The informal view of the world

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By Alena Ledeneva

Defining informality

Informality, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, is a term that has history rather than a definition. Given the cross-discipline and cross-area nature of the Global Informality Project, it would probably be difficult to agree on a definition of informality acceptable to all. Therefore, we use the word as an umbrella term for a variety of social and cultural phenomena that are too complex to be grasped in a single definition. In broad terms, we refer to the world’s open secrets, unwritten rules and hidden practices assembled in this project as ‘ways of getting things done.’ Informal practices may escape articulation in official discourse, but they capture the ‘know-how’ of what works and their vernacular representations.

Intuitively, there are several connotations of informality. It can mean relationships that are not formalised or that take place outside formal contexts; it can mean relaxed or casual manners in the absence of protocol; it can also stand for natural, or local, ways of getting things done that precede formalisation or resist articulation in dominant discourses. In the academic literature, ‘informality’ can be associated with pre-modern societies or local knowledge, but most commonly the term is used to describe practices that emerge unofficially (such as illegal settlements) or underground, constitute grey areas and form a variety of shadow, second or covert economies. Pioneered by Keith Hart[1], the typology of informal activities in Africa has reframed informality as a sector in urban labour markets. As Colin Marx explains in his introduction to Part Three, a 1972 International Labour Organisation report opened half a century of debates on the informal sector and set a number of tendencies in motion. Conceptualisation of self- and multiple- employment and casual labour in so-called ‘Third World’ cities opened up ‘informality’ for measurement and aid, and so ‘informal economy studies’ were born. Studies of the informal sector in the ‘Third World’ have created interest in the informal sector in ‘First World’ countries such as Britain: cheats at work, dock pilferage, fiddling and other forms of part-time crime and occupational deviance[2][3][4]. The concept of the informal sector has also been explored in the context of the ‘Second World’: second economy in Soviet Georgia[5], varying degrees of legality of ‘coloured markets’ in the Soviet Union[6], the ‘informal sector’ in Eastern Europe[7]. These and many more were included in an impressive bibliography on the ‘second economy’ of the USSR and Eastern Europe[8]. Since then, the view of the informal sector in developing countries has evolved. On the basis of recent evidence––economic, sociological and anthropological––from Latin American countries, one can see it as unregulated micro-entrepreneurial sector and not as a disadvantaged residual of the formal sector[9].

In the 1990s, the informal economy became a theme of transition and reform of transitioning societies. Subversive but also supportive roles of informal practices in post- Communist transformations are well documented. Informality became associated with practices that not only co-exist but also penetrate, divert and exploit formal institutions, conceptualised as types of interaction between formal and informal institutions in economics[10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23] and political science[24][25].

More recently, the claim of the unregulated nature of the informal sector has been contested by scholars of urban informality[26][27][28]. They emphasise the complexity of the formal/informal interaction, the role of the state in creating constraints that shape informal activities, and the grey zones associated with property formalisation, gender and the connivance of states in reproducing informality[29][30]. The notion of ‘grey zones’ becomes increasingly influential within post-colonial and post-socialist studies, and is associated with in- betweenness, liminality, marginality and ambiguity[31][32][33]. For example, in the context of the disappearing dichotomy between Palestinian refugee camps and urban surroundings, Lorenzo Navone and Federico Rahola point to the emergence of the continuum, whereby camps and cities overlap with one another: ‘while the camps are incorporated into irregular urban growth, the cities are affected by the informality of the camps (see mukhayyam). Given the scale, visibility and materiality of urban informality, the field of urban development and planning is, perhaps, in the lead as regards ideas for policy[34][35].

In sociological literature, informality is conceptualised as the opposite of formality, following Erving Goffman’s conception of ‘role distance’ and frontstage/backstage dichotomy. In the frontstage, actors ought to perform according to their scripts; in the backstage, they can relax and use backstage language. Barbara Misztal distinguishes the main formal modes of interaction from the informal as ideal types depicted in Table 1, whereas a particular balance between formality and informality is contextual and defined by the three styles (realms) of social interaction: civility (encounters), sociability (exchange) and intimacy (pure relationship) as follows[36].

