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date: 18 April 2024

Beyond Formal-Informal Dichotomieslocked

Beyond Formal-Informal Dichotomieslocked

  • Alan SmartAlan SmartUniversity of Calgary
  •  and Martijn KosterMartijn KosterRadboud University


Debates on informality have been mainly structured along dichotomous formal-informal, regular-irregular, or legal-illegal lines, where government and the law equate to formality. Ethnographic studies, however, have often demonstrated that formality and informality coexist. An increasing number of scholars have emphasized that the formal and the informal are always and everywhere intertwined. Domains that seem very formal contain informal practices and vice versa. We critically discuss five prevalent binary approaches to formality-informality: economic-non-economic, legal-illegal, institutionalized-informal politics, temporal dichotomies, and the division between form and “formlessness.” Countering these approaches, we outline anthropological insights on how formal and informal are better seen not as a dualism (binaries) but as a duality (a spectrum) of modes of interaction and performance, where each is entangled with, and inseparable from, the other and invariably invokes the other mode when one is performed.


  • Histories of Anthropology

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