Accepted paper:

Pure body, polluting addiction: the complexity of intimate exchanges among people who beg on the streets of London


Johannes Lenhard (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Exploring the private lives of people begging on the streets of London, I trace relationships of friendship and love along lines of exchange. Even though different kinds of relationships frequently endure, addiction often turns the relational network on its unpleasant head.

Paper long abstract:

I ethnographically studied a community of people who beg in London. Engaging with recent writing on transactional sex and moral economy, I observed how exchange and intimate relationships are commensurable on the street. Certain forms of exchange match specific forms of relationships. While 'associates' are not much more than drug buddies lending each other money in a framework of immediate reciprocity, 'friends of trust' share housing and care. 'Love partners' even go beyond friends with their basis in romantic love, sexuality and a vision of the future.

The body plays a central role in this relational network. It acts as the most precious because only 'really' owned object of exchange in a situation of extreme poverty. The body marks the 'pure' space of voluntary and intimate sharing in contrast to otherwise dominant commodities. Bodies (as well as their extensions in precious housing) among the people I studied were often seen as the last resort of self and endowed with a notion of choice ('I prefer not to').

Pressing needs stemming from addictions and the chronic shortages of resources can turn the network on its head, however. Relationships frequently collapse into hostility and constellations of dominance. The body hence becomes a contested space and is pressed into the realm of market exchanges: people steal from a partner to pay for drugs; friends fight over begging spots; bodies are sold for money.

panel P099
Changing intimate exchanges and emerging forms of resistance to intensified self-commodification