Table 1: Ideal types of (in)formality and their associations
Informality Formality
Face-to-face, intimate relationship Impersonal, transparent and explicit
Personal modes of social control Social distance and structures of power
Reliant on tacit knowledge Reliant on official and legal roles
Private Public
Communal Contractual

Historians are likely to view informality as preceding formality, whereby the process of the modernisation of societies is associated with formalisation and order, and with the development of formal institutions. Social and political theorists consider formal institutions as bodies determining the life of modern societies[37] and colonising the everyday worlds (life-worlds) of individuals[38].

In their 2012 volume, Thomas Christiansen and Christine Neuhold have assembled a global collection of work on informal governance, understood in the vein of Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky’s conception of informal institutions as ‘socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated and enforced outside officially sanctioned channels’[39]. They note that various authors attach the adjective ‘informal’ to politics, arrangements, networks, institutions, organisations, norms, rules, activity or influence[40]. Christiansen and Neuhold identify at least three separate usages of informality by the contributors. First, the designation of the framework within which decisions are taken as being informal (institutions, organisations, networks); second, the identification of the process or procedure through which policies are made as being informal (politics, arrangements, activity); and, third, the classification of the outcome of any such process as being informal (rules, norms, influence). The organisation of this global collection is by world region. In fact, most empirical research into informality is area- specific and reproduces the existing geographical divides: volumes on Central and Eastern Europe or Russia[41][42]; comparative studies of informal economies and social capital[43]; low/high trust societies[44] and low/high context cultures[45].

This volume follows a different logic. Rather than reaffirming area-studies divisions, we shift focus to local practices from all over the globe and bring them together. Finding similarities in differences and differences in similarities challenges our assumptions of the centrality of formal institutions for shaping informal practices and highlights the embeddedness of informal practices in grey zones and blurred boundaries, associated with a universally human capacity for doublethink, double standard, double deed and double incentive. The focus on understanding social and cultural complexity, rather than downplaying it for the purposes of comparison, brings many reductionist assumptions on informality into question: its residual status vis-à-vis formality and legal norms, its association with periphery rather than centre, underdevelopment, poverty and inequality. As many entries in this encyclopaedia emphasise, informality is central to local culture and community life in the form of giving and sharing which is not necessarily related to poverty and inequality. The Italian practice caffè sospeso eliminates the identity of the donor of a free cup, left for a local recipient, thus creating a long reciprocity cycle, whereby coffee falls down 'from the clouds,' not from the donor’s hands (see caffe sospeso).

One might strive to arrive at an orderly view of informality. But informality is disorderly in nature, and its practical role in resolving tensions between authorised and unauthorised, regulated and unregulated activities suggests multiple hypotheses to test. To collect data and to understand evidence, one has to embrace the idea of complexity. Consider, for example, the principle of equal representation of Tanzania's 120 ethnicities in the context of rotating government appointments – where the legal norm does not allow for a practical solution, informal ways of getting things done have to be found.

Formal constraints limit but also enable informal ways of circumventing them. For example, and economy of shortage generated an economy of favours, whereby blat represented an indispensable set of practices that enabled the Soviet system to function, made it tolerable, yet also subverted it. Blat was intrinsically ambivalent: it both served the regime and the people, while simultaneously undermining the regime and corrupting the people. According to this ambivalent logic, formal constraints are crucial for the workings of informality. But the reverse is also true. The formal order is enacted and exercised on the basis of meta-rules of applying formal rules, the non-codified ‘know-how’ of how to follow, implement, enforce or bend a rule. Thus, formal institutions would not work without informal relationships supporting them and making things happen by the book or by the declared principles. This is not to say that formality is a myth, or the largest case of camouflage, but to suggest that formality can only be enacted in practice in conjunction with informality, both played as appropriate in a given context, seeming opposite but interconnected and interdependent. Like yin and yang in the natural world, the ways of getting things done in practice are shaped by both formal and informal constraints. Informality is central for maintaining order. Jan Kubik and Scott Radnitz in their conceptual entries point out that informality is not only a ‘weapon of the weak’ but is also central to the workings of political and economic systems by creating incentives to conform and comply with the existing rules (see Chapters 4 and 5). Informal ties are precious and conducive to fluidity and resistance. Formalising everything is a mistaken antidote. In other words, formality does not always play the hand of those it is meant to defend or represent, whereas informality is not always subversive. One can thus think of blat as a factor of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also as a factor of supporting the Soviet experiment that would not have lasted so long without the back-up of blat and tolkachi. Our purpose here is to question the relevance of this dichotomy, and of our assumptions, on both formality and informality, from the bottom-up perspective. So we will present our dataset and let the reader conclude on the role and place of informality in contemporary societies.

