Ideas for Future Research

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Globalizing knowledge

"Globalizing knowledge" is today a popular catchphrase in academic circles and the title of Michael D. Kennedy’s ground-breaking book on knowledge and change. How does the Global Informality project contribute to the globalising of knowledge? How local knowledge feeds into wider frames of thought? How is wisdom embedded in informality maintained and transmitted? What are the prospects of ‘network expertise’ assembled in the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality? Can we overcome the limitations of understanding local knowledge, unwritten rules, and hidden practices in societies other than our own? How can we use the interconnectedness of present-day academia to produce novel analysis within and beyond academic circles? Can we facilitate public engagement for expanding our dataset? What are the implications of local knowledge in the global context? Specific ways in which knowledge, images, and symbols are shared globally are only an illustration of universal patterns underlying the workings of informality. Looking at our case studies in the Encyclopaedia, do they facilitate the globalising of knowledge and in which ways? Have we managed to supersede geographical borders and area studies divide in our dataset?"

Learning commons

Is the Global Informality Project network a community? Wikipedia defines learning commons, also known as scholars' commons, information commons or digital commons, are learning spaces, similar to libraries and classrooms that share space for information technology, remote or online education, collaboration, content creation, and meeting. Can the Global Informality Project website become a virtual learning common? What do we need for it? How would you be able to use the dataset? How to facilitate growth of entries? How to engage with related projects? How can it be used for teaching? For research proposals? For publishing? How can the users rearrange the data for their own use? What does it miss? Do we want to set up an International Board and an annual meeting? A lot of authors have worked with policy-makers, would it be a good idea to share experience? To share training materials and research findings?

Building on resistance capacity

Just as seismic capacity of high-rise buildings, informality constitutes a resistance capacity of modern societies. Strategies of survival can be subversive but J.C. Scott argues they are also serve as ‘weapons of the weak.’ Hernando de Soto has shown how informality can not only being a problem but also a solution. The functional ambivalence of informality is essential to understand for devising policies and managing crises. Informality tends to be stigmatised, yet it is a powerful resource, if one focuses on ‘what works’, rather than what should work (increasingly, the funding bodies are interested in policy oriented and problem-solving approaches that require integrating top-down policies with bottom-up analysis of their effectiveness). Can informal practices help tackling natural disasters, serving as default mode in crisis circumstances, where institutions fail people. Do we know enough about security implications of informality?

Power distance and closed access societies

Theory and practice of ambivalence

"Ambivalence," identified and developed by Zygmunt Bauman and Robert K. Merton as major sociological conceptual tools, is a key structuring concept for the Global Informality project and its Encyclopedia. Characterizations of particular practices as consisting of doublethink, double standards, double deed, double incentives and/or situated in grey zones, blurred boundaries, and fringes evoke new framings of what we encounter in our own varied research contexts. What other kinds of doublings and spatial metaphors help us to identify, discuss, and newly understand these practices? The Encyclopaedia also presents a typology of "ambivalence:" substantive, normative, functional, and motivational. How does this help us work through and draw connections across the materials of various researchers and research projects? Are there other types we might fashion and use?

From a session in the Brainstorming Workshop, 22 March 2018, UCL, London

In this group:

  • Dr Predrag Cvetičanin, Centre for Empirical Cultural Studies of South-East Europe, Belgrade
  • Dr David Henig, Senior Lecturer, School of Anthropology & Conservation, University of Kent
  • James McLeod-Hatch, SSEES alumnus
  • Petra Matijevic, Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL

SUGGESTIONS

  • Policy favours formal rules and practices – but if they want policies to succeed - policy people should embrace informality and ambivalence in their strategies (not to be too prescriptive) and to allow different means for achieving policy objectives
  • When policy people want to make formal procedures work, they use informal practices anyway (without admitting it)
  • In order to study ambivalence, we need to do this from both perspectives – theory and practice insights – we need “ambivalence in research” (not just interdisciplinarity)

QUESTIONS

  • Do we reinforce dichotomization by using formal/informal dichotomy (and produce it where there is none)?

