Main Findings

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Finding 1
Photograph of another man with goods in a Baraholka.jpeg

Informality is fringy but central The evidence assembled in the project shows that informality matters in the workings of modern societies. We emphasise the key importance (if not predominance) of informality in the world, its variety and complexity, as well as the possibility to identify key patterns used in informal interactions. We have created the first world map of informality, where the entries are shown in their local habitat and identified in their language of origin. In the encyclopaedia, however, they are clustered with similar practices from all over the world, and thus are explained in both local and global contexts.

Finding 2
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Informality is universal but can be invisible Poverty and development correlate with the scale of informality, and certainly make informal practices more visible. The more developed societies are, the less visible (and hidden behind the facades of formal institutions) are their informal norms. It is not that informality does not exist in developed societies, rather that the norms developing in these societies have pushed it out of sight. Such invisibility stems partially from legal norms – informal practices tend to go either under or above the radar of the law – and partially from practical norms – the banality of informality that enables people to engage in behaviour that they do not necessarily find acceptable.

Finding 3
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Informality works but it is elusive It is common for people living under the pressure of systemic corruption to point out the effectiveness of peer pressure, solidarities and informal shortcuts, both to legitimise the informal ways of getting things done and to euphemise the terms. For the outsiders, their behaviour is an exercise in double standards: they criticise corruption, but also engage in corrupt practices routinely. This is the ambivalence that Giorgio Blundo and Jean-Paul Olivier de Sardan have termed ‘an incessant alternation between condemnation and tolerance’ while researching the ‘semantic fields of corruption’.

Finding 4
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Informal practices are ambivalent but not necessarily hybrid Forms of ambivalence include: substantive, normative, functional and motivational. For example, if a gift is seen as a bribe, it does not necessarily become a hybrid entity (a ‘brift,’ if we use Abel Polese’s term), but it remains ambivalent: a gift for one and a bribe for another, enabled by the tension it produces. The ambivalent nature of informal practices makes the borders between relationships and the use of relationships, between need and greed, between us and them, between public and private easy to cross. In this collection, the ambivalent nature of informal practices becomes articulated in each entry, but also emerges from the clusters of entries that highlight the tensions outlined above.

Finding 5
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Constraints are disabling but also enabling The variety and complexity of informal practices around the world illustrate not only the creativeness (or non-conformism) of human beings, but also the enabling power of constraints. In other words, just as informal practices can be viewed as both a problem and a solution, constraints can be seen as both a restriction and a resource. The multiple examples of cross-border activities and non- conformist behaviour included in this encyclopaedia substantiate this point. The perspectives on informality that focus on the subversive impact it has on formal institutions and political or economic regimes often lead to predictions of the dissipation of informality and the rise of effective formal institutions.

Finding 6
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Informality is context-bound, but the contexts are not necessarily country- or culture-specific The literature on informality is grounded in geographical, socio-cultural and political-economic areas, with its most recent peak in post-socialist societies. As the concluding remarks to the second volume show, the question of whether some countries are more informal than others is not as simple as it seems. A cross-discipline analysis and a ‘network’ perspective are essential to answer it. We took the case of Russia to illustrate this point. (Read more)

Finding 7
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The dichotomies present both a problem and a solution for categorisation ‘Neither–nor’ or ‘both–and’ patterns of ambivalence dwell on dichotomies but also aim at circumventing them. For example, normative ambivalence, associated with the double standards embedded in identities, solidarities and the fundamental divide into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ makes it possible to turn constraints into opportunities. In his concluding remarks to the first volume, Zygmunt Bauman identifies the implications of the organising forces of modernity and argues that the divisive nature of dichotomies must give way to a cosmopolitan mindset in order to confront tendencies toward radicalisation and fragmentation, driven by divisive identity politics and religious beliefs. It is the potential of ambivalence that can be integrated into such policy thinking.

Finding 8
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Visualising the invisible has proved very difficult How does one visualise something that is supposed to go unseen, unnoticed and undetectable? Most practices in this Encyclopaedia are hidden from the public eye, shared as an open secret and left unarticulated or unacknowledged in official discourse. And yet this volume contains pictures. Even if a photograph can hardly portray a practice or convey the ‘practical sense’ or ‘feel for the game’ associated with informal practices, it nevertheless depicts a particular context and negotiates the boundary between what can be made visible and what will remain as imagined, inferred or implied. As with the punch-line in a joke, some things are articulated while others are left to the imagination; it is perhaps no accident that a few images come from satirical sources. The kaleidoscope of images assembled in the volume depicts at least some of the daily circumstances in which such practices occur and illustrates the often mundane nature of their context.

Finding 9
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Stigmatisation of informality is counterproductive in policy - integrating complexity into policy will work Our counterintuitive implications for policy challenge the widely held assumptions about informality.


Click to be redirected to a video explaining the policy implications of our findings