Finding patterns in the amorphous

Creating a catalogue of informal practices around the globe raised the question of how to organise this fascinating material. In the preface to The Order of Things, Michel Foucault[46] wrote:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, [that] quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off ‘look like flies'.

Organising material turned out to be no laughing matter in this project. Assembled on the basis of an open-call, bottom-up approach, the dataset of entries was originally planned to be organised alphabetically. But once a critical mass of entries had arrived, it became possible to cluster them and identify some underlying patterns. Some clusters emerged from similarities – a lot can be learnt from the comparative analysis of similar practices that have different names in different cultures, such as blat, guanxi, jeitinho, sociolismo, compadrazgo, pituto, štela, vrzki and vruzki standing in for exchanges of favours in Chapter 1, or a variety of terms for facilitating gifts or payments in Chapter 2. This material may come across as repetitive, but the repetition is essential to preserve the encyclopaedic style, whereas each entry is independent from another.

What does repetition reveal and conceal? It highlights similarities and points out common patterns of human interaction, regardless of geographical or historical specifics. In an open call, authors were invited to suggest references to analogous practices elsewhere, and editors were keen to introduce cross-references where possible. Highlighting similarities, however, may also serve as faux amis in analysis, especially where the hybrid expertise required for highlighting differences is missing. The comparative assessment of differences implies fluency in multiple contexts and a certain degree of marginality to relate to the compared cases without bias. It may be that similar exchanges of favours operate differently in different contexts: some practices seem to be grounded more in sociability and openness in the use of personal contacts, others – in belonging to a closed network, brokerage or instrumental exchange. Thus, similar entries might be found in the cluster of economies of favours, but also in the cluster of practices of solidarity or gaming the system (Chapters 1, 3 and 6).

Some patterns seem more universal than others, say, strategies of survival related to basic needs such as dwelling or welfare (Chapter 5), more so than strategies of gaming the system (Chapter 6). Other practices seem more associated with particular historical periods or specific contexts (Chapters 4, 7 and 8).

As editors, we have clustered practices by asking ‘What is this practice a case of?’ and run student workshops to determine the order of entries within each cluster. This way of ordering, and re-ordering every time a new entry arrived, has taken time. There are remarkable differences within the clusters, but clustering similar cases from different contexts has allowed us to capture the blurring of boundaries between sociability and instrumentality, inclusion and exclusion, us and them, dependence and autonomy, cultural customs and market rationality, materiality and immateriality, private and public.

The main achievement of this project – apart from its unique collection of ethnographies of informal ways of getting things done – is to highlight the centrality of ambivalence for understanding social and cultural complexity and for the future policy agenda. We did not specifically ask researchers to reflect on the ambivalence of informal practices and yet, almost without exception, they pointed out its importance.

Handling the ambivalence of informality

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. They 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). On the other hand, the same practices can be easily bound up with chains of illicit exchanges for votes and other resources (see raccomandazione). The moral complexities surrounding connections and recommendations in Italy embrace the reliance on family, friendship, solidarity and reciprocity. At the same time they are denounced as illegality, associated with slyness, and slighted as a poor man’s making do (l’arte dell’arrangiarsi).

Informality is grounded in the human ability to justify subverting constraints. Such subversion, however, may also support those constraints, just as an exception supports the rule. Multiple survival strategies in Chapter 5 indicate that informal practices providing access to housing, income or welfare present both a problem and a solution – they enable individuals to game the system but also allow the system to exploit individuals. The system justifies certain practices by legalising them. For example, the Russian state has formalised the principle of joint accountability (krugovaya poruka) for governing remote communities, collecting taxes and army conscription. In the UK, practices of ‘old corruption’were parasitical but entirely legal. ‘Old corruption’ entailed the appointment of an aristocrat, his relative or a political ally to an official position with an income manifestly in excess of what a non-aristocratic holder of the position would earn. Such legalised privileges reproduce certain patterns of inclusion and exclusion in societies, seen as legal but not necessarily legitimate. The impossibility of clear categorisation results in a fluid navigation of double standards, whereby people seamlessly allow themselves what they deny to others.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs and behaviour. The incompatibility derives from a certain status and the constraints that social structures generate for the holder of that status[47]. Merton’s analysis of sociological ambivalence stems from Pitirim Sorokin’s statement that actual social relations are predominantly of one type or another, rather than comprising pure types, and he points out that ‘it is precisely the matter of not confining our attention to the dominant attributes of a role or social relation that directs us to the function and structure of sociological ambivalence’[48]. It differs from the psychological term Ambivalenz, coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and defined as ‘the co-existence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (such as love and hate) towards a person or thing’ in Oxford English Dictionary[49].