CRITICISMS

  • The distinction formal/informal is in itself ambivalent and can be used for different purposes and to serve different interests
  • There is a limit in using informal categories in different cultural contexts (blat is not štela, is not guanxi) – we should be very cautious.
  • In some cases in the Encyclopedia the ambivalence is exaggerated (e.g employment through party channels)

Complexity and pattern recognition

What are the implications of tackling complexity? Does articulating matters that are elusive (runaway scheming), substantively ambivalent (neither nor, or both), hidden (workings behind the facades of formal institutions), non-measurable, constitute paradoxes (legal corruption or legitimate crime, Sorites paradoxes), grey areas (neither legal, nor illegal) or blurred borderlines (both subversive and supportive, being both a problem and a solution, vague and necessarily unknowable) make a difference? Will articulation change the way things work? How does pattern recognition of complex datasets work? What are the key patterns you have identified in the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality?

From a session in the Brainstorming Workshop, 22 March 2018, UCL, London

In this group:

  • Prof Saadi Lahlou, Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, LSE
  • Irina Davydova, independent researcher
  • Dr Scott Newton, Reader, School of Law, SOAS, University of London
  • Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, Senior Lecturer, School of European Languages, Culture and Society, UCL
  • Dr Peter Zusi, Lecturer and Director of the FRINGE Centre, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL

“Informal practices may escape articulation in official discourse, but they capture the ‘know- how’ of what works in their vernacular representations” (Ledeneva, 2018: 1). The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality is amazingly rich and diverse; it spells out, for the first time in academia, the unwritten rules, “ways of getting things done” from five continents and 66 countries.

In this unprecedented endeavour, do patterns emerge out of the complexity of this diversity of human practices? Well, no and yes. Our group’s ambiguous response reflects the ambiguity inherent in informality (and it is consistent with what the Encyclopaedia’s authors write themselves). No, if we want to formally classify the diversity of situated practices per se; but yes, because that complexity can appear simple if we start from the other end, the formally stipulated rules.

Should ontological aspects of informality be distinguished from epistemological aspects? Scientists’ formal models and observed patterns always simplify phenomena. Moreover, formalization can be an attempt by society to simplify life; an attempt to introduce rule systems that manage the complexity of human life-in-the-world. Formalisation can be an attempt to control and regulate life in society. That is, societies provide simple if/then rules, sets of predicates that prescribe what one is supposed to do in a given situation. As a result, all of us, as natives of a given society, even as children, become lawyers, that is, in Scott Newton’s expression, “expert manipulators of rule systems and exploiters of ambiguity”.

These if/then are, to take Hodgson’s definition of institutions “systems of established and prevalent social rules that structure social interactions” (Hodgson, 2006). We must note here that in fact most if not all of the informal practices described in the Encyclopaedia are indeed rules, even if non official. They are, to take now Hamilton’s definition of institutions: “a way of thought or action of some prevalence and permanence, which is embedded in the habits of a group or the customs of a people. (…) our culture is a synthesis or at least an aggregation of institutions, each of which has its own domain and its distinctive office. The function of each is to set a pattern of behaviour and to fix a zone of tolerance for an activity or a complement of activities.” (Hamilton, 1932)

If we now look more closely at what is a formal rule, we see in what sense “informality” can depart from the official rule. A rule has a domain of application, (when, where, to whom it applies), a content (what, in the letter and in the principle), and a community of reference (which community enforces it as an institution). All these components are conventions. Therefore they are a matter of interpretation. Informal rules are the ones that contrast with the “official” rule (of law) in one or several of the aspects above (domain, content, community of reference). They are nevertheless institutions, informally known in their community of reference. The Encyclopaedia collates those non-official rules which still have reached the level of being institutions.

However, as pointed out by the followers of Wittgenstein, “a form of a human activity can never be summed up in a set of explicit precepts” (Winch 1958). Rules, even when formal, are context-bound and, furthermore, limited in their reach in the sense that application of a rule cannot be exhaustively formalised. Rules have to be applied in practice, and although we may formulate another, higher-order, set of rules prescribing how the first set is to be applied, this only pushes the problem further down the road. Even in formal logic “the actual process of drawing an inference is something that cannot be represented as a logical formula. (…) Learning to infer is not just a matter of being taught about explicit logical relations between propositions; it is learning how to do something. (Winch, 1958).

Here we see two issues:

1) The limitation of formalism per se (any rule will have fuzzy boundaries because formalization has its limitations). Therefore, what is the standing rule and what counts as its application is subject to interpretation.

