Begging as Reciprocity in Jamaican Urban Low-Income Communities.
References to Begging in the Literature on Jamaica
In 1954, George E. Simpson, the first ethnographer to conduct fieldwork amongst the newly emerging cult of the Rastafari in the slums of Kingston, wrote a short paper on "Begging in Kingston and Montego Bay". In the paper, Simpson makes the case for describing the type of begging that occurs on the island, namely in the business districts of Kingston and Montego Bay, and putting it into some kind of "sociological context". He begins the paper by pointing out that begging is most characteristic of the urban poor, or people who reside in slums adjacent to major urban centres such as Kingston, suggesting it is the result of their inability to find employment in "organized society". But he also suggests that the reason the urban poor turn to begging to make ends meet is because they are part of a "dependency-begging sub-culture" that enables them to survive off the proceeds of begging without having to get a job (1954, 198-199). The people identified as contributing to the perpetuation of this dependency-begging subculture by supporting the habits of beggars and helping them to avoid having to get a job are so-called "respectable" Jamaicans who believe in continuing the age-old Christian tradition of giving alms to the poor and visiting tourists who seek to rid themselves of these temporary sources of irritation.
There seems to be little doubt as to which kind of begging Simpson is referring to in his paper. It is the kind of begging that most English speakers are familiar with and tend to associate with the conventional meaning of the term in the English language. (1) for instance, in the section of the paper where Simpson describes "techniques of begging", we are told that the most common method is "overwhelmingly of the simple request type and the silent, hopeful variety" (1954, 204). Simpson also mentions that some beggars seek to elicit people's sympathy by drawing attention to their physical disabilities and the decrepit state of their clothing, or by employing theatrical techniques that Simpson refers to as "sidewalk tableaux" in his paper. A noteworthy example of the latter technique is the method of begging referred to as "haranguing with paper", a situation in which a person is accosted by a beggar who begs them for money and presents a piece of paper with a hard luck story written on it. Nor is it uncommon, he says, for beggars to use flattery and deferential terms that were current in Jamaica in the first half of the twentieth century such as "Sir", "Boss", "Judge", and "Mr. Churchill" (1954, 205).
These techniques were observed by a team of researchers Simpson employed (2) to take turns standing in prominent public spaces in Kingston and Montego Bay to determine the prevalence of begging at different times of the year and intervals of the day. The findings to come out of the survey by Simpson's team of researchers are rather limited in scope however (cf. 1954: 205-210). Essentially, what they learned was that begging occurred more regularly in some places as opposed to others and that the incidence of begging happened to increase during the tourist season and tourists were more likely to be begged than locals. More interesting, perhaps, are the study's other insights such as the close overlap between forms of begging referred to as "haranguing with paper" and the hustling techniques of male youths one can observe in Jamaica today (cf. Gayle 1996), as well as comments pertaining to young men being sent to correction centres and becoming "aggressive" if they could not find work after being released (Simpson 1954, 203-204). Such observations point to important social transformations that were already becoming apparent in the 1950s (3) and are now very pronounced in Jamaica. But it is when we compare Simpson's study on begging with more recent studies by anthropologists who have conducted fieldwork in Jamaican urban low-income communities that its significance becomes clear.
Although one can find scattered references to the incidence of begging in these studies, very few of the anthropologists seem to have realized that it differs in distinct ways from the type of begging described in Simpson's paper. For instance, if we refer to Herbert Gayle's (1996) study on hustling and juggling in the downtown Kingston area, there is an interesting description of a 39-year old woman "who begs to survive". Sandy, who has been begging intensively for the past six years, begs both "within and outside her community", and relies on irregular payments from her babyfather (4) who lives and works in New York and is raising their three children with another woman (1996, 66-67). When she begs inside her own community, apparently she mostly targets men because they are more sympathetic than women are in Sandy's opinion. Her approach is to sit on the sidewalk and hail men by their names as they walk past, asking them for "a drink money" or "something fi put on di pot". The men usually respond to her positively, and give her ten to fifty dollars. (5) In contrast, when Sandy begs in uptown Kingston, she takes along her baby and takes off her jewelry and dresses down in order to elicit people's sympathy (much like the type of begging described in Simpson's paper). Sandy recently got pregnant to another man who teaches and lives uptown, but he does not give her much money as his wife controls their money, and he is afraid of what she might do if she found out he had a child with another woman. Nevertheless, Sandy had "begged him and he had 'begged her' in return", Gayle (1996, 67) tells us.
In a more recent study by Barry Chevannes (2001), discussing the experiences of the urban poor in several different low-income communities in the wider Kingston area, one can also find a number of references to instances of begging. For example, on one occasion when Chevannes was sitting down collecting his thoughts, two small boys who were playing football on the other side of the college grounds approached him. Chevannes recognized them as they came from a low-income community in Kingston where he had recently been carrying out research. In the process of asking them to objectify the differences between the ways boys and girls are brought up in Jamaican urban low-income communities, one of the boys begged Chevannes for the box of orange juice he was drinking, but unfortunately Chevannes does not describe how he was begged (2001, 149). In another low-income community in Kingston where Chevannes did fieldwork, he approached a group of small boys who were gambling in an abandoned building and asked them why they were not in school. Chevannes says that two of the boys subsequently told him that they have to beg people on their way back from school, with one of the boys claiming that his mother had said it was his lunch money for the next day However, Chevannes does not specify whom they begged and whether or not it was inside or outside their community. But upon leaving the small group of boys, Chevannes (2001, 159-160) says that he was "taxed $10 by the leader of the group".
Perhaps even more interesting than these examples is another episode that Chevannes relates in the same study Chevannes says that he approached a group of male youths who were standing on a street corner, and that in the process of trying to get to know them better, was accused of being a homosexual. To be accused of being a homosexual, or a battyman as it is normally referred to in Jamaican Patois, can potentially have lethal consequences, as young working class males, perhaps more so than any other group in Jamaican society, are extremely homophobic.