The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relationship. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours: ‘of detachment and compassion, of discipline and permissiveness, of personal and impersonal treatment’[50]. Merton provides examples of professions, such as doctors, managers and academics, characterised by the oscillating occurrence of compassion, permissiveness and preferential treatment on the one hand, and of detachment, discipline and impersonal treatment on the other. Merton’s principles of ambivalence, operationalised as clashing attitudes or oscillating behaviours, are in my view essential to the understanding of informal patterns in a more general way.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defines ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category and views it as a language-specific disorder. The main symptom of disorder is the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions[51]. Bauman lists ambivalence among ‘the tropes of the “other” of order: ambiguity, uncertainty, unpredictability, illogicality, irrationality, ambivalence, brought about by modernity with its desire to organise and to design’[52]. It is a social counterpart of emotional ambivalence in psychology (love–hate) or materials with ambivalent qualities in physics (semiconductors). In other words, it is a situation of coexisting thesis and antithesis, without certainty of their synthesis, yet without uncertainty as to what coexisting categories, attitudes and beliefs are.

Informal practices collected here represent both fluidity and resistance. If defined by what it is not, informality is opposed to the rigidity of formal constraints and the possibility of instantaneous top-down change. Such ambivalence is essential for the workings of informal practices and is enacted in doublethink (sociability vs instrumentality), double standards (us vs them), double deed (supportive vs subversive), and double purpose (publicly declared vs self-serving). The ambivalence is best understood through the paradoxes it produces, and illustrated by such examples as the role of hackers in advancing cyber-security, or the contribution of non-conformity to innovation.

Types of ambivalence and the structure of this book

The collection of entries is organised in two volumes, four parts and eight chapters.

Part One explores the substantive ambivalence and interplay between sociable and instrumental in relationships – the ‘instrumentality of sociability’ and the ‘sociability of instrumentality.’ The relationships tend to be seen as social (or based on sociability) by participants but as instrumental (or based on interest) by observers. The substantive ambivalence of informal exchanges – where one cannot agree or disagree with either participants or observers – means that a single categorisation of the way in which gifts, favours, transfers and transactions are given, taken or exchanged is impossible.

Figure 1: Substantive ambivalence

The difficulties of categorisation or tensions of substantive ambivalence are discussed in more detail in the preface to Part I. Here they are illustrated (see Figure 1) as a crossover between predominantly sociable and predominantly instrumental exchanges: neither gift nor commodity; neither gift nor payment. One can observe from the case studies in Chapters 1 and 2 that some relationships are more sociable than others (and the entries have been organised in order of decreasing sociability), while others are more instrumental than others (so the entries are organised in order of increasing instrumentality). For example, social networks are used to obtain something that one is entitled to, but with greater ease and in less time than would be the case without them and in a spirit of friendship (compadrazgo), whereas the custom of informal payments in Nigeria seems to be a euphemism for a bribe or a levy (dash).

Part Two explores practices linked to identity, belonging and solidarity. The double standards grounded in the fundamental divide into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ or normative ambivalence, account for divisive identities and the associated performance of inclusion and exclusion. Focus on normative ambivalence enables us to reveal the open secrets of identities, moulded by lineage, community or consumption (whether religion, music or art) as well as to explain multiple identities emerging in complex societies with their constellations of coexisting rural, urban, local and global mind-sets. The entries in this part are organised according to strength of obligation within social circles, termed the ‘lock-in effect’: from the traditional grip of kin ties and the obligation of customary laws to the more fluid norms of reciprocity and voluntary belonging; from traditional values to forms of self-expression; from norms generating conformity (Chapter 3) to those that generate non-conformity and protest (Chapter 4). As presented on Figure 2, on the left there are strong institutions of the

customary law in the Caucasus (adat) and godparents in the Balkans (kumstvo).
Figure 2: Normative ambivalence

These practices are the most venerated and significant for sustaining conformity and informal order in societies. Just like blood relatives, kumovi are supposed to help each other and in most cases they do so in spite of formal roles, just as adat may come in direct contradiction with the law. The norms of conformity are equally powerful in Scandinavia: one should never try to be better or different, or consider oneself more valuable than others (janteloven). These norms are embodied in informal practices that confer negative attitudes towards individuality, self-expression and measures of success. In contrast, practices of non- conformity, associated with subcultural languages (see mat, padonki and verlan) or cross-cultural forms of rebellion (graffiti), are aimed at the power of mass media, authorities and political regimes (as in the cases of self-production practices of Roentgenizdat and samizdat in the Soviet Union).