2) The fact that rules and their application are products of power struggles, historical path-dependency, and politics. This impacts on which rules are enshrined in law, who can choose what rule (e.g. official or informal) to apply, and with what degree of leeway in interpretation.

So what?

a) Not everything can be formalized. The border of informality will recess indefinitely beyond our efforts to extend formal regulation.

b) Behind conventions are power struggles, historical and political issues: the choice of applying the rule is only in theory a logical, systematic and universal calculation of predicates; it is in practice a complex choice that involves the leeway a given individual has within the system in a particular situation, given her own agency to interpret the rule.

c) Informal practices are often another, unofficial, set of rules.

To conclude, as the domain, the context and the community of reference of rules are a matter of local interpretation, subject to the above local particulars, the problem of choice between rules in a given situation (formal or informal, core or borderline interpretation) will always remain a complex matter. The matter is further complicated as the justification system behind the choice may refer to diverse, often contradictory, systems of values (e.g. equality vs care; efficiency vs inspiration; etc., see (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006)).

The Encyclopaedia of Informality is an impressive endeavour to inventory worldwide informal practices in the process of institutionalisation. Few projects have had such ambition, perhaps G.P. Murdock’s Human relations Area Files (http://hraf.yale.edu/). While the limits of informality will forever recess, as a compendium the Encyclopaedia is an invaluable resource to understand better the efforts of humans to make society.

References:

Boltanski, L., & Thévenot, L. (2006). On justification : Economies of Worth (1st ed French 1991). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Hamilton, W. H. (1932). Institution. In E. R. A. Seligman & A. Johnson (Eds.), Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 8 (pp. 84–89). New York: Macmillan.

Hodgson, G. M. (2006). What Are Institutions? Journal of Economic Issues (Association for Evolutionary Economics), 40(1), 1–25.

Ledeneva, A. (2018). The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality Understanding Social and Cultural Complexity; Volume 1. Lond: UCL Press. http://doi.org/he Global Encyclopaedia of Informality Understanding Social and Cultural Complexity.

Winch, P. (1958). The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. New York: Humanities Press.

Superseding dichotomies

Anthropological and sociological theories are often based on purpose-made dichotomies. Chris Jenks’ Core Sociological Dichotomies critically assesses the principal types. Christian Giordano, in his recent article, argues that for the past 150 years dichotomies have been a fundamental aspect of sociological and anthropological thought. He illustrates how dichotomies, aside from the risk of essentializing, i.e. of creating static constructs of reality, are useful if not indispensable for a social analysis and for the creation of theoretical conceptions in social and cultural sciences. Do they help or impede our grasp of grey areas and blurred boundaries?

From a session in the Brainstorming Workshop, 22 March 2018, UCL, London

In this group:

  • Dr Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow, Institute for Statecraft, London, Honorary Research Fellow, Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter
  • Prof Tony Fang, Stockholm Business School
  • Yuri Tsarik, Head of Supervisory Board, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies
  • Dr Abel Polese, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, Dublin City University
  • Prof Christian Giordano, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Fribourg

The definition of dichotomy was “Two terms with opposite meanings”.

I love this encyclopaedia. We discussed four examples of how this encyclopaedia helps:

1. Language is how we construct our realities. Having a more sophisticated understanding of all these words that expose in detail the unspoken rules of how we engage with each other is revelatory, and it materially deepens our ability to understand difficult policy issues.

2. It enables new way of thinking about the language of policy-making that is more sophisticated than choices between opposites. This encyclopaedia starts to show us how the space between the two ‘opposites’ is filled with many words that have ambivalent meanings, or are deliberately unclear, or have multiple meanings depending on the context. Example Chinese mandarin language, which has no word for dichotomy. Example: Chinese has words for East and West but does not suggest them as opposites. The language reality is saying that opposites always co-exist.

3. This work will change some of the core concepts of governance. Such an example is of the dichotomy between the ‘Good governance model’ of economic development and the economic growth model (laissez faire approach; corruption s implicitly OK) of economic development. Research now saying that some countries have developed as an intricate, co-existing mixture of the two, not as one or the other (See Yuen Yuen Ang, 2017). Some of the space in between is filled by informal language. Another example is between corruption in aid giving: 'results or receipts' Charles Kenny 2017) and the informal words that donors use to mask what is inevitable but cannot be said: The development agencies have developed phrases that represent tolerance of corruption whilst seeming to mean the opposite. Legitimising discussion of what is really happening (it’s not bad, just inevitable and politically difficult to admit to) by being open about what these phases really mean is a big deal.