"If yu a one, we will know! If yu no one, we will know! So, everything cool, seen? But cool off from di corner for a while. Anyhow, gi' me a money buy a Dragon [a type of beer available for sale in Jamaica]." Another youth asked for a "drinks money". I gave them $70 to share. "A money dis?" they asked. David [one of the youths] then said, "If man no have money like 400 to a t'ouzn [thousand] dollar, im mus'n come on di corner, cause im mus' know se man-an'-man a go expec' a ting. Look 'ow much a we out ya! All we a do out ya is look we a look at it, yu know. So, when yu a come, yu hafi come fi leggo some good t'ing" [i.e. let go of some money] (Chevannes 2001, 43).
Interpreting the accusation as an attempt by these youths to warn him away from the corner where they socialized, Chevannes goes on to suggest that their request for money reflects a "parasitic" form of begging because they were not satisfied with the amount he initially offered and had asked for more money (2001, 145). One may well argue that their request reflects a parasitic form of begging, but I think it is important to recognize how it differs from the type of begging described in Simpson's paper, and which one is likely to come across in various types of public spaces in the Kingston metropolitan area and usually entails doing something to elicit a person's sympathy by drawing attention to a physical deformity or the abjectness of one's living conditions for example. In fact, one might even argue that their request for money sounds more like a demand than a request.
I will have more to say about the similarities that exist between this type of begging and the methods of extortion used by street-corner gangs in Jamaica at a later point in the article. For the time being, I think the important point to underline is the rather direct manner, one might even say aggressive fashion, in which the male youths demanded money from Chevannes. Although many of these youths are said to be unemployed and prefer to beg instead of having to work (Levy 2001, 35-36), one cannot discern any evidence of deferential behaviour or desperation in their request, which is usually the kind of behaviour one associates with begging. (6) Yet despite some of these differences, anthropologists like Barry Chevannes and Herbert Gayle continue to insist on comparing this behaviour to conventional forms of begging. I would suggest that one of the reasons they have failed to note these differences is because the kind of people who are likely to make requests for financial or material assistance in Jamaican urban low-income communities describe this activity as begging themselves, and often employ terms like "beg ya orange juice" or "beg ya ten dollar" to make such requests. Alternatively, it could also have something to do with the fact that these anthropologists used a method of qualitative research referred to as "participatory rapid appraisal" or "rapid urban appraisal" surveys that do not require researchers to live in the community where they do their research. Hence because they are unlikely to have spent an extended period of time in the community where they conducted their research, these anthropologists would not have had the opportunity to observe how common begging is in some of these communities or to appreciate that residents in urban low-income communities not only beg outsiders such as anthropologists but also each other.
There are also scattered references to instances of begging in ethnographies whose explicit aim was not to study conditions in urban low-income communities, but that brought the anthropologists concerned into contact with Jamaica's poor. For instance, in Norman Stolzoff's ethnographic study of dancehall music, during the course of which Stolzoff spent most of his time around aspiring young DJ artists recording in music studios in the Kingston area, Stolzoff (2000, 132) recounts the following:
Almost from the beginning, no resistance met my hanging out at the studio. However, I was expected to "let off" (give money to those who asked me). Youths would call me aside and ask for a "smalls," something less than a Jamaican $100, or a "bills," a Jamaican $100 note, or some other small favour. Others in asking for money would tell me that they had not eaten all day, or they needed bus fare home. At first, I felt obligated to give nearly every time that I was "begged", but gradually I came to realize that I was not expected to comply all the time.
Stolzoff claims that some degree of parity or balance was eventually established in these exchanges, but his observation on begging only extends to his own personal experiences and he never seeks to reflect on its wider ramifications for the urban poor in Jamaica. One can also find brief references to begging in Heather Horst and Daniel's Miller ethnography of cell phone usage in Jamaica. However, Horst and Miller (2005, 762) are adamant that to respond to a "call-me" request or being begged is not due to any economic imperative but simply reflects the desire to enlarge one's social network for its own sake (or to "link-up" as Jamaicans sometimes put it). "Giving a JA$50 bill (less than US$1) or replying to a 'call-me' request seemed generally worthwhile if it initiated or maintained a connection that helped develop a larger social network. To regard this practice as approaching some kind of long-term generalized reciprocity would be misleading." (8)
Henrietta de Veer appears to be the only other anthropologist to have recognized the reciprocal characteristics of begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities. "Begging behavior", as she refers to it in her work, was most common among the black lower class men that she associated with during the time she was doing fieldwork in the rapidly urbanizing area of May Pen. (9) De Veer (1979, 123-136) argues that, along with drinking, borrowing and lending money are distinct expressions of male solidarity and equality in Jamaica, and that black lower class men are not as likely to borrow money from women or upper class men. She also argues that monetary exchanges between men and women are usually viewed in sexual terms, while apparently one does not beg money from or buy drinks for upper class men, because one cannot enter into a reciprocal relationship with men who are of a higher social or economic standing. As the following example from de Veer's (1979, 124) ethnography demonstrates, reciprocity is a key dimension of begging behaviour in Jamaican urban low-income communities.
Mr. H.: Going to town?
Mr. C.: [nod] Ever, lend me two dollar.
Mr. H.: Me na have money, man.
Mr. C.: Lend me two dollar, man.
Mr. H.: No buck, man.
Mr. C.: Serious business, man.
Mr. H.: Me na borrow money from you for to go to town.
Mr. C.: Lend me two dollar till Wednesday. Serious business, man.
Me na joking, man.
Mr. H.: Go on.
Mr. C.: Lend me, man. Me give it back, man. Serious business, man. Wednesday you get it back. [Mr. H. hands over the money]
Even though it took some time before Mr H. was able to redeem the debt owed to him by Mr C., this example clearly illustrates that the person doing the begging is seeking to reassure his friend that he is eventually going to repay the debt. Yet despite recognizing the reciprocal dimension that underpins relationships like these, de Veer does not appear to have noticed the apparent contradiction between the meaning of the word begging, and the act of borrowing, lending, and repaying a debt.