The entries in Part Three illustrate the functional ambivalence of informality – supportive of participants yet viewed as subversive by observers; subversive of formal constraints (such as geographical borders, shortages, all kinds of regulations) yet also supportive of them; bending the rules yet also complying with and reinforcing them. The gleaning practices (known as pabirčenje in Serbia) enable the community to benefit from the crops remaining in the fields (need but also greed) and build the landowner`s reputation for generosity, while at the same time sustaining and supporting a clientelist network that could potentially serve to support his political ambitions. By allowing the poor to glean on his field in the short run, the landowner prevents potential social unrest and acquires stable political support among the local population in the long run, thus ultimately

reinforcing the hierarchy and inequality.
Figure 3: Functional ambivalence
The blurred boundary between need and greed is the

key theme and an underlying principle by which the material is organised in Part 3: from practices fuelled by the need for bare necessities in the beginning of Chapter 5 to those driven by greed, ambition and passion to challenge the constraints by the end of Chapter 6. For example, UK regulations regarding expenses incurred by Members of Parliament (MPs) exempt second-home sales from capital-gains tax and create an incentive for gaming the system. An MP can choose which home is registered as his or her official ‘second home’ with the apparent aim of maximising financial gain. A number of MPs were alleged to have made substantial profits by selling taxpayer-funded second homes at the market rate and excluding any profit from capital-gains tax (flipping). Other key themes in Part Three include the role of the state, the enabling power of constraints, and the sources of effectiveness of informal systems emerging in response to an over-controlling centre.

Motivational ambivalence is a central theme in Part Four: whatever the declared motivation in a legal case or anti-corruption campaign, some hidden interests may also be

served in the process.
Figure 4: Motivational ambivalence
In most cases, it is impossible to establish with certainty whether the

public motive takes precedence over the private, or the private over the public. Similar to the order of entries in the other parts – from more social to more instrumental in redistribution, from more binding forms of solidarity to non-conformist practices, from more of a need to more of a greed in market behaviour – the entries in Part Four are arranged according to the incentives used for domination: from ‘more of a carrot’ to ‘more of a stick.’ ‘Carrots’ (albeit with strings attached) are aimed at co-opting various groups into compliance by satisfying their needs whatever they might be: from a financial loan to a certain degree of impunity. Thus in India, beside the profits involved in adopting a political career path and the impunity that such careers grant, there is also a particular aura of prestige and status that goes hand in hand with political public posts in South Asia (see mafia raj). ‘Sticks’ illustrate how the system can punish people informally by using formal institutions selectively as ammunition (telefonnoe pravo in courts, kompromat in the media, psikhushka for the opposition), or by using informal leverage in formal contexts and resorting to the instruments of informal power.

The ambivalence of informal practices, multiple moralities, inconsistent legitimacies and blurred boundaries makes it possible to solve private problems on a daily basis. At the same time, however, this ambivalence also creates obstacles, or filters, that in the longer term impede the efficient implementation of public policy and may accordingly be harmful to society in general. Societies do differ, as argued in the concluding remarks to the second volume, but the question of whether some countries are more informal than others should be answered with reference not only to modernity but also to ambivalence.

Let us sum up the four types of ambivalence and outline their implications for social and cultural complexity (see Table 2).

Table 2: Types of ambivalence and their implications for social and cultural complexity
Types of ambivalence of informal practices Modus operandi Implications for analysing complexity The continuum that proved useful in understanding grey zones and blurred boundaries Associated concepts
Substantive ambivalence Doublethink: relationship vs use of relationship Multiple categorisation, impossibility of 'either-or' oppositions From sociability to instrumentality in social relationships Gift, Favour, Transfer, Transaction, Tribute
Normative ambivalence Double standards: what we allow ourselves vs what we accept from another, denying but also practising Multiple identities, Multiple moralities, Norms are contextual, Us and them are context-bound From strong ties to weaker forms of solidarity Identity, Solidarity, Particularism, Resistance capacity
Functional ambivalence Double deed: supportive vs subversive in dealing with constraints that shape practices Ambivalent functionality relativises 'good'/'bad' qualifiers From need to greed in personal consumption Survival strategies, Gaming the system, Part-time crime, Parallel societies
Motivational ambivalence Double purpose: declared vs hidden agendas in co-optation and control The public/private borderline is porous and contextual, Motive is camouflaged as its opposite, Co-optation and control are co-dependent From co-optation by carrots to control by sticks, From material to non-material, From codified norms to oral commands Patron-client relations, Power networks, Informal governance

