Love, Life and Lust - Relationships among beggars in East London

Dear all,

following up from my earlier blog post, I am getting deeper into both, theory and fieldwork, and am coming up with some observations I would like to share with you. Potentially some of you have some ideas about how to embed the findings into anthropological literature (on friendship, love and sex in other contexts) for which I would be eternally grateful.

The more I speak to the group of beggars on the street the more I cultivate the following feeling: begging people have to face a reality that is not quite the bottom-line of subsistence (most of them are never close to starving...) but in constant crisis (health issues, drug abuse, financial pressure from different sides). This, however, does not in general make the relationships they have to other people within their community much different from the ones that any 'normal' person on the street has - only more radically and immediately pronounced. 

I trace how different kinds of relationships - love, trustworthy friendship / companionship, colleagues and acquaintance - are spelled out in terms of exchange. What does it mean to be in love for a homeless/begging person when it gets to material resources / crucial information? Is everything really 'shared'? My first findings are that materially, lovers as well as 'long-term' do indeed share everything. Sharing even goes so far that is does not have to be made explicit. Among acquaintances on the street (which most homeless/begging people in my community are), sharing stops when it gets to money for instance. Most people share food, cigarettes and space (even though also here only very limited: particular periods on a particular spaced are marked by 'individuals of authority' - no intrusion or sharing of this particular space is possible; only before or after, the space can be used by someone else). But they rarely 'share' drugs and money. Here, the mode of exchange is much more commodity-like (you definitely have to pay back - as immediately as possible and sometimes you might even have to pay back interest). Also, hospitality is a frontier; as soon as someone is housed, only a particular group of people (trustworthy friends, (ex)lovers) will be allowed to participate in the privilege of housing. Overall, in the community of beggars a very superficially pronounced culture of friendship and understanding seems to pertain. Respect is surely an issue - but when it gets to certain issues - money, shelter, drugs - even this stops. Lying, gossiping, theft - all of those surely not friendly interactions dominate in those moments when addiction and personal gain take over. 

I am still very much trying to systematize this (and feed in love relationships, sexuality (shared?) and hostility more systematically) but I would really appreciate any kind of comment you have on this topic. 

All the very best from London,


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Comment by Johannes Lenhard on July 27, 2013 at 11:58am

Oh I am terribly sorry - I didn't quite get that you meant this seminar. I thought you were pointing at another seminar on homelessness etc - thanks for helping me out again, though!

Comment by Keith Hart on July 27, 2013 at 11:38am

Johannes, how hard did you look? If you insert 'Park of 9' into the OAC search engine, this is what you get.

Comment by John McCreery on July 26, 2013 at 3:41am


If you liked Shelter Blues, you might also draw some inspiration from Dorinne K. Kondo's Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Jap... Kondo examines three cases: The first, a moral rearmament school to which the owner of a Japanese confectionary firm sends his young employees, espouses a clearly defined ideology. But the owner himself acknowledges that his young employees rarely seem to embrace it. The second is an aging master craftsman, whose life has been a picaresque journey from poverty to mastery of a traditional craft. His story is picaresque but is a good story — a coherent whole with a start, middle, and to be continued ending. To Kondo, the most disturbing case is the third, the women who work as temp staff at the factory. Work in their autobiographies is a series of fragmented instances, jobs taken to earn a bit for the family that do not add up to the kind of coherent story we call a career. Here is where I see Kondo overlapping with Desjarlais and raising an important question that Keith might want to chime in on.

We approach the people with work with assuming that while they may be complicated they are, at least, coherent, if sometimes contradictory, selves. If, however, selves are stories we tell about ourselves, what happens when life's circumstances fragment our experience, reducing selves to strings of disconnected anecdotes? And now, for Keith, does the informal economy support coherent narratives of lives in which individuals can take pride? If not, what are the implications for creating a more human economy or a Kantian anthropology that emphasizes human universals as much as cultural differences?

Comment by Johannes Lenhard on July 26, 2013 at 1:30am

Thanks a lot for your comments, John and Keith.

I did have a look at Dennis Webster's paper - indeed a wonderfully written account about sharing that I will definitely incorporate into my thesis. I wondered whether you are in contact with Dennis and would mind putting me in touch with him, Keith. I was however not able to find the online seminar you were talking about. What exactly was it on? 

I have indeed read Desjarlais's book, John, and really got interested in the mental health side of things looking more closely at it. Even though for now, this has to wait for a little bit simply because the kinship/friendship/love relationships are so thick and interesting that mental health will only be tackled in my PhD (next academic year onwards).

Comment by John McCreery on July 22, 2013 at 2:47pm
For comparative purposes, you might also have a look at Robert Desjarlais (1997) _Shelter Blues_ []
Comment by Keith Hart on July 21, 2013 at 9:26pm

Johannes, take a look at Dennis Webster's study of sharing among homeless people in Pretoria, South Africa, The park of 9, an OAC Press Working paper. There was also an online seminar on the main page which I am sure you could find if you care to.


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