4. Deepen understanding of what constitutes corrupt relationships. The analysis of corruption is much more than what is legal or illegal; and this encyclopaedia helps move is forward. Not just on informal words and euphemisms for corruption. One of the toughest question in corruption and good governance work/research is the question of relationships. People in each society have a very sophisticated understanding of which sorts of relations which are corrupt, and which are not. This is an area which has been filled up with informal words to express the complexity of these relationships. This research deepens the understanding how the norms of acceptable corruption are expressed and communicated. It may also allow us to track how the meanings of these words change – or are manipulated - as part of active efforts to change the norm.

Cyber-informality

What are the implications of practices involving the digital, cyber, virtual? Technologies like the internet and cryptocurrencies have been imagined, designed, and used as explicitly open-access spaces that obliterate distinctions between formal and informal to facilitate horizontal relations, while they have also been experienced as profoundly dystopic in their potential to make the private public and unsettle identities. What kinds of boundary-crossing and boundary-creation, freedom and restraint, crime and commerce, do cyber-technologies enable?

From a session in the Brainstorming Workshop, 22 March 2018, UCL, London

In this group:

First, we asked either information communication technologies (ICTs) allow to replicate traditional informal practices relying on new digital tools or we can actually see that ICTs contribute to innovation on the field of informal practices and give a rise to new practices. We divided our discussion between focus on the emergence of new actors that rely on ICTs in order to perform informal practices, and on the traditional actors that use ICTs.

One of the examples of the new actors that was discussed in our group is self-appointed armchair auditors, that perform various tasks with collection and analysis of publicly available information in front of their personal computer and without leaving their home. One of the fields where these practices can be seen is a struggle against corruption. We can also see how people monitor elections from home and analyse information about conflicts (so called "divannye voyska" in Russian). However, here, there are few critical questions that can be raised in regard to the role of these actors:

  • Are these groups really significant or these are just marginal actors?
  • What kind of access to information do they have?
  • What is their skill set and if they can be trusted?
  • What are their motivations and if the can be considered as unbiased/ independent observers?

On the other hand, if we examine the traditional actors, we may see how new technological opportunities are used in way that is opposed from what we expect. For instance, the assumption around open data, is that this data may lead to a number of practices that increase transparency and accountability. However, what we can see is how open data and big data is used for manipulation of public opinion. That is possible since there is data overload and lack of transparency around data management, that makes it very difficult to analyse this data and at the same time opens new spaces for manipulations and construction of fake transparency. Eventually, what we may see, is emergence of virtual "Poteyomkin villages".

The discussion of traditional and new actors in a context of informality, highlight the ambivalence of ICTs. For instance, on the one hand, thanks to digital technologies we have more data available. On the other hand, digital technologies contribute to capacity to fake data. As a consequence, people trust information less, and that, in its turn, diminishes the positive potential of increase in openness and availability of data.

Another goof example for ambivalent role of digital platforms is blockchain technology, which also gives a rise to an increasing number of informal practices. On the one hand, blockchain increases the transparency around financial transactions. On the other hand, it allows anonymous transactions, which can be used for fraud or illegal activities. At the same time, smart contract technologies that rely on blockchain offer boundless opportunities for formalisation of informality. Any informal practice can be "written" as a smart contract. We can also discuss informal practices as some sort of algorithms that formalise informal process. In that context, we may potentially discuss "algorithms of informality".

Interestingly, any app or platform can be approached as institutionalisation of informal relationships. For instance, all the sector of "sharing economy" relies on facilitation of informal horizontal relationships relying on mediation of digital tools. Any specific app, e.g. Uber, can be conceptualised as a tool for mediation of informality, when informal algorithms of horizontal relationships are embedded within a structure of the app. We can also see a lot of efforts to develop tools for facilitation of mutual aid, that can be also conceptualised as digital institutionalisation of informal practices.