Tackling complexity

The informal patterns, identified in this collection, are not simply an outcome of organising material or advancing comparative agendas. What the evidence highlights is that, despite their banal nature, marginal significance and under-the-radar scale, informal practices are central to the workings of human societies, their resilience and stability. Moreover, informal patterns, emerging from the comparative look at informal practices occurring in different contexts, point to the novel dimensions of our understanding of social and cultural complexity. I argue that ambivalence is one of the key determinants of social and cultural complexity – it allows informal practices to remain overlooked in research and policy, while also being the key know-how and a widely shared open secret in societies. Ambivalence (not ambiguity) enables one to master multiple identities, to navigate multiple moralities, and to make a smooth crossing between sociability and instrumentality (enacting friendship that observers would categorise as a use of friendship – see amici, amigos).

The ambivalence of informal practices is reflected in the majority of individual entries to the Encyclopaedia, so it is fitting that ambivalence – substantive, normative, functional and motivational – should also be reflected in the structuring of the encyclopaedia. Structuring complexity is a challenging task: entries cannot be organised consecutively, the structure must reflect the co-present, overlapping, and intertwined patterns of informality.

The inspiration comes from Slavoj Žižek’s thesis of the 'return to the economy of gift' and his discussion of the structures of world history, theorised by Kojin Karatani[53], whose basic premise is the use of modes of exchange (rather than modes of production, as in Marxism) as the tool with which to analyse the history of humanity[54]. Karatani distinguishes four progressive modes of exchange: (a) gift exchange, which predominates in pre-state societies (clans and tribes exchanging gifts); (b) domination and protection, which predominate in slavery and feudal societies (here the exploitation is based on direct domination, but the dominating class has to offer something in exchange, such as protecting its subjects from danger); (c) commodity exchange of objects, which predominates in capitalism (free individuals exchange not only their products but also their own labour power); and (X) a further stage to come, a return to the gift-exchange at the higher level. This X is a Kantian regulative idea, a vision that has assumed different guises in the history of humanity, from egalitarian religious communities reliant on communal solidarity to anarchist cooperatives and communist projects, Zizek argues. The relevance of this vision of history lies, however, in the complexity of the architecture that Karatani introduces to his categorisation[55]:

At the level of exchange, the ‘pure’ gift co-exists with the complex web of gift and counter-gift. In the passage from stage to stage, the previous stage does not disappear; although it is ‘repressed,’ the repressed returns in a new form. With the passage from A to B, gift-exchange survives as part of B, with the passage of B to C, A survives as nation/community and B (domination) survives as the state power. In this model, capitalism is not a ‘pure’ reign of B, but a triad (or, rather, a Borommean knot) of Nation-State-Capital: nation as the form of communal solidarity, state as a form of direct domination, capital as a form of economic exchange. All three of them are necessary for the reproduction of capitalist society.

An important aspect of Karatani’s iterative, unfolding structure of world history is his depiction of the increasing complexity of human societies in history. The complexity is expressed in co-existing, multi-layer, multi-stage, multi-mode assemblages of solidarity, domination and economic exchange. In other words, the modes of community, power and market – of giving, protecting and transacting – are all co-present, intertwined and resisting clear categorisations. Žižek postulates the return of the gift economy and other ‘repressed modes’ in the form of the radicalisation of religion.

In that vein, I propose the fourth dimension to Karatani's triad – re-distribution – that stems from the work of Karl Polanyi, Pierre Bourdieu, Janos Kornai, Jeremy Rifkin and others. Volume 1 starts with the discussion of the much under-researched subject of economies of favours and a wider range of practices of redistribution, and follows up with human dependence on identities/solidarity, transacting/markets and power/domination. The structure, emerging bottom-up rather than imposed top-down, devoid of chronological or geographical borders, has been an outcome but also a tool in organising the complex and ever-growing database of the Global Informality Project.