It is for this very reason, I would argue, that one needs to distinguish begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities from more conventional forms of begging. Begging as it is commonly understood in the English language, particularly insofar as it is taken to refer to an act of pleading for financial or material assistance, does not usually entail reciprocity. Indeed, as most people would agree, the person doing the begging is not normally under any sort of obligation to return the money that has been handed over. As soon as the transaction has been completed, the respective parties are unlikely to have anything more to do with each other. But this is precisely what does not obtain in begging behaviour among the urban poor in Jamaica; while it is not always easy to keep a ledger and reckon the balance of accounts, begging in urban low-income communities can have reciprocal effects or even foster indebtedness in some cases. I would suggest that anthropologists have been misled by the language of begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities and have confused the former with more conventional forms of begging, when in fact it should be recognized as a distinct type of coping strategy of the poor. Below, I reflect on the fieldwork I carried out in a low-income community in Kingston and the patterns of begging I observed there. Contrary to what de Veer has suggested, this type of begging is not only restricted to black lower class men, but is practiced by wide groups of people in Jamaican urban low-income communities such as Bedward Town.
The Coping Strategies of the Urban Poor in Bedward Town
The community where I conducted fieldwork is not unlike many of the low-income communities that one can find in the downtown Kingston area. Often referred to as "ghettos" by Jamaicans, (10) much of the housing in Bedward Town (a pseudonym) is over-crowded and quite primitive, a majority of residents are unemployed or listed as self-employed in national economic surveys, and crime and violence are a part of everyday life. As a result of these conditions, the mobility of Bedward Town's residents tends to be limited and neighbours spend much of their time socializing on street-corners and in local grocery stores which makes for a highly interactive public domain. Yet despite such hardships, residents in Bedward Town have managed to find a number of ways to overcome their precarious economic situation. Described as coping strategies by social scientists, they illustrate the resourcefulness of residents in Bedward Town when it comes to devising solutions to their economic problems.
Women reflect a particularly striking example of this in the use of sex as a means of bartering with men. Frequently employed by women who live in urban low-income communities to procure life's basic necessities (cf. Brown et al. 1997, 99; Brown and Chevannes 1998, 31; Chevannes 1993, 6; Chevannes 2001, 187-189, 196-199), the practice should not be confused with prostitution. Rather than offering serial sex to all comers who can afford to pay, the aim is to attract a mate who can be depended upon to provide a sufficient level of monetary assistance over a certain length of time, the likelihood of which is increased if the woman is able to provide her mate with an offspring. It may strike some observers as lacking subtlety, but for the urban poor in Bedward Town, particularly women who suffer from higher rates of unemployment than men do, the western romantic ideology surrounding love is something they can seemingly ill afford to contemplate.
Support networks are another coping strategy utilized by women in Bedward Town. Although this phenomenon has not received much attention from ethnographers, one can find scattered references to the efficacy of female-centred support networks in a number of studies on Jamaican urban low-income communities. In de Veer's study on May Pen, for example, there are a number of references to Pardner, an informal lending institution used predominantly by women (1979, 155). (11) For the scheme to operate a certain number of women are required to contribute a fixed sum of money each week, and at the end of the month one of the members is given the entire sum. Each month, or at regularly approved intervals, a different member of the group is given the amount that has been put into the pot, thus allowing individual members to make purchases they would not otherwise normally be able to go ahead with due to their insufficient levels of savings. Men generally do not participate in Pardners, according to de Veer (1979, 156-157), because women do not consider them to be responsible with money or trustworthy enough.
Another coping strategy of the urban poor in Jamaica, that has rarely been commented on, is the practice of organizing a collective meal (or to "run-a-boat" in local parlance). However, what distinguishes it from the other coping strategies I have mentioned is that it seems to be restricted to male youths. This is reflected in the following comments attributed to the anthropologist, Barry Chevannes, in a Jamaican online news site.
'Run-a-boat' is a popular activity among the youth, particularly among the male youth whereby they get together, contribute food and cook in one pot. It is a kind of spontaneous way for friends and peer groups to come together to have a little feast. (downloaded on November 20, 2014 from: http://jis.gov.jm/schools-to-plant-callaloo-for-peace/)
The important point to note here is its spontaneity. Elsewhere, Chevannes (2001,146) has claimed that to run-a-boat is to engage in reciprocal behaviour. But while there seems to be little doubt as to the communal aspects of this cultural practice, my experience in Bedward Town when interacting with a group of male youths who were collecting money to organize a collective meal, suggested it was very much a spontaneous affair and did not bind the contributors to any longer-term obligations. This may reflect upon the individualism of not only male youths in Bedward Town, but also black working class males in the Caribbean more generally, and that has been extensively documented in anthropological studies of male peer group socialization throughout the region. (12)
Then of course there is begging, another type of coping strategy devised by the poor in Jamaica's urban low-income communities and which, as I have sought to underline in this article, differs from conventional forms of begging and only seems to have been appreciated by one other anthropologist. According to de Veer, she only observed men begging from each other in this way, which is why she argues that it is a distinct expression of male friendship, but this was not my experience in Bedward Town. I do not mean to suggest that this type of begging cannot be viewed as an expression of male friendship, but what I would challenge is de Veer's observation that only men beg from one another in this way, or that begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities is for the most part a means of expressing equality between men. In Bedward Town, I was begged by males of varying ages on a number of separate occasions and few of them made any sort of attempt to repay the money they had begged from me or to equalize the relationship. Women and children also begged money from me, and while I would not discount the possibility that some men may seek to transform begging relationships with women into a potentially beneficial sexual transaction, this was not my experience in Bedward Town. Thus, rather than view this type of begging as another example, along with drinking, of how black lower class men express a sense of equality as de Veer has suggested, I would be more inclined to view it as a coping strategy devised by the urban poor in Jamaica to overcome momentary shortfalls in financial liquidity.
The first time I became aware that begging in Jamaica has its own distinctive characteristics was when I was staying with my friend's family on the west coast of the island. During those first few weeks in Jamaica, my best friend Mike was often approached by adolescent or older adult males who would beg him for small amounts of money. In due time, I also found myself being begged by the same people. Initially, I was at a loss to understand this pattern of behavior, as nothing was ever offered in the way of an explanation and the request was never put politely. Nor did I receive anything in the way of a thank you in return either. The same pattern continued during my fieldwork in Bedward Town. It began when the social worker I had been introduced to, in order to find somewhere suitable to stay for the duration of my fieldwork, asked me to make a contribution to the cost of petrol for the bus he picked me up in to take me to Bedward Town. Once again, the request was not put politely, nor any attempt made to explain why I was expected to make a contribution towards the cost of the ride which had been organized by a mutual acquaintance of ours. In the days that would follow, I increasingly became aware of just how pervasive this phenomenon was, as I was frequently solicited by residents in Bedward Town for small amounts of money or even more ambitious requests for gifts by people who I was on only slightly more familiar terms.
