Penny for Your Thoughts: Beggars and the Exercise of Morality in Daily Life1

Shai M. Dromi

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Dromi, S. M. (1). Penny for Your Thoughts: Beggars and the Exercise of Morality in Daily Life1. Sociological Forum, 27(4), 847–871.

Beggars , helping behavior , moral efficacy , public interaction , risk , urban disorder

Urban sociology has tended to study interactions between passersby and "street persons" with an emphasis on the ways street persons become bothersome, harassing, or dangerous. This article moves away from the focus on the ways interactions in public go awry and focuses on how individuals account for the mundane, everyday exchanges they have with strangers who seek their help. Based on interview data (N = 31) and qualitative analysis of data from an Internet survey (N = 110), this article suggests that the presence of beggars does not inherently symbolize urban decay to passersby and does not necessarily elicit anxiety, but instead provides a valuable texture of urban life. Further, the article argues that individuals, when justifying their responses to requests for help from needy persons (beggars) in urban spaces, use a variety of cultural strategies to maintain their perception of themselves as moral persons, both when they choose to help and when they refuse. Drawing from these findings, the article suggests that urban sociology and the sociology of risk would benefit from sensitizing their studies of public interactions to the diverse meanings individuals assign to them, rather than presupposing annoyance, anxiety, or fear as their predominant characteristic.

Main finding
First, the author finds that while passersby describe fear and anxiety in their interactions with beggars, these feelings are not as salient as previous literature has suggested. Safety concerns were mitigated when encounters with strangers occurred in well-trafficked and well-lit public spaces. Second, passersby reflected on their encounters in moral terms, regarding both their own status and that of the stranger in need. They assessed the authenticity of strangers' request for help, relied on predetermined principles, whereby they refused or obliged, reflected on the morality of their choice to give or refuse, and at times created caring and personal connections with strangers in need. Lacking from participants' accounts was a concern for contributing to, or preventing, urban disorder.

Description of method used in the article
The author relied on interviews conducted in New Haven, Connecticut (n = 31) and online surveys from across the USA (n = 110) to study how passersby construct ideas of morality around their interactions with beggars.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

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