The method of knowing smiles

If Foucault’s Order of Things started from laughter, this encyclopaedia has grown out of a knowing smile – the smile of acknowledgement of an open secret about how things work. Informal practices escape regular attention by being the most routine aspect of societies’ social and cultural lives[56]. Similar to Hannah Arendt’s formula of the ‘banality of evil’, it is the banality of informality that causes informal practices to be taken for granted by insiders and to remain unnoticed by outsiders. These are everyday practices associated with patronage, nepotism, favouritism, clientelism as well as the use of social connections to find employment and secure promotions, to influence official decisions, or to bypass formal procedures. Yet these practices stay in close proximity to some of the key challenges of the contemporary world – corruption, terrorism, illegal immigration, trafficking and cyber- crime. In other words, micro-practices and patterns of human interdependence often remain under the radar, while shaping large-scale phenomena[57][58]. Such practices channel personal interest but also facilitate the resilience capacity in the world – its default modus operandi.

It is often assumed that the hidden nature of informal practices makes them difficult and even dangerous to research. Yet where there is a will, there is a way: in studying sensitive subjects associated with informal institutions, networks and practices, researchers encounter not only unwelcoming attitudes from respondents, but also methodological challenges associated with measurability and comparability, as well as pressures to move beyond disciplinary borders. And yet, research into informal practices is a growing field[59][60][61][62][63][64].

Every entry in this collection has its own methodology and disciplinary grounding. The conceptual entries – introductions and conclusions to the clusters – offer methodological insights and generalisation, but the Global Informality Project overall addresses the following methodological puzzles: how to trace practices that are elusive, how to overcome the limitations of disciplinary perspectives and border-bound area studies. As Gerald Mars notes in his conclusion to Chapter 6, practising fiddlers tend to act covertly, thereby creating an area of research most of which is not open to direct enquiry. Before any research on part-time crime can proceed, it is vital to suspend (without necessarily abandoning) one’s own moral standpoint: impartial understandings can be achieved only if, like anthropologists, one lays one’s own values aside. Only then can the field be assessed from the standpoint of the actors involved.

My own ethnographic work started with the puzzle of distinguishing friendship from blat (use of friendship). I tried to draw a line between the relationship and the use of the relationship, but stumbled instead upon grey zones, varying significantly depending on whether the relationship was best defined by regime of affection, regime of status, or regime of equivalence, on what kind of favours were involved, at whose expense and in which context[65]. With time, it became possible to identify, articulate, measure and compare blat practices in Russia[66], and to explore sensitive subjects and open secrets by the method of knowing smiles in other societies[56].

Knowing smiles are partly about smiling, partly about knowing. Knowing open secrets is partly about knowing, partly also about not knowing and not questioning. It is a sign of awareness of transgression but also of recognition that it does not need to be spelt out. Masked hostility—expressed through ribbing—towards the researcher ‘daring’ to articulate this is indicative of these tensions. The semi-taboos against knowing, the complicity to leave things unarticulated, the ambiguities hidden behind open secrets are all pointers to sensitive subjects that invite innovative research.

The Global Informality Project open call included an invitation to participate in such an innovative endeavour and to contribute a short authored entry to the first Global Encyclopaedia of Informality (1,500 words including bibliography). Each entry focuses on a single practice (under its colloquial name) and includes at least some of the following:

  • Name, definition, etymology and its translation into other languages
  • How widely is it used?
  • In which countries/regions/sectors is it found?
  • Identify analogous practices, named differently in different countries (if possible).
  • How does it relate to other informal practices (discuss similarities and differences if possible)?
  • What are the implications of the chosen practice for politics/economy/society?
  • Which method was or can be used for researching this practice?
  • Give examples of this practice.
  • How can the practice be measured?
  • How does it develop and migrate?
  • Which channels are currently available to policy makers to integrate expertise on informality?
  • Cross-reference and recommend reading.

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 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.

The method of knowing smiles can be illustrated by Sigmund Freud’s celebrated example of art forgery. To discover whether a painting is a forgery, the most effective way is to focus on minor details, such as how the painter depicts fingernails or the slope of a thumb. Most forgers can fake the major aspects of what is portrayed—it is the tiny details that give them away. Freud argued that the same is true of ‘trivial’ aspects of day-to-day life, such as slips of the tongue. The apparently trivial elements are key to understanding core dispositions of the personality, and I am making the same argument about the ‘disclosure’ of open secrets that the knowing smile represents – in Freud’s words, ‘secrets that we all know and the knowledge of which we always try to conceal from one another’[67].