However, I soon discovered there was an important difference between these unsolicited requests for gifts and the more frequent demands I received for small amounts of money from Bedward Town's residents. In contrast to the somewhat outrageous requests for gifts that I sometimes received from people I barely knew, (13) the small change I was begged was more meagre and easy to comply with and, in some instances, could also be reciprocated. I also realized that I was not the only person who was being begged, as residents in Bedward Town were doing the same thing to each other. One afternoon I was begged no less than three-to-four times as I walked from my host's house to the bus and taxi terminus, a distance not more than 200 metres. A male youth who belonged to a local street-corner gang begged me $10 for some grabba (local parlance for tobacco to make a marijuana spliff); while another youth begged me $30 for a bus fare; and a good friend of mine from the community asked for some money to buy a cigarette and would have kept the change if I did not ask for it back. On another occasion when I was sitting by the side of the road opposite a home-based grocery store with an adult male named Prince, I was begged by probably as many as five-to-ten people within the space of half an hour. During that time Prince was begged persistently by an adolescent male, and I also saw a girl trying to beg a male youth who tried begging me only shortly before. When the latter refused, the girl demanded to know why, and when the male youth replied he did not have any money, the girl asked him where he had gotten the money to pay for the beer he was holding in his hand. Afterwards Prince warned me to be careful how much I gave, and commended me for being prescient enough to anticipate such requests by keeping a sufficient amount of small change in my pocket.
Even though residents in Bedward Town frequently use the word "beg" to make requests for financial or material assistance from one another, I would argue that it is does not have the same connotation one normally associates with its conventional meaning in the English language. For instance, when I overheard a friend saying to someone over the phone that he had "begged a phone call" from me, or when another friend I was riding in a car with asked the man in the back of his vehicle he had just given a lift to up the road if he could smoke the end of his marijuana spliff, and also asked for his lighter, adding as an afterthought, "beg your lighter", at no point could I detect a note of embarrassment or supplication in their voices. There was no evidence of the kind of abject pathos or sense of shame that one associates with the requests of street beggars in developing or advanced capitalist societies. On the contrary, the lack of shame in their voices betrayed an attitude that suggested this behaviour was considered perfectly normal and that there was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, and not unlike the phenomenon of "demand-sharing" among indigenous Australians which it has much in common with (see Peterson 1993), (14) the responsibility for explaining a refusal to share in Jamaican urban low-income communities seems to rest with the potential giver and not the person making the demand (cf. Schwab 1995, 8; MacDonald 2000, 93).
One of the advantages of this type of begging is that it enables individuals to overcome short-term financial emergencies and the reason it seems to be so effective is because it is underpinned by a diffuse notion of reciprocity. Put another way, there does not appear to be a deliberate attempt at fostering relations of indebtedness because the same person who lent money to you the previous day will most likely turn around and beg you at a later date. I was able to test this for myself when I asked my brother's host to lend me enough money for the bus fare. At no point did Johnny seek to remind me of the debt I had incurred (even though it has to be said that the ledger was heavily in my favour!). I was also interested to hear from the small boy living next door to me that he had been begged $20 by the niece of my host, and upon asking him if he ever begged her, he said that he had done so on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, some residents told me that the extent of begging in Bedward Town was problematic. One middle-aged woman I spoke to said it discouraged male youths from seeking employment because they felt they were not adequately remunerated for the work they did. And on another occasion, a Rastafarian adult male I was speaking with told me it was important that people worked for their own money. He said this after he noticed how many times I was begged while we were sitting on a curb on the street, adding that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that people in the community did not think it was necessary to reciprocate with a "white man".
There is another sense in which begging in Bedward Town can be viewed as being problematic, particularly insofar as it involved male youths in the community. There were times when their begging became so aggressive that it sounded more akin to a demand than a request, and I am not ashamed to admit that it was partly the reason I felt harried out of the community It is instructive in this respect to reflect upon my relations with some of the gang members in Bedward Town, as it acutely reflects how strained our relationship became because of the unreasonable demands they increasingly placed upon me. The relationship began harmlessly enough, or at least that is what I thought when I first met them. I was initially encouraged to buy a small bag of marijuana and to share it with them. Then in a defining moment in our relationship, their leader invited me to spend time on the gang's corner, and in what was to become a settled pattern, they asked me to buy them some drinks and I obliged by giving one youth a Jamaican $100 bill with which he bought several drinks to share between them. Over time though they became more demanding and increasingly insistent that I buy them a small bag of marijuana and several drinks at a time, or a "couple of bills" as the young gang leader liked to put it, whenever we ran into each other in Bedward Town. Indeed, their demands became so unrelenting that I came to feel like I was being harassed. On one occasion as I walking past a corner not far from my host's house, a gang member who could not have been more than 16 or 17 years old demanded that I give him some money. His friend brought out a knife and approached in my direction to press the point. When I protested I did not have any money, he turned to his friend to express his disbelief. The implication clearly being that while I may not have had any money on my person at the time, I surely had money elsewhere and was obliged to share it. As another youth from Bedward Town once put this homespun moral philosophy to me, if people have more money than others do, they are obliged to share it with them. Most probably because of my own up-bringing, I considered this to be highly invasive and no business of theirs, as their begging was verging on an extreme form of demand-sharing that had more in common with extortion than any tangible form of reciprocity. It might be objected that I had misinterpreted his demand, as requests are not always clearly phrased as questions by Patois speakers in Jamaica, and can sometimes sound more aggressive and impolite than they might otherwise be. However, another male youth told me of his experience with the same individual and described the aggressive manner in which he was being begged by this youth and some of his associates. He complained about having to justify why he could not meet their persistent demands for money, and, in pointing to the immorality of their behaviour, he argued that they were badmen (15) who were trying to take from others what was not rightfully theirs.
