CFP: The Informal and the Formal: Contested Categories of Socio-Economic Life

By | January 23, 2010



Gioiosa Marea, Sicily, 7-9 May 2010

The Informal and the Formal: Contested Categories of Socio-Economic Life

Convenor: Italo Pardo (University of Kent)


This conference recognizes both the empirical difficulty in categorising human activities as belonging strictly to the formal sector or the informal sector of the economy and the blurred boundaries between these sectors. It brings together anthropologists who specialise in different ethnographies with the main aim of addressing the complexity of the informal sector, the attendant challenges in attempting to define it and the problematic relationships between activities that take place within and without the officially set boundaries of the formal sector.

The ethnographer is often confronted with small-scale businesses and other economically significant actions and forms of exchange (individual or collective) that, not exclusively rooted in what is officially defined as ‘the informal sector’, generally address the market as a whole.From a worm’s eye viewpoint, it could be reasonably suggested that such activities may not always be strictly legal and they may not always agree with the ‘laws’ of market capitalism, but not for this should they be misread as evidence of marginality – cultural, economic, political and moral. On the contrary, it should be asked whether even people with a disadvantaged background may be actively engaged in negotiating the messiness of their lives and redefining their place in society. Contested knowledge acquired through prolonged involvement in the flow of local life brings out the weakness of the distinction between employment and work and of a view of informal work activities as a separate mode of production or as belonging to a ‘casual economy’. Of course, such complexity must be set against the background of the graded relationships between the legal and the illegal sectors that colour many dealings at various levels and in various sectors of associated life, which raises stimulating questions as to the extent to which the blurred boundaries of the ’divide’ mirror other aspects of social and cultural life (such as kinship, marriage and social and moral networks) in each specific ethnographic setting. It is not unusual to find complex links, in terms of production, distribution and consumption, between the formal sector and activities that are rooted in the informal sector, at the limits or beyond the limits of the strictly legal. For example, ethnographically diversified findings suggest that small- to medium-range formal businesses often rely on workshops that produce goods illegally (evading tax on the purchase of raw materials and the sale of finished products, as well as employment tax and other welfare state contributions) and that a proportion of such products finds its way into the legal market. In this context, the complex relationship between the legal and the illegal is a key issue, the empirical analysis of which may help us to clarify broader, far-reaching economic processes in view of ever-growing global competition. Such an approach needs to account for problematic processes whereby what is illegal at a given time in a given place may be legal in another place or may become legal at another time in the same place; it should indeed be borne in mind that changes in the law may turn given situations on their head.

Bringing together diversified ethnographic analyses, this Conference will stimulate a comparative view of this complex topic.

Participants are asked to draw on their diverse research experiences to examine ways to address effectively the analytical and theoretical issues raised by this topic.

This event will be organized in such a way as to allow ample time for presentation of working papers and discussion.

Proposals (max 500 words) should be sent by 15 March 2010 to Dr Marcello Mollica:

Chief Coordinator, CUA

Department of Social Anthropology

University of Fribourg

Bd de Pérolles 90

Bureau G 302

1700 Fribourg Switzerland

Tel. ++41 26 300 74 79

Fax ++41 26 300 96 64


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