In developing this point, our authors draw upon a variety of ‘masters of suspicion’—Freud, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Erving Goffman, Georg Simmel, Marcel Mauss, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu—and seek to bring their insights together in revealing daily routines that can be branded as societies’ open secrets, commonly smiled at knowingly when brought up in a conversation. So far, neither knowing smiles nor open secrets have been analysed in a comparative way, so this encyclopaedia provides a unique opportunity to 'compare the incomparable', or at least see them in various contexts.

Main (ambivalent) findings

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.

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.

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’[68].

Informal practices are ambivalent but not necessarily hybrid

Forms of ambivalence include: substantive (when transactions are seen as substantially different by participants and observers); normative (i.e.. when others do it – it is wrong, when I do it – it is right); functional (informal shortcuts are both a problem (subversive) and a solution (supportive of actors and systems); and motivational (whereby public or private motives are camouflaged as the opposite). 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.

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[69][70].

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[71][72][73][74], with its most recent peak in post-socialist societies[65][75][76][77][78][63][79][80][81][82][33][83]. 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. On the one hand, Russia has a reputation for informality, complexity and unpredictability and, after all, has been the area of origin for the Global Informality Project. Russia offers a comprehensive range of practices that can be examined both in historical perspective and in contemporary contexts, which can only be represented by the multi-disciplinary network of researchers. It would not be possible to achieve a similar coverage for each country in equal measure in one publication, but a detailed coverage of one country points to where open secrets might be found in others. On the other hand, our take on whether some countries are more informal than others is that one should downplay geographical borders when dealing with informal patterns (the bottom-up structure of the volume seeks to convey this point). Understanding informal practices, tensions and paradoxes might be more important for grasping local contexts than national stereotypes.

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.

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. One could attribute some value to the regularity and frequency of images throughout the volume, had their number not been limited and had it been easier to secure permission to reproduce copyright material. As things stand, we had to select images according to criteria that do not allow the reader to speculate on any correlation between the visibility of informal practices and their visualisation.

Stigmatisation of informality is counterproductive in policy - integrating complexity into policy will work

Let us outline assumptions about informality in Table 3 (on the left) and counterintuitive ways (on the right) in which informality can be taken into account in policy-making.

Table 3: Assumptions and counterintuitive implications for policy
Assumptions Counterintuitive implications for policy
Poverty and survival strategies Entrepreneurship and innovation
Underdevelopment of institutions Informality dwells in grey zones and helps reproduce ambivalent patterns, but underdevelopment of institutions is only part of the story. The strength of social networks for building trust (back-up), survival kits (redistribution), safety-nets (solidarity, cohesion) and connectivity should be factored in
Socialism and post-socialism Informality is present in all societies under certain constraints and in particular contexts
Oppressive states and 'weapons of the weak' Gaming the system and 'weapons of the wealthy' are common in mature democracies
Formal is good, informality is bad Formal is an enabler of the informal, including the conniving state. Informal is an enabler for the formal and should be used for channeling policies
There is good informality and there is bad informality (informal governance, informal networks, informal institutions can all be good and bad) Informality can help produce measurable indicators for assessing models of governance
Social capital can be positive and negative Social capital is ambivalent
Informality is about freedom Informality is an enabler but it also imposes limitations; informality is the basis of resistance capacity
Policies tend to rely on laws, written rules and norms Policies can also rely on oral commands, tacit agreements and in-group relationships
Informality is about conformity Informality is also about non-conformity

Overall, we claim novelty of this collection of practices that has never been seen together, yet also includes an impressive cross-discipline and cross-area bibliography on informality around the globe - a brilliant find in itself.


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Further reading

Bauman, Z. 1990. ‘Modernity and Ambivalence’. Theory, Culture and Society 7(2): 143–69.
Borges, J. L. 1941/1975. ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ (1941) Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Christiansen, T. and Piattoni, S. (eds) 2003. Informal Governance in the European Union. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Meyer, G. 2006. Formal Institutions and Informal Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: Hungary, Poland, Russia and Ukraine (ECPR series). Leverkusen: Verlag Barbara Budrich.
Rifkin, J. 2000. Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life is a Paid-for Experience. New York: Penguin Putnam.