This gave me pause to reflect on the possible connections between begging and more serious criminal activities in Jamaica. Begging by these male youths might be viewed as a seamless rite of passage for learning to make more extreme demands such as extorting people. For instance, learning not to take no for an answer or forcing others to justify why they cannot give you any money is the perfect way to learn how to test the resolve of people. And no doubt employing a lethal weapon such as a knife or a gun to back up one's demands fortifies the request, making it very hard to refuse. Conversely, it is entirely possible that an enterprising individual could transform this kind of situation into a patron-client relationship. In my own case, I was somewhat amused to learn that the more I gave, and the deeper I was incorporated into Bedward Town's moral economy, the more that people in the community started to jokingly refer to me as a "big man". At one point, a male youth even offered to provide me with protection in return for what I assume I would have been required to find ways to ensure that he remained loyal to me, not unlike the way Dons are said to exercise their influence.
The literature on Jamaican ghettos is replete with descriptions of Dons (or gang leaders) who have abrogated to themselves many of the powers and services that were once the responsibility of the state to provide to residents in these communities (Sives 2002; Price 2004; Henry-Lee 2005). In the past, residents in these communities used to rely on the support of party politicians (see Stone 1980, 1986), (16) but Dons have become increasingly autonomous from their political patrons due to the proceeds they can earn from extorting local businesses and the international drug trade. What is more, there is mounting evidence that they are creating their own patron-client networks by exploiting the dependence of poorer residents in Jamaica's urban low-income communities. For instance, as Charles Price (2004, 80-81) points out: "Some Dons pay children's tuition, uniform and book fees, provide neighborhood security, sponsor neighborhood parties, and may help their poverty-stricken wards buy food and clothing. These practices are Jamaica's widely known but well-hushed secret."
The Moral Economy of Begging in Bedward Town
I now want to consider the sociological conditions that have helped engender the type of begging behaviour I claim is distinctive to urban low-income communities in Jamaica such as Bedward Town and which I distinguish from more conventional forms of begging. In the preceding discussion, I analogized this behaviour to a coping strategy of the urban poor. However, one of the limitations with this term is that it tends to impute a sense of conscious or deliberate effort on the part of human agents in trying to solve economic problems or minimize sources of tension and conflict. There can be no doubting that we are dealing with resourceful persons who have been able to find solutions to their economic problems, but we also need to reflect upon the social conditions that one typically finds in Jamaican urban low-income communities and to think about the range of constraints that these place on human action.
As I underlined earlier, Bedward Town's public domain is a highly interactive one. Indeed upon first entering the community to begin doing fieldwork, I found the experience claustrophobic. Prior to coming to Bedward Town, where I conducted six months of fieldwork, I spent one month residing in a middle class neighbourhood close to the campus of the University of West Indies and which was not dissimilar to the suburbs I grew up in Australia. During those four weeks in Mona Heights, the only person I met apart from my landlady was another boarder who commuted each week from Portmore to pursue her studies at the university. I rarely saw my landlady's neighbours on the street, nor did I get the opportunity to interact with any of them. This could not have been in more marked contrast to my experience in Bedward Town.
At different times of the day, but especially in the afternoons, residents would spill out onto the street and occupy it the same way they might inhabit their living rooms. On a typical afternoon in the section of Bedward Town where I was residing, male youths could be seen standing on street-corners smoking marijuana spliffs and reasoning in each other's company, while mixed groups of adults chatted amiably on make-shift seats next to home-based grocery stores, as other residents walked up and down the thoroughfare with no particular purpose in mind other than to stop and chat with their neighbours, and small children played in well-protected corners out of harm's way. Walking down the main street from the bus terminus in the direction of my host's house, I would pass throngs of people going about their daily affairs, which made me feel claustrophobic and slightly uncomfortable at first; not just because I stood out like a sore thumb as a white-skinned anthropologist doing fieldwork in a predominantly black neighbourhood. But also because I had not yet mastered the art of effortless sociability which seems so characteristic of public life in Jamaica's urban low-income communities and that only comes after having made personal acquaintances and learning people's names from firsthand experiences.
Anthropologists who have conducted fieldwork in these type of communities often describe this behavior as "informal" (de Veer 1979, 45-47, 51-54) or "face-to-face" (Chevannes 2001, 133) interaction. Reflecting upon the more common designation of face-to-face interaction, one tends to associate this term with classic anthropological studies of peasants and tribal groups living in rural villages or so-called small-scale societies. But there are some important differences between the type of communities one finds in rural villages and urban ghettos, not least of which are the crowded housing conditions that residents in Jamaica's urban low-income communities have to deal with in their everyday lives. Thus, to a certain extent, it is to be expected that these crowded housing conditions will force people to interact with their neighbours on a fairly regular basis or perhaps more often than they would like. On the one hand, it can sometimes lead to conflict, especially where the disciplining of children and sharing of communal resources such as toilets and washing facilities are concerned. On the other hand, it can also encourage a communal way of living that is more difficult to approximate in Jamaica's middle class neighbourhoods as Erna Brodber's (1975) study of Yards in the City of Kingston illustrates.
A yard is an urban residential unit consisting of several households and is normally used to describe the living arrangements of low-income earners in Kingston (Brodber 1975, 9). In her study Brodber distinguishes between two different types of yards, indicating that "tenant yards" are more numerous than "government yards". Government yards have superior amenities and are generally better built, being made of concrete and are uniform in structure, whereas tenant yards are erected by private individuals and usually made of inferior materials such as wood and corrugated iron. As a result, government-owned yards are more highly sought after, but they still share many of the problems that characterize tenant yards. Both types of housing suffer from over-crowding and a lack of privacy, and the enforced sharing of washing and toilet facilities can lead to quarrels between neighbours. Children can also be a source of friction, as there is often not enough space for them to run around in, leading parents to express the desire that one day they might live in detached houses where their children can run free without disturbing their neighbours. Yet the enforced sharing of yards also necessitates a high degree of social interaction and "insists" upon a communal form of living that one cannot find in middle-class neighbourhoods, according to Brodber (1975, 28, 48, 55-56). Brodber reasons that most yards will exhibit some degree of dependency on this communal way of life due to the desperate economic circumstances that a majority of people who live in these yards find themselves in.
