Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This idea of interdependent, but separate halves of a social whole should be subjected to revision

IE + IT = ED? from The Memory Bank 3.0 by keith Is informal economy plus information technology a path towards economic democracy? What follows is frankly autobiographical. It is an attempt to excavate the intellectual and political connections between my early and later work in economic anthropology...

The historians of comparative jurisprudence emphasized the concrete particularity of the customary legal institutions they studied in medieval England or Victorian India. For all their imperialist vision, they refused to sacrifice detail for the sake of generalization. Modern ethnographers have likewise documented in immense detail the kinship institutions and religious practices of local groups in Africa and the Pacific.

This is no longer fashionable: anthropologists today are funded to study ethnicity, gender, AIDS and, of course, the informal economy. In my own research I focused on specific individuals and was obliged to study the contractual forms of their enterprises, their kinship ties and family organization, their friendship networks and voluntary associations, their religious affiliations, their relationship to criminal gangs and corrupt officials, their patronage systems and political ties.

Only later did I join the rush to generalize about the population explosion of Third World cities. The issue of criminal organization inside and outside the formal bureaucracy cannot be wished away. Formalizing the informal economy requires us to confront the cultural specificity of economic activities that cross the great divide. To sum up, using the fourfold categorization I developed above.

Division: Any attempt to divide an economy into complementary halves requires a massive cultural effort of both separation and integration. This idea of interdependent, but separate halves of a social whole is a powerful undercurrent in development discourse and should be subjected to revision.

Content: The idea of informality as the unspecified content of abstract forms favours leaving more to people’s imagination and accepting the legitimacy of most informal practices.

Negation: When the informal is illegal, the obvious response is to crack down on rule-breakers; but such moves are often merely cosmetic — the biggest offenders escape and the law is made to appear an ass. The number of legal offences could often profitably be reduced.

Residue: Finally, governments might adopt a genuinely hands-off approach towards semi-autonomous communities within their jurisdiction. If all of these modes of formal/informal linkage were considered, there might be some prospect of bureaucracy and the people entering a new partnership for development. 10:19 AM Workshop: ‘Clusters, Network Organization and the Informal Economy’, Bologna, 29-30th June 2006 in the series, Rethinking Economies. 10:29 AM

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