In that light, we may argue, that any new technology can be associated with emergence of new informal practices. For instance, further research should focus on the role of algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence. One may ask if artificial intelligence can manifest informal practices (same questions can be also asked about robots). Finally, we highlighted that there is a need in development of theoretical concepts that allow to conceptualise the association between digital innovation and informal practices. For instance, one of the concepts that can be useful is the notion of affordances. In that light, we may ask what are the informal practices that are afforded by digital platforms.

Informal governance

Systems of network-based governance become entrenched because they are effective at “getting things done”. Patterns of informal governance are useful to identify because they promote elite cohesion, nurture bases of support, weaken opponents, and provide access to services, resources, contracts and rent seeking opportunities. Informal governance works through both incentives (carrots) and disincentives (sticks) that are not exclusively top-down or bottom-up. Practices of co-optation, co-dependence and informal control are often diffuse. They may be exercised through provision of access to material resources (privileges, allowances or loans) or to more symbolic resources (such as access to decision-makers). Can we learn from effectiveness of informal governance?

From a session in the Brainstorming Workshop, 22 March 2018, UCL, London

In this group:

  • Dr Stanislav Shekshnia, Senior Affiliate Professor, INSEAD
  • Dr Lucy Koechlin, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Basel
  • Dr Regina Smyth, Associate professor, Department of Political Science, Univeristy of Indiana
  • Dr Vesna Popovski, Visiting Lecturer, Department of Government, LSE
  • Dr Anna Bailey, SSEES alumna
  • Prof Geoffrey Hosking, Emeritus Professor of Russian History, SSEES, UCL

Informal governance is almost as broad as informality itself, the participants brought up very different aspects of informality during the discussion

Challenges of studying informality:

  • Is informality a useful concept in itself, or is it too broad?
  • It cuts across disciplinary boundaries – therefore can be hard to get funding for projects, or to get articles published in journals, because the research doesn’t fit neatly in a disciplinary box.
  • However, this also offers opportunities – research into informality can connect disciplines and scholars from different areas of study

What the Encyclopaedia offers for academics:

  • An amazing resource for all different kinds of informality – can find parallels to one’s own area of study that one wouldn’t otherwise have encountered, e.g. in a different geographical region or approached through the lens of a different discipline.
  • Gathers together different theoretical approaches, methodologies and research methods that can inform one’s own research.
  • Establishes informality as a serious and topical area of study.
  • Facilitates networking.

What the Encyclopaedia offers for policymakers:

  • Shows what is possible in policymaking terms, but also shows the limits of policymaking. E.g. attempts to formalise the informal can often results in inefficient outcomes and have perverse / unintended consequences.
  • Shows that policy cannot be straightforwardly dictated from above.
  • Suggests alternative ways of doing things.
  • Shows alternatives to state provision.

What the Encyclopaedia offers for businesses:

  • Understanding of cultural practices affecting business in different countries. Avoid potential misunderstandings or causing offence due to different ways of doing things/different cultural roles.
  • Helps companies expanding into other countries anticipate potential problems/ethical dilemmas. Can then work out strategies for how to deal with them. This is a better way of dealing with issues of corruption than ignoring them and leaving the people on the ground to decide for themselves what to do.

What the Encyclopaedia offers for society:

  • Break down prejudices by facilitating understanding of practices from other cultures.
  • Suggests ways to empower communities through mutual cooperation.

Ideas where the Global Informality Project should go next:

  • Consider the ethical dilemmas raised by some informal practices.
  • Gather practices based on types of identity other than ethnicity/nationality, e.g. gender, sexuality.
  • Tackle the ‘meta issues’ of how we define formality/informality. Does one precede the other? How does the informal become formal and vice versa? Develop a typology to classify different types of informality based on their key characteristics (AL has already attempted this in structuring the entries for the print volumes, can develop this or offer critiques).
  • Gather material on informal practices that do not have a name. (If practices are named, does that indicate they are already moving towards formality?)
  • Make the existing entries more accessible to non-academics by shortening and using plain English/non-academic terminology.

Area studies without borders

How can we making connections with other conventionally-defined areas in the interest of crosschecking relevance and/or bridging disconnected discussions. For example, how does the unification of Germany compare with unification of Korea? Economies of favours are often associated with post-communist and post-socialist contexts, how do we compare their workings with those in other places?