Brodber's study is primarily concerned with yard living, but her argument can be extended with equal force to the public domain in Bedward Town. Neighbourhood streets and local grocery stores also necessitate a high degree of social interaction because of over-crowding and insufficient space for recreation inside peoples' homes. This also probably explains why most of my fieldwork was carried out on street corners and in local grocery stores, because, with the exception of my host's house, I was rarely invited into other peoples' homes or spent any time in their yards. It is also important to take into account the effect more wide-spread problems to do with poverty have had in terms of reinforcing the dependency of Bedward Town's residents on the public domain. Most people residing in Bedward Town live a hemmed-in existence owing to their lack of spending power and the high unemployment rates that affect residents in Jamaica's urban low-income communities. This also means that residents purchase most of their necessities from local home-based grocery stores, as they usually lack the wherewithal to go shopping at supermarket chains outside their communities. What is more, this hemmed-in existence is often compounded by the area stigma associated with low-income communities such as Bedward Town which are infamous for having a history of protracted gang warfare. For me, this was most poignantly captured by the sight of seeing male youths in Bedward Town loitering on street corners and smoking marijuana spliffs in the early hours of the morning because they had either dropped out of school or had no jobs to go to. Although they were able to find work from time-to-time as labourers on the construction sites of people's homes inside the community, these jobs were few and far between and rarely lasted very long, nor were jobs outside the community any more forthcoming once employers learned of their address.
Brodber is right to stress how living conditions in Jamaica's urban low-income communities have encouraged communal forms of cooperation and sharing between households (1975,11, 31). For our purposes, however, we also need to be mindful of the moral pressure that can be brought to bear on neighbours to share what they have as a result of living in close proximity to one another and the likelihood of encountering each other in public spaces. This can be illustrated by referring to some of the ethnographic examples I referred to in the previous section. Even though the experience was shot through with violent overtones, when the young gang member demanded I give him some money, one of the reasons he was able to pressure me was because he knew I lived in Bedward Town and that our paths would probably cross again. This episode was similar to the girl who, I mentioned, had demanded where the youth who had refused her request for money had gotten the money to buy the beer he was drinking. In each case, we see that the persons making the demands not only felt they had the right to demand why the potential giver was not able to meet their request, but also that they believed the other party was misleading them, which can only come from some degree of familiarity with the people they had approached. It is also important to note that these requests took place in public spaces and that it can be difficult to avoid them given how populated the public domain gets and the density of social ties in Jamaican urban low-income communities such as Bedward Town. (18) If we contrast this to my experience in the middle class neighbourhood of Mona Heights, such incidents never arose because residents in Mona Heights spent a majority of their time indoors and seemed to have little contact with each other on the street. (19)
The sociological conditions I have just described are similar to those identified by Marshall Sahlins (1972) as regulating economic transactions in small-scale, pre-capitalist societies. Aside from kinship, Sahlins highlights density of social network, proximity of residence, and the intervening variable of morality as key means of imposing some form of control on economic transactions in these types of societies. And as Sahlins also underlines (1972,198-199), the further away one is from the inner circle of economic trade, the less effective morality becomes as a source of constraint on human action, leading to a gradual shift from generalized, to balanced and ultimately negatively balanced reciprocity. In fact, most of these sociological features constitute the basic building blocks of the moral economy approach, yet it is strange that one rarely finds Sahlins' name mentioned in the context of discussions pertaining to the concept's applicability, which is most often associated with the work of E.P. Thompson (1971) and James Scott (1976). Is this because the concept has largely been restricted to discussions of peasant and working class forms of resistance (or what is sometimes described as an "anti-market" stance), that it is not thought applicable to pre-capitalist cultures? Or is it that something which was previously thought to be natural comes to acquire greater visibility after the imposition of capitalism, such that the latter comes to be seen as not only immoral but even evil (Taussig 1977), while the former is what is morally right and now must be vigorously defended? There does not appear to be a simple answer to this question, but I do think scholars need to give more thought to the sociological conditions that enable moral economies to prosper and which is implicit in the work of authors such as Thompson (1971, 131-132, 134-135) (21) and Scott (1976, 27, 168) (22) though not always explicitly reflected upon by them.
Reading over the moral economies literature, one is struck by the extent to which the concept has come to be diluted of its efficacy Thompson raised this issue himself in an essay entitled "The Moral Economy Reviewed" (1993), in which he questions the extent to which the concept's meaning has been stretched since he first defined it. Thompson does not provide a very concise definition of the concept in his own work. But as far as I understand it, the concept requires coming to terms with how marginal groups respond to some form of dearth or economic impoverishment and seek to limit accumulative practices perceived to threaten their well-being by trying to bring about (through force or moral pressure) a more equitable distribution of wealth. That being the case, I can discern some clear affinities between the way in which I have used the concept to describe the logic of begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities and the work of Thompson and Scott on the moral economies of rioting and looting. For example, where I see evidence of affinity in our work is in the stress that each author places on the use of force to compel others to share or redistribute their wealth in a situation where there is a perceived infringement of accepted norms and obligations and a threat to the economic well-being of the groups concerned. However, where I do see grounds for differentiating how I use the concept from that of Thompson and Scott is in not focusing on spectacular or mob-based forms of resistance, such as rioting and looting (cf. Price 2004), but on a more mundane form of resistance that is based on the use of moral pressure to try and affect an equitable distribution of wealth in response to the economic hardships of everyday life. Another way one might put it is that, where the former is spectacular and often spontaneous, the latter is quotidian and less likely to be remarked upon.
In this sense, my usage of the term could be said to be similar to Manning Nash's discussion of levelling mechanisms. For Nash (1961; 1966, 35-36), levelling mechanisms are put in place to prevent members of a community from accumulating more wealth than others by finding culturally sanctioned ways to ensure their wealth is redistributed. Nash limits his discussion of levelling mechanisms to tribal and peasant societies, but it is not difficult to discern parallels with the way in which begging relations in Jamaican urban low-income communities also seem to function. One way to illustrate this is to reflect on the encounter I had with the male youth in Bedward Town who complained of the demands that were made on his money by some of the gang members in the community and whom he described as badmen. Here as well, it is important to look past the ostensibly violent intentions of these youths to appreciate that, underlying their actions, one can discern evidence of the desire to compel others to share their wealth by appealing to shared norms and values. This is reflected in how the gang members expected the other youth to justify why he could not meet their requests, suggesting not only that they felt their demands were perfectly normal but also the belief that, as it was put to me on several occasions by people I met in Bedward Town, those who had more money were obliged to share it with other residents in the community. Even though I proposed earlier that begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities can be envisaged as a "seamless rite of passage" preparing street-corner gang members for serious crimes involving extortion activities, it is important to note that there is a substantive difference between demanding protection money from those who own property and are threatened with its destruction for not complying, and requesting small change from neighbours in one's community and appealing to an idealized moral order to justify or rationalize the legitimacy of those demands.
