging interaction alerts us to the complex, and from the point of view of sociology, not fully understood nature of non-economic giving and the diffuse and complex web of moral reciprocities and responsibilities that this entails. Certainly, within a society such as ours, we need to deepen our understanding of extra-economic forms of giving, where economic, social and moral spheres collide, and it is in this sense that an investigation of giving to beggars can be revealing.


1To preserve the anonymity of those we interviewed we report only their age group and gender.

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)


We are grateful to the Nuffield Small Grant Fund for providing funding for this research. We would also like to record our thanks to the Personnel Manager in one store and the Manager of another for their assistance. In the store where we did the bulk of the interviews the management and staff could not have been more helpful.


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