About informality

What is informality? It is an umbrella term for the social and cultural complexity that comes on the way of top-down policies and reforms.

Through our comparative and ethnographic investigations, the project explores the existence of informal governance regimes, anchored on the resilience of informal practices, multiple moralities, legitimacy of the informal ways of getting things done and institutional arrangements that enable them.

Why is it so difficult to work with informality?

Informal practices are not only omnipresent and amorphous. They are often invisible, resist articulation and measurement, and hide behind paradoxes, unwritten rules and open secrets. The insiders are not too keen to articulate, while the outsiders might not even realise what’s at play.

Informal practices are context-bound and complex, but the greatest challenge for researchers is their ambivalence. Like a quantum particle, we find them in two modalities at once: informal practices are one thing for participants and another for observers. For example, patron-client relations can be seen as a means of levelling the playing field and giving an underdog a chance (see kula in Tanzania). On the other hand, the same practices can be easily bound up with chains of illicit exchanges for votes and other resources (see agashka and rushyldyq in Kazakhstan). The moral complexities surrounding connections and recommendations in Kazakhstan embrace the reliance on formal hierarchies, as well as family, friendship, solidarity and reciprocity. At the same time they are denounced as illegality, associated with slyness, and slighted as a poor man’s survival strategies.

Top-down vs. bottom-up perspectives

The open secret about informality is the gap between colonial, ideological or global official discourses (top-down) and the ways in which things are done or viewed in practice (bottom-up). Exploring that gap between the declared principles (say, the principles of accountability, equality, fairness, zero tolerance) and the pragmatic shifts the emphasis to the ways this gap is bridged in specific domains (see practices of camouflage such as Potemkin villages).

Highlighting grey zones and blurred boundaries between top-down and bottom-up perspectives points to the key challenges for both researchers and policy-makers. Commonplaces and micro-practices can sometimes reveal profound features of societies that elude us when tackled directly. Stigmatisation of informality is counterproductive in policy - integrating complexity into policy will work.

Learn more about informality through the short video below –  then read more about the informal view of the world here

What is informality and why does it matter?

Downloads and links

For more on the world’s open secrets, unwritten rules and hidden practices from around the world, please browse the database compiled by the Global Informality Project. You can also download The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality: a major multi-disciplinary research project documenting hundreds of examples of informal practices from across the world.