Hello OAC members,
I just joined the site and am really astonished of how interesting the discussions are - I am in this way really looking forward to getting involved in some of them!
However, I do have a current project myself, that I would like to discuss with you in some details and invite you to give me some feedback and just jot down some ideas you have regarding the issues I am raising below.
I am looking at the act of begging at the moment (in an East London environment doing both, observation and interviews) and try do describe it as a gift.
So far, I have come across many possible differentiations and distinctions that all not properly seem to work out in terms of making sense of what I observe and what the beggars themselves are actually telling me.
The classic theory of the gift (Mauss, Malinowski, Boas) with its heavy emphasize on reciprocity is very hard to defend in the first instance. What are they giving back except for appreciation, a thank you? Might this already be enough to form a 'counter-gift' and in this way create a relationship? Are we to look at what I call a temporal fix - the counter-gift consists in the 'making-it-more-probable' to also get money being in the same situation anytime in the future? Might a 'good conscience' be valued as a counter gift? It additionally seems very problematic to not fall into the trap and perceive of reciprocity in a self-interest fashion - Gouldner's (1960) 'Norm' typology or Sahlin's (1974) continuum might be helpful here to clarify what one means. I am not really content with those ideas so far and none of them seems to hit the core.
So is the gift that one gives to a beggar not really a gift in the classical sense but rather something one might describe as a commodity in Gregory's (1980) words: as an alienable object that is reciprocally independent not creating any relationship in the sense a gift is able to?
It seems as if the debate is again stuck in between the formalist/substantivist problematic that has been driving the discourse for years. But again the question in my particular case is similarly: in what way is it self-interest (as explained in the reciprocity argument above) that drives the giving, in which way is emotion of importance? Is it possible to follow Carrier (1991) and see the two as ends of a continuum in relation to giving to beggars?
In a very general sense I am also intrigued by Weiner's (1985, 1992) idea of inalienable possessions: does one actually give (money, good etc) in order to keep more valuable things (credit cards, marriage rings, a way of life) back? Might this be the 'inalienable possession' in this case? It seems also to link up in a certain way with another distinction that I came across in the course of the research: a beggar's regulars (people that see him regularly) and his one-offs (people that he sees once). Regulars don't always give money, but rather fulfill certain wishes (often in terms of food) or simply spend some time with the beggar and devote some thought to his well-being. In this way, one might be able to argue, a more enduring and lasting social bond can be created through acts of giving (of time, talk and wishes). Such a regular also does not hold back - to nevertheless keep with Weiner, his gifts can still be inalienable (taking the distinction she draws in her earlier paper Inalienable Wealth: keeping-while-giving (as is the case with the regular) and giving-for-keeping) and contain a part of the owner (just think of time / talk in this way - you present yourself etc). On the other hand, the one-offs often give money and don't care about the beggar in a way a regular does. It might be here where one can introduce the presented notion of inalienable possessions: giving-for-keeping (as also Godelier (1999) puts forward) - they are giving in order to keep the more valuable possessions.
Does this notion seem completely far-fetched for you in this context?
A further issue is obviously the role money plays in this whole process -
what difference does it make that it is money that beggars mainly get? Is it right as again Gregory (1980) or also Cheal (1987) point out that money destroys gift economies (in the particular sense that he defines them) and is an expression of 'disembodied interest'?
Just so far for the moment - there might be some further issues coming up over the next couple of days/weeks I am definitely going to share with you!
Looking forward to your thought!
Weiner in 'Reproduction: A Replacement of Reciprocity' as well as Strathern in 'Women of Value' talk about the notion of reciprocity that has to be exchanged for reproduction.
Explicitly in Weiners essay, she talks about how the Western mind is always bound up in those linear ways of thinking (which is also what reciprocity is often referring to - equivalent return), whereas it seems necessary to look at what she calls a "long-range set of obligations" (73) switching back through time. "What is given may be reclaimed ... at a much later time, even after both the giver and receiver have died" (73). The gifts are part of a wider system of reproduction and regeneration - that possibly appears as a 'one-sided exchange' in the first moment (but ends up being about reciprocity as well - only on a much extended scale). Until the cycle is closed again, many years might pass in which "social relations are reproduced, nurtured, and regenerated until finally male valuables and/or female valuables secure the return" (79).
This notion is in my mind linked to Titmus 'societal contract'. His example is blood (as you know I guess) that is given without having a recipient in mind and that is on the other hand also distributed to anyone (at least in certain system such as the UK and German one). The 'return' is a) not immediate b) not direct (from one to the other and back) and c) not even desired. This last point is also crucial for the case of the beggars - people don't want to be in their situation depending on a 'societal fix' - but the possibility is given!
So I fashioned the above as something that seems like a 'one-sided exchange', but is actually reciprocal in essence - either by kin or an abstract societal system.
Isn't what you referring to also linked to Hinduism? Have you got any particular examples / stories in mind?