III: The Sociology of the Interaction between Formality and Informality

Barbara A. Misztal

Configurations of Informality and Formality in Contemporary Society

Introduction: The relevance of informality

In contrast to many social scientists’ prediction that forces of globalisation, by imposing legal forms of regulations on the world, would eliminate or undermine the significance of informality, the reliance on informality remains universally practised to facilitate the formal processes of business, politics and society. However, the first two decades of the new century’s trends and new technologies have not only sustained the informality, they have also, at the same time, changed the scope of informality and its relations with formality. On the one hand, the expanding access to information and the process of globalisation, together with the growing level of complexity of the global system are seen as creating favourable conditions for less formal social encounters. Hence, with the loosening of formal hierarchies and the de-conventionalisation of organized practices, we observe the new importance of informality. On the other hand, in the context of the widespread unpredictability, deregulation and the complexity of the global economic system, there is an increase in the perception of informality being associated with corruption, nepotism and other malpractices, which prompts many to question the relevance of informality for democracy (Lauth 2000). Taken together, these two possible roles of informality, in the context of modern democracies becoming increasingly shaped by various types of “personalized governance and the profusion of modes of online provision” (Eriksson and Vogt 2012, 154), suggest the emergence of a new configuration of informality and formality in today’s societies. Since we do not fully understand the implications of this configuration, there is a clear need to re-open a debate on the role and consequences of the new relationships between informality and formality in the contemporary setting. To develop a new analytical approach, we should first scrutinize the processes that are behind this configuration, especially, the impact of the growing complexity of the world and our increasing reliance on digital technologies, on ways in which we interact and make decisions. These two trends, as they alter the boundaries between private and public life and conditions of cooperation, influence the scope and function of informality in this new context. Thus, the aim of this article is to re-think these issues in the context of the new century’s developments. After discussing trends that increase our hopes for informality’s capacity to enhance cooperation and debating processes that lead to the misplacement of informality and to its use as a form of control strategy, I will revise the definition of informality developed in my book on informality more than a decade ago (Misztal 2000).

The concept of informality is rather complex, unclear and ambiguous. It tends to be used in various ways: from descriptions of face-to-face, intimate, private, less rigid, less controlled interactions, and, through references to the informal economy, to descriptions of non-hierarchal or bureaucratic exchange, nepotism, old boys’ networks and avoidance of formal rules. Unsurprisingly, there are always some misunderstandings and confusion surrounding this notion. Following Goffman, I have developed an understanding of informality as referring to situations with a wider scope of choices of behaviour where, in order to make the most of the possibilities in given circumstances or to reach “a working understanding” (Goffman 1983, 9), people employ various forms of action that are not pre-made (Misztal 2000, 41). In this perspective, informality is defined as a form of interaction among partners engaging in dialogue, the rules of which are not pre-designed, and enjoying relative freedom in the interpretation of their roles’ requirements (Misztal 2000, 46). Such an understanding allows us to see both informality and formality as the essential and changing aspects of many processes underlined by new modes of social control, new institutions and new means of communication. To fully comprehend the new shape of their configuration, we should also include into our consideration analyses of previous forms of their mutual interdependence.

It is not surprising that the significance of informality has been always recognized. We know many historical accounts of the role of informality on the world stage. For example, Mann (2012) in his discussion of sources of power argues that WWI destroyed the regime of informal international cooperation that existed prior to that war. Furthermore, he argues that one of the consequences of WWI was America’s imperial dominance, which unlike its European predecessors, was informal and which, without much formality, was able to bend the course of events in the direction of its interests. Although political scientists in general tend to put central emphasis on the status of formal institutions, for the last couple of decades they have also been raising questions about the importance of informal institutions in the process of political transformation and their relevance for democracy. Noticing the varieties of informal institutions, and their different impacts on the transparency of political processes and public communication, they propose that in order to evaluate informality’s relevance for democracy we need to develop the typology of informal arrangements (Lauth 2000; Cormack 2013).

