II: The Sociology of Formally Embedded Informality

Liela Groenewald

Understanding Informality: Conceptual Lessons from Informal Settlement in Southern Africa


Urban Sociology and Urban Studies more broadly have provided an intellectual home for the empirical study and the conceptual development of informality, primarily as it manifests in the sectors of the economy, politics, and housing. Since different definitions of informality betray normative assumptions about informality, these definitions also have implications for social justice. Descriptions of informality in hegemonic discourses that portray informality as separate or decoupled from the formal tend to portray informality as deviant, betraying normative assumptions that the formal ideal should be pursued or protected (Groenewald et al. 2013). Instead of strategies that empower those who resort to informality, these assumptions can lead to strategies to regulate, control or repress informality. This is often to the detriment of marginalised communities.

In the context of South Africa, where three hundred years of colonialism and legislated racial discrimination lasting until the late twentieth century have produced large-scale, deep and chronic poverty coupled with extraordinary levels of inequality, researchers have emphasised the ethical obligation on social scientists to develop accounts that could resonate with the poor, rather than to reiterate and rationalise the perspectives of the well-off classes. Failing to heed this obligation leads not merely to ethical difficulties, but also to concerns about rigour, since significant knowledge gaps and biases arise from the overwhelming domination of social science by the accounts of the powerful (Nader 1972, 292-295; Connell 2007, 216). Taking account of the knowledge risks involved in generalising about informality based on empirical work in the comparatively privileged context of the global North, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the knowledge and theories of informality can be advanced by taking account in particular of work from southern Africa, where informality is concentrated.

Mindful of the need to produce work that excavates the perspective of the marginalised, rather than to simply reinforce power relations, scholars working within the critical paradigm have embraced definitions that emphasise the particular precariousness of people who build livelihoods in the informal sector, the conceptual distance between hegemonic definitions of informality and the aspirations of people who employ informality in pursuit of incremental improvements to these precarious lives, and the need for intellectual interventions to shift dominant thinking in a direction that can resonate with and assist ordinary people.

The question of whether the formal and informal sectors are separate entities or are entangled with one another has therefore arisen as a central concern for critical scholars. In this regard, important lessons can be drawn from diverse experiences of urban informality. To do so, this paper draws on the theoretical foundations of a research project1 focused on the interaction between the extremes on this formal-informal continuum, i.e. the response of the formal state to informal settlement in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. First, the paper draws attention to the plurality of experiences of urban informality that is available to social researchers. Next, public policy responses and their implications for informality are considered. Based on this, the paper concludes that a conceptual shift with regard to the definition of informality is necessary for the sake of accuracy and rigour.

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