Panel 7

Beyond marginality. Ambiguities and potentialities of informality in Africa

Panel organisers: Anna Baral, University of Uppsala, Sweden and Cristiano Lanzano, The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden


Despite its ambiguities and the critiques formulated against it, the concept of informality keeps being ethnographically and theoretically productive. Hart, who popularized the concept in a seminal article (1972), has himself acknowledged its complexity and clarified that the informal sector is not a reserve for the poor. Yet, informality has predominantly been used to evoke low productivity, unreliability and insecurity characterizing large sectors of the African economies. In the public debate and the development sector, informal workers have been either victimized and made targets of policy interventions, or romanticized as neoliberal heroes (De Soto, 1989).

To be sure, the sectors that have been analysed through the lens of informality – such as urban petty trade, domestic work, small-scale mining, but also smuggling, trafficking and other less legitimate occupations –  all share elements of unpredictability and precariousness. However, a significant body of work in African studies has shown that informality is a multifaceted field, where structural relations with the formal sphere are constantly rebuilt. Informal economies undergo transformations and processes of accumulation of capital and power. Informal workers unite, mobilise or simply find ways to navigate the uncertainties of their predicament (Lindell, 2010): not only do they survive, but some also prosper, constructing mechanism of social security that shun the control of the state, or are variably related to it. Thus, analyses of the informal need to go beyond essentialist views confining it to marginality.

The panel welcomes ethnographic contributions on informal economies in Africa and their ambiguous connections with states and formal markets, on processes of social differentiation within the informal sector, and on the ways in which informal workers seek to create the conditions for prosperity in precarious situations. We also encourage discussion on alternative frameworks to approach informality in Africa and on its links with broader global processes.  

To the top