On the bases of many empirical social studies, we also know that any significant social changes require face-to-face informal efforts of strategically positioned actors within any field, organisation or system (Walker 2012). Informality is the universal element of relationships in every society, although its importance and the intensity of its application differ from country to country. The shift in emphasis reflects broader social transformations, having moved from being predominantly directed toward the intensive reliance on informality for access to resources through a focus on informality as a means of control, to a total concentration solely on formal structures. Many of the relaxations of restrictions on relations and conduct constitute instances of a “controlled decontrolling of emotional control” (Wouters 1986, 3) and lead to “a shift from relational and emotional management through command to a management through negotiation” (de Swann 1990, 270). As the process of the relaxation of restrictions on ways we behave in public has spread to increasing numbers of people, this informalisation has simultaneously been accompanied by the process of formalisation.

The interplay of both processes (formality and informality) has always been visible in many spheres of life, although strong informality, which thrives locally and is used as a means for control in familiar communities, seems to belong to the past. For example, social order in 1950s Britain, in the “era of trust”, “selfrestraint” and “carefully calibrated politeness”, was helped by the informal control of public spaces “by bus conductors, by park keepers, by lavatory attendance and by a police force that was largely admired” (Kynaston 2009, 542). The reliance on informality not only reflects local communities’ cohesion, but also can reflect the limits of state regulation or legal devices (Farrell 2004). A weak central government provides the ground for the flourishing of various types of informal deals, exchanges and bargaining, which - although not necessarily illegal - are often outside of the law (Hart 1988). However, in reality the picture is even more complex as much evidence suggests that also under strong, centralized governments, informality can play a significant role in modifying the rigid and direct state control in the economy (Misztal 2000). More generally, it can be said that although there is a tendency to perceive informality as some form of favouritism and nepotism and as associated with corruption, bribery and malpractice, in fact impropriety is not an inherent characteristic of informality. This can happen under any type of government when there is no adequate system of laws and regulations. Where there are “tight rules and regulations, and their strict enforcement”, like in Singapore, they prevent “widespread corrupt practices” (Chan and Ng 2006, 56).

Although discussions of informality often focus on its role in business, where informality plays a silent role in many agreements and contracts, the role of informality extends to all areas of socio-economic life. Informality is used as an effective strategy for many social purposes, for instance to sells products, as illustrated by the trend of “personalized” products, from coffee shops to airlines. Furthermore, its impact has always been acknowledged in the financial sector where, since its foundation in 1801, the London Stock Exchange’s motto has been “My word, my bond”, suggesting that bargaining and deals can be made in an informal way, with no contracts or documents. It has continually been present in the legal system where, even during the period in which legal formalism was dominant, the role of informality was recognized. “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is” (Charles Evans Hughes Justice of the US Supreme Court quoted in Unah 2009, 154).

The growing informalisation of many spheres of public life, which started in the 1960s, also saw the development of “informal” or “popular” justice (van Krieken 2001). This new wave of informal justice is defined as:

encompassing legal institutions which are non-bureaucratic in structure and relatively undifferentiated from the larger society, minimize the use of professionals, and eschew official law in favor of substantive and procedural norms that are vague, unwritten, com- monsensical, flexible, ad hoc, and particularistic (Richard Abel quoted in van Krieken 2001, 7)

spread from the 1970s onwards. The foundations for the shift to legal informalism were laid down by the growing critiques of legal formalism and efforts “to bridge and link the realm of formalized legal ideas and procedures with extralegal forms of social ordering, often within a framework of attempting to modify the workings of power relations” (van Krieken 2001, 6). Behind legal informalism in a range of fields including family, criminal, administrative, commercial, discrimination and equal opportunity law was both the development of the welfare state and critical attitudes towards the state in the 1960s (van Krieken 2001, 7).

To sum up so far, each society permits some space for informality that is socially, culturally, and economically determined. All societal sub-systems strive to find their own mixture of rule-bound formality and rule-independent informality. In every case, informality of conduct and formality of rules are joined together notwithstanding their opposition and tensions. Their relationship is far from immutable and their dynamism results in the evolution of styles of interaction. Thus, our question is: What are the nature and dynamics of the relations between informality and formality today? How stable is such a configuration and what role does it play in shaping the quality of social life? In order to answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at our capacities for interpersonal concordance and our opportunities for informality in today’s circumstances. Since the private-public shift and the erosion of conditions facilitating cooperation are seen as affecting the scope and role of informality, in the following section we will analyse the impact of these processes on the configuration of informality and formality.

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