There is also a flip side to this situation. While begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities can act as a restraint on some and make it difficult to get ahead in life due to the frequent demands that are made on their finances by other residents living in these communities; we should not forget that more enterprising individuals in these communities have been able to take advantage of the reciprocity that underpins begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities in order to foster relations of indebtedness. As I pointed out in the previous section, the literature on Jamaican ghettos is replete with discussions of gang leaders, or so-called Dons, who have abrogated to themselves many of the powers and services that used to be the provenance of the State. Based on insights from this literature, and my own experiences in Bedward Town, I suggested that gang leaders have been able to further consolidate their power by transforming begging relationships into patron-client networks. However, this should not necessarily surprise us if we reflect on the levels of poverty affecting Jamaica's urban low-income communities and the debate one often comes across in the country's media pertaining to the nation's prospects as a failed state. If anything, this is what we should expect to emerge in situations of political instability and where the impersonal laws of the market do not yet enjoy full dominion and the prospect of regular employment remains a luxury for so many: the poor turning to Dons (or what we might usefully compare to "big-men" and "patrons" in the social sciences literature) (24) to fill the void vacated by the State.
I started the paper by pointing out that the reciprocity that underpins begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities has gone unnoticed by most anthropologists working in these communities, and that the most likely reason this has happened is because they have confused it with more conventional forms of begging. In contrast to conventional forms of begging, begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities is not usually marked by an exaggerated or embarrassed sense of entreaty, and requests for financial or material assistance are more likely to be framed as a demand for sharing than a plea for assistance. In fact, one could argue that begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities seems to share more in common with demand-sharing among indigenous Australians than it does with conventional forms of begging. Apart from similarities in their outward behavioural manifestations, both are underpinned by a diffuse notion of reciprocity, and it is the potential giver and not the receiver who has to explain why they cannot meet another person's request. What is more, the fact that the giver is the one who has to retrieve the debt and not the other way round (as normally occurs in conventional forms of gift-exchange), would appear to lend further credence to the suggestion that they are creative ways to overcome momentary shortfalls in financial liquidity--or what social scientists are wont to describe as coping strategies of the poor. (25)
However, what I also tried to show was that these phenomena are likely to arise under certain sociological conditions. In the case of begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities such as Bedward Town, the key sociological conditions are over-crowded housing and proximity of residence. In order to bring out the veracity of these findings, I compared Bedward Town to the middle class neighbourhood of Mona Heights, where residents not only live in more spacious homes but are also less likely to interact with their neighbours on the street or in other public spaces. Indeed it is conditions such as these that make it easier for residents in Jamaica's urban low-income communities to compel others to meet their demands for money, which is why I have analogized this situation to a moral economy. This is not meant to diminish the resourcefulness of the urban poor in Jamaica in finding ways to solve their economic problems; only to highlight that those who participate do not always do so willingly, and that the moral pressure that can be brought to bear on neighbours to share what they have can also make it difficult for some residents in these communities to climb out of their economic predicament. When seen in this light, we come to better appreciate the complexity of social relations in low-income communities such as Bedward Town, while also recognizing how the urban poor have found ways to adapt to the poverty affecting their communities. It is at this juncture that one is reminded of Karl Marx's famous dictum that man makes his own history but not always under the circumstances of his own choosing or control.
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(1) Most English language dictionaries state that the word "beg" means: 1) to ask someone earnestly or humbly for something; and 2) to ask for something, typically food or money, as charity or a gift.
(2) The team of researchers included Edith Clarke who would go on to write the well-known Jamaican monograph. My Mother Who Fathered Me (1963).
(3) It was during this period that black working class youths increasingly started to make their presence felt, culminating in the rude boy rebellion in the 1960s. And as scholars have shown, much of this frustration stemmed from the high levels of unemployment that were already becoming pronounced prior to the independence period. For a more extensive analysis of these issues, see Rex Nettleford's Mirror Mirror: Identity Race and Protest in Jamaica(1998).
(4) This is a Jamaican working class expression for a man who is recognized as the biological father of a child but cannot take it for granted that he will be recognized as the sociological father unless he continues to make material or financial contributions to the child's upkeep.
(5) At the time of my fieldwork, one US dollar was roughly equivalent to Jamaican $50 dollars. Hence the amount Sandy was begging male residents in her community is a relatively small amount and would have been easy for them to comply with.
(6) For studies of begging in other parts of the world see for instance Lankenau (1999), Lu (1999), Namwata et. al. (2012), and Roblee-Hertzmark (2012). Apart from underlining the connection with poverty, what all of these studies emphasize is the characteristic demeanour and strategies that beggars are prone to adopting seemingly irrespective of differences in cultural background, and which also accord with Simpson's descriptions of begging in Jamaica (including the overlap between giving and religious traditions of alms-giving).
(7) One of the defining characteristic of these surveys is that they aim to be participatory. The methods employed include using teams of researchers, who in addition to conducting interviews, draw charts and ask respondents to participate in the framing of results. On the one hand, these surveys have proven to be highly advantageous for doing fieldwork in Jamaican urban low-income communities that have a reputation for being inaccessible and dangerous to outsiders. But they also come with a cost, as the teams of researchers do not usually spend very much time in these communities because of their dangerous reputation, and therefore tend to rely too much on what they are told, rather than observing things for themselves.
(8) I think some of the confusion surrounding Horst and Miller's discussion of coping strategies in Jamaica--reflected in the comments at the end of the paper by other anthropologists--stems from their attempt to assimilate begging in urban low-income communities to the Jamaican custom they describe as "Linkup". Horst and Miller may have a point in arguing that the latter is seemingly without any social or economic imperative, and perhaps best understood simply as an opportunistic desire to enlarge one's social r.etwork. However, if we are to describe link-up as a social network, then it is indeed a very weak one as James Carrier notes in his comments at the end of their paper, and must be distinguished from begging behaviour in Jamaican urban low-income communities which Horst and Miller fail to do.