Migration of informal practices

What kinds of movements are informal practices involved in? How do they transform in diasporas, do diasporas transform their contexts of arrival and departure? What are the implications of international and transnational institutions and their formalizing as well as informalizing practices?

From a session in the Brainstorming Workshop, 22 March 2018, UCL, London

In this group:

  • Dr Hans Pruijt, Assistant professor, Sociology Department, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
  • Dr Marissa Smith, Postdoctoral Visiting fellow, Department of Anthropology, UCL
  • Dr Ruth Mandel, Vice-Dean (International), Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, UCL

H.P. began by speaking about his work on “squatters” (a translation approved of by H.P.) in the Netherlands. He spoke of how the movement had moved with practitioners to the US, particularly New York City, where they “started doing it” and “interested fellow students.” R.M., familiar with NYC, asked for more information as to where/when, and M.S. asked for some clarification as to “how political” the action had been. H.P. also discussed a squatting movement created in the 1970s in New York’s Upper West side by immigrants from Puerto Rico. He found out about this because of the research performed by Sister Ann Brotherton for the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). JTS was interested in this because it happened in their neighbourhood, and allowed H.P. to examine the data and materials that Brotherton collected. When M.S. commented that it seemed not so explicitly “evangelical,” H.P. emphasized that the practice is about “identity,” and discussed his own participation in the “Euro-squatting network.” R.M. asked how people organize, stay in touch, and H.P. noted several websites. H.P. also noted the concept of “flexible institutionalization” he had developed to describe how though state institutions had regulated and begun implementing the practice, the “activists” mobilized and retained control.

M.S. shared that what brought her to the group was an interest in how “ideas” or “concepts” as well as people move, and described a current research project on how Western and Mongolian consultants and analysts often use the same terms but mean different things, and how their different results can even cohabit the same reports and consulting work. M.S. also highlighted the issue of the anthropologist being hailed as a consultant or analyst and brought into these projects as well, on “both sides.”

R.M. emphasized issues of “ethical quandaries” and our “ability to harm the people we work with,” our position in defining formal vs. informal, legal vs. illegal. She drew attention to our positions vis-à-vis “what the state deems legal and our complicity,” and what constitute “formal violations.” As R.M. was concerned with how discussing her current research figures in this way, I will leave out particulars in that vein. M.S. had been doing some related work and expressed that she was surprised how ready the state and courts were to figure her as an “expert,” especially related to the knowledge practices of first-hand encounters of participant observation that other social scientists often discount. H.P. argued that if we do not participate in defining these practices, others will. At this point in the discussion we agreed on three points to present to the rest of the participants. First, the relationship between people moving their practices (“activism,” “evangelizing”) and people moving with their practices (“identity,” “flexible institutionalization”) is one of ambivalence. Second, though concepts and practices may not “translate,” their cohabitation is influenced by, and influences, contexts they move from and in. Third, the Encyclopaedia did not give much space to considering ethical and methodological issues that might be summed up as “the analyst of informal practices also moves with their informal practices.”

Cross-disciplinary analysis

What possible links and additional angles and discourses could make research relevant for other disciplines? What are the methodological approaches that we use to study informal practices, what are the methodological approaches we are using when they appear? How do these practices look through the lenses of various disciplines?

A blog by Graham Scambler, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, UCL, Visiting Professor of Sociology, Surrey University, 29 March 2018

The other day I attended the launch of a two-volume ‘Encyclopaedia of Informality’ edited by Alena Ledeneva, an impressive and valued former colleague at UCL for whom I have a lot of time. I had hoped to get there early enough to participate in one or another small-group workshop session on selected topics, but I couldn’t make it. But I did catch the general discussion and a word with Alena, and I undertook to pitch in with a blog. It is, I must add, the blog of an ‘outsider’. Moreover, I have opted not to consult the Encyclopaedia – which I purchased for £50 on the spur of the moment – because rightly or wrongly I thought it best to write something off the top of my head.

‘Informality’ oils wheels; and it does so by time, place and institution. As Alena noted in passing, the later Wittgenstein is relevant here, ‘meaning by use by language game’, as is, I would suggest, the theory of those influenced by him, like Garfinkel. Informality is a phenomenon worthy of, and justifying, examination in its own right, that much I buy. If I might borrow (reluctantly, and not without embarrassment, even pain) from the terminology of variable analysis though, I’d be tempted to insist that informality is more often an intervening than an independent variable.

