Between Exit and Voice: Informality and the Spaces of Popular Agency – Introduction

by Ilda Lindell, Guest Editor 

Abstract

The last decades have witnessed deepening processes of informalization and casualization in Africa and beyond. Growing numbers of people rely on economic activities occurring beyond state regulation, something that is widely evident in urban areas. Multiple dynamics are converging to drive these trends that have resulted in new floods of entrants into the informal economy, including a great expansion in self-employment. Juxtaposed to these dynamics are the more long-standing informal activities through which popular groups have coped with the lack of formal work opportunities and basic services. Parallel to the widespread trends of informalization and casualization are, in some contexts, a resurgence of attempts to bring segments of the informal economy under some form of state regulation, which may be interpreted as selective drives towards some kind of formalization. The drive for formalization has also gained impetus in international development discourse. These developments confirm that the boundary between what is and is not to be regulated by the state (or between what is and is not considered legitimate economic activity) is a shifting one. The drawing and re-drawing of this boundary is a contested process that involves social struggles and a variety of actors, encompassing both powerful interests and popular forces, including informal and casual workers themselves. The contributions in this special issue address the politics involved in and ensuing from processes of informalization/formalization in particular contexts. They discuss some of the contradictions, tensions, and conflicts that have emerged in the context of such processes. The papers deviate from the common victimizing views of informal actors by examining varied spaces and forms of popular agency in relation to those processes. The introduction comprises two parts: highlighting these issues on the basis of a selective discussion of the topics addressed by the papers; and, reflecting upon the varied forms that agency among informal actors can take along a spectrum that encompasses both strategies of invisibility and visibility, of exit and voice.

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Ilda Lindell is a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute and an Associate Professor of human geography at Stockholm University, Sweden. Her current research focuses on collective organizing in urban informal economies in Africa, including links to international movements and relations with other organized actors. She is the editor of Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Urban Africa (2010).

 

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