(9) De Veer carried out her PhD fieldwork at the end of the 1970s.
(10) To get a sense of what conditions are like in these communities, see the report produced by Jamaica's Social Development Commission entitled Profile of Communities along the Industrial Belt between Six Miles on the West and Rockfort on the East (1998).
(11) These networks should not be confused with female-headed households. Although the two may overlap, the key difference is that, in contrast to the latter, the former can transcend the boundaries of kinship, of which Pardner is a pertinent illustration. While these female-centred networks of support have not received much treatment in the Jamaican anthropological literature, one can find a number of studies that have been conducted in other parts of the Caribbean and North America pointing to the prevalence of this phenomenon (cf. Brana-Shute 1976; Stack 1974a).
(12) For an overview of these studies, see Couacaud (2012).
(13) Some of the requests put to me included a video game console for the small boy living next door to me, a pair of crocodile skin cowboy boots for an adult male living in the community, and to make monetary contributions in the future to my female adult host upon leaving Bedward Town. Interestingly, when I raised the matter with a colleague working at the Mona campus of the University of West Indies who was from Cameroon, he expressed a similar degree of consternation and said he was often approached by students and colleagues making similar requests prior to travelling overseas.
(14) The most important difference between them is that the demand-sharing of indigenous Australians largely targets kin relations, whereas begging in Jamaican urban low-income communities is not restricted to relatives but also targets non-kin. However, one wonders if the fact that residents in Jamaican urban low-income communities do not restrict their demands to relatives is because it is economically advantageous (or "rational") to do so, given the crippling levels of poverty they suffer from.
(15) "Badman" or the plural "badmen" are terms that working class Jamaicans use to negatively evaluate the behaviour of men who get involved in criminal activities.
(16) Urban low-income communities that are controlled by Dons and have a history of voting for the same political party are usually described as "garrison communities" in the social sciences literature on Jamaica. The term was coined by the political scientist Carl Stone and was meant to underline the politically fortified and militarized nature of some of the communities that can be found in the downtown Kingston area. However not all Jamaican urban low-income communities have gangs or are controlled by a single gang-leader or Don, which is why I prefer to use the latter term to refer to garrison communities in this article as it is more encompassing. During the time I was doing fieldwork, Bedward Town had a number of different gang leaders that residents in the community referred to as "area leaders", and at one point it even had an informal justice system that was jointly administered by these gangs. But it has never been under the control of one gang leader, which partially explains the protracted nature of gang warfare in the community and why it does not warrant being described as a garrison community.
(17) This is a distinctly Rastafarian expression and refers to a process of argumentation based on verbal contestation and critical evaluation that is most often applied to the interpretation of scripture, but can also be used to interpret the profane world of politics or to mediate personal conflicts between individuals.
(18) Studies show that working class neighourhoods are proven to have denser social networks than middle class neighbourhoods (Milroy and Milroy 1992; Bridge 2002; cf. Topalov 2003). This is due to the fact that residents in working class neighbourhoods live in close proximity to one another and often work and socialize together, whereas the middle classes enjoy greater physical mobility and apparently this is also reflected in the salience of 'friendship' over peer groups in their lives (see Allan 1979).
(19) See Horace Levy's (2009,14-15) reflections on the differences between urban low-income communities and middle class neighbourhoods in Jamaica. Levy's description reveals my own preference for describing low-income residential areas as "communities" and middle class residential areas as "neighbourhoods", given the stronger social ties binding the latter than the former.
(20) However, see Thompson (1971, 131; 1993: 340) for some thoughtful reflections on this issue.
(21) For example, on pages 131-132 Thompson states: "It is not easy for us to conceive that there may have been a time, within a smaller and more integrated community [my emphasis], when it appeared to be "unnatural" that any man should profit from the necessities of others, and when it was assumed that, in time of dearth, prices of "necessities" should remain at a customary level, even though there might be less all round."
(22) And compare the following remarks by Scott on page 27: "As we move from reciprocity among friends and to the village, we move to social units which may control more subsistence resources than kinsmen and are still part of the intimate world of the peasantry where shared values and social control combine to reinforce mutual assistance. In most cases, however, a man cannot count with as much certainty or for as much help from fellow villagers as he can from near relatives and close neighbours." And he then goes on to underline in footnote 39 at the bottom of the same page, in a passage that sounds remarkably similar to Sahlins' own findings with regards to generalized reciprocity, that: "The reciprocities of kinship ... diminish perceptibly the more distant the bond [my emphasis]; at the periphery of a kin network, performance may be less reliable than among unrelated neighboring villagers."
(23) Here it is interesting to compare Schwab's (1995, 8) comments pertaining to demand-sharing in Australia: "In practice, the burden is as much if not more on the back of the person asked to share as on the back of the person making the demand ... Where many Australians of European descent expect the potential borrower to make a case of need ('I need a loan of cash because ...'), Aboriginal people tend to place the greater burden of explanation on the owner of the goods and services ('I can't loan you the cash because ...')."
(24) For discussions of both types, see Sahlins (1963; 1972, 204-210) and Scott (1972). I am not suggesting that the Jamaican Don can be easily assimilated to either. But what the Jamaican Don shares in common with the Melanesian Big Man and the Latin American or Southeast Asian Patron is the ability to attract a coterie of loyal followers and to harness the redistributive powers that come from tapping into generalized forms of exchange for either personal or political advantage. And, just as importantly, the influence of these figures appears to be most palpable when formal institutions are either weak or non-existent, and by the same token to wane in proportion to the establishment of strong institutions and impersonal contractual systems.
(25) Cf. also Stack's (1974b) discussion of 'swapping', which she likens to a coping strategy poor African-Americans in the Midwestern city of Jackson Harbour have devised to adapt to their economic circumstances. In addition to performing services like baby-sitting for free, the African-Americans Stack did fieldwork among gave each other money and exchanged food, cleaning products, television sets, couches, and even cars. This coping strategy also sounds similar to the demand-sharing of indigenous Australians and makes one wonder if the latter is not in fact a recent phenomenon rather than being a custom of long-standing as claimed by Peterson (1993), who fails to provide any evidence demonstrating this is the case.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2017|
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