When I was on the tube heading for UCL’s Wilkins Building I had two thoughts. They were allied to specific concepts: Weber’s ‘social closure’ and CW Mills’ ‘tacit understanding’. Approaching informality through either of these lenses might show a return.

Weber most obviously deployed the notion of social closure in his study of the multidimensional phenomenon of social stratification (class, status, party/power); but he also alluded to its much wider relevance. Wherever the insider/outside dichotomy appears, so too do issues of inclusion/exclusion and ‘othering’. Social closure is as pertinent to postcode gangs, problem- or disease-specific internet groups, classroom cliques and so on as it is to deeper, broad-brush societal divisions. And the critical input of informal ‘rule-making’ and ‘rule breaking’ has long been home territory to symbolic and dramaturgical interactionism as well as to Wittgenstein-inspired ethnomethodology and phenomenological sociology (via Weber’s disciple Schutz). So there are prior sociological traditions that provide means as well as foci for considering informality: it is in and amongst the day-to-day minutiae and intimacies of the micro-relations of production and reproduction of the lifeworld that informality most tellingly bites. With reference to Habermas’ lifeworld/system distinction, it is in particular at the interface of lifeworld and system – and in the context of ongoing system rationalisation/colonisation - that informality can be pivotal.

Mills compares and contrasts his concept of ‘tacit understanding’ with that of ‘conspiracy’. While: (1) many a real conspiracy can be effective disguised by ideological rhetoric against ‘conspiracy theory and theorists’, and (2) elites are always ready to conspire if and when necessary, it is far more normal practice for the advantaged in general, and elites in particular, to get what they want via tacit understanding. In other words, they share an amalgam of types of capital or asset (material, psychological, social, cultural, status, spatial, maybe even biological) that give birth, naturally (no need for forceps or a C-section), to what Bourdieu calls a habitus. This is at the very core of Mills’ The Power Elite.

So what follows? In a nutshell, while informality certainly warrants investigation in its own right, and doubtless possesses properties intrinsic to it, it is also, and most frequently/saliently, an aspect of much else: to adopt critical realist terminology, it is fertile ground for (causal) ‘generative mechanisms’ in what is ineluctably a structured, but not structurally determined, ‘open system’. As far as this ‘much else’ is concerned, context is paramount. But, to repeat, informality has its own character and dimensions and I’m sure will yield productive ideal types and typologies (witness Alena’s own studies of ‘soft power’ in Russia).

As this scatter of remarks testifies, I am a novice in this field and have yet to dip into this Encyclopaedia. So I’m closing by tempting my arm and adding a few additional thoughts.

First, as was mentioned by more than one discussant at the launch, informality qua oiling of wheels/getting things done can service bad as well as good projects. Second, multiple sociological theories and studies are around to be mined as we move ahead (see above). Third, informality lends itself most readily to ethnographic case studies. Fourth, several foci for investigation are popping into my mind, I’m sure reflective of my own research interests. Here are a couple:

  • How is Mills’ ‘tacit understanding’ informally accomplished, reproduced and elaborated amongst those - I would say, class-driven – players in the tiny hard core of a capitalist executive which is now transnational, nomadic (Bauman) and, however strong the continuity of capitalist structures, more heterogeneous in nationality and background and given to individualism and opportunism (Davis)?
  • If, as I have contended, it is appropriate to suggest that stigma is increasingly being weaponised’, that is, ‘blame is being heaped on shame’ (leading ultimately to ‘abject’ subjects it is easier for states to subdue and neglect), then how does informality play into this dynamic and, at the sharp end, how is abjection ‘acted out’ in the lifeworld?

I’m getting into the swing of this and could go on and on, like many an academic; but my sympathies for readers of blogs requires me to call a halt around now. I close with my congratulations once more to UCL’s Alena Ledeneva and her colleagues. Alena’s own work on informality and the Foucault-like diffusion of power in Russia signals a paradigm. I will now turn belatedly to items in the Encyclopaedia.

Curious incidents in the dataset (what does not fit?)

Looking at the clusters in the table of the contents, which entries are the odd ones out? What are the implications of these cases?