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date: 10 December 2022

Beyond the Formal-Informal Dichotomylocked

Beyond the Formal-Informal Dichotomylocked

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


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Debates on informality have been mainly structured along dichotomous formal/informal, regular/irregular, or legal/illegal lines, where government/law equates to formality, or along the Global North/Global South divide, in which the North stands for formality and the South equals informality. In contrast, ethnographic studies have often demonstrated how formality and informality coexist. An increasing number of scholars have emphasized that the formal and the informal are always and everywhere intertwined. The economy, human settlements, or politics are never structured only along institutional lines but are also enacted in personalized actions and transactions. Domains that seem very formal contain informal practices. Domains that seem very informal are also shaped by formal arrangements and procedures, and they may later serve to generate new versions of those arrangements. Rather than a dualism, formal and informal are better seen as a duality 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