The Informal and the Formal in Times of Crisis:
Ethnographic Insights

Organized by: International Urban Symposium – IUS; Commission on Urban Anthropology (CUA); the University of Peloponnese, 7-9 July 2017, Corinth, Greece

Dinner -P1010452

This Conference aims at understanding the roles and meanings of informal practices in the context of the current political and economic crisis. Using a notion of informality that encompasses the economic, the social and the political realms, this conference seeks to explore the importance of informal practices in cities and asks the key question, Is the informal a panacea in times of crisis?

In today’s global scenario, urban settings are a dominant form of associated life that encapsulate the socio-economic impact of increasingly significant international regulations, and selective management of capital, knowledge and people. Over the last three decades, the crisis, and subsequent discredit, of polarised ideologies which had characterised international politics since the Second World War has apparently determined the supremacy of economics over politics, an acceleration of economic globalization and a progressive erosion of democracy. In many cases, however, politics in the form of authoritarian decision-making and superimposed adverse policies have jeopardised the democratic covenant and the attendant terrains of representation, responsibility and accountability in the exercise of the power to rule. This process has often brought about the loss of important parts of sovereignty, as wealthier nations and powerful supranational interest groups have been seen to bully weaker nations, often also resulting in ever-growing fiscal demands and withdrawal of credit throughout the social scale, which has often been paralleled by national and local governance riding roughshod over the broader society.

At the micro-level, this combination of events has engendered harsh living conditions for many ordinary people. Major casualties have been individuals’ access to basic rights and governments’ responsibility and accountability in the management of power. Mass migration from poorer countries to richer or relatively richer countries, or to countries that are perceived to be richer, has contributed to make this problem worse, often turning traditional cultures of tolerance into toleration and, sometimes, violent rejection of non-autochthonous people.

Anthropologists have addressed in-depth the significance of the informal in people’s managing existence.

  • In the economic field they have addressed informal practices that develop beyond official employment and unemployment;
  • In the social and political fields they have studied in depth cronyism, clientelism, obscure awards of public contracts and various forms of collusion that turn citizens’ rights into privileges;
  • On the other hand, they have addressed informal exchanges of services, help, information, knowledge, and so on, that take place at the grassroots in response to ever-shrinking — sometimes factually inexistent — social welfare systems. Gradations of these grassroots informal activities draw on access to community resources beyond official allocation; in the economic field, they defy attempts of the state to monitor, regulate and extract revenue from the production, circulation and consumption of goods. Empirical analysis has also suggested that in most cases we are not faced with a duality between formality and informality because in many cases the two are intimately interlocked in people’s lives. In the economic field it has been found that the informal and the formal are complex interlinking and interacting sectors of one economy that may be lethally affected by the aforementioned difficulty, or in some cases by the impossibility to access capital.

In the above-outlined scenario, informal activities and modes of exchange — economic and non-economic — have often grown and they may have contributed to people survival; in other cases, long-established informal economic activities have disappeared alongside informal exchanges, while secure formal employment has become a chimera for many and zero-hour contracts, unpaid “internships” and similar, variously named cons, have multiplied. At the same time, new forms of informality are emerging — particularly but not only in the “on-line world” — that appear to be acquiring the status of resource as they raise new challenges to the bullies and “roughshod riders”.

This Conference will bring together high-quality ethnographic studies of these processes with the three-pronged aim of:

  1. Clarifying grassroots dynamics;
  2. Contributing to a comparative analysis of the present situation;
  3. Developing a theoretically viable discussion of potential way-outs.

The Conference welcomes contributions and panels from anthropologists and scholars from other social sciences and humanities, and encourages participation of research students.

Abstracts (300 words maximum) should be emailed by the 27th of February 2017 to Dr Giuliana B. Prato (g.b.prato[at]kent.ac.uk), Dr Italo Pardo (I.Pardo[at]kent.ac.uk) and Dr Manos Spyridakis (maspy[at]uop.gr). Selected papers and panels will be announced by the 13th March 2017.

A selection of revised papers that speak to each other will be brought together for publication in a Special Issue of Urbanities. Revised papers not included in this Special Issue will be considered individually for publication in Urbanities.

Registration Fees
Registration fee, to be paid by 20th April 2017: 60 Euros.
Postgraduate students, on-site registration fee: 15 Euros.

Scientific Committee
Dr Italo Pardo (University of Kent)
Dr Giuliana B. Prato (University of Kent)
Dr Manos Spyridakis (University of Peloponnese)
Dr Maria Velioti (University of the Peloponnese)

International Urban Symposium – IUS


Convenors: Italo Pardo and Giuliana B. Prato

Erosions of Legitimacy and Urban Futures: Ethnographic Research Matters

10-16 September 2017, Sicily, Italy

The Participants in the Workshop. From top, left to right: Jerome Krase, Giuliana B. Prato, Nathalie Boucher, Adriana Hurtado-Tarazona, James Dingley, Robyn Andrews, Liora Sarfati, Manos Spyridakis, Nurdan Atalay-Gunes, Zdenek Uherek, Janaki Abraham, Italo Pardo, Marcello Mollica, Lucy Koechlin.
The Participants in the Workshop. Front row, from left: Italo Pardo (organizer), Marcello Mollica, Lucy Koechlin. Second row, from left: Robyn Andrews, Liora Sarfati, Manos Spyridakis, Z. Nurdan Atalay, Zdenek Uherek, Janaki Abraham. Third row, from left: Jerome Krase, Giuliana B. Prato (organizer), Nathalie Boucher, Adriana Hurtado-Tarazona, James Dingley

Visit our Facebook page to browse the Workshop Photo Album.

This meeting was generously supported by a Workshop Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Since the mid-1990s anthropological reflection on legitimacy and legitimation (of ordinary people’s morality and actions; of the law; of politics; of governance) has grown into a robust and sophisticated debate through international meetings and publications. This workshop was an intense invitation-only intellectual exercise aimed at developing new ideas through productively critical discussion among 14 early-, mid-career and senior scholars (anthropologists and qualitative sociologists), who are committed to contributing to an ethnographically-based theory of legitimacy and legitimation. Benefiting from a wide-ranging ethnographic and analytical field, the discussions addressed conflicting moralities across the social, cultural, economic and political spectra and the corresponding progressive erosion of the legitimacy of ‘the system’–especially of governance. Scholars have long pointed to the problematic raised by this key topic in theoretical anthropology. The Brexit affair, like electoral behaviour across Europe and the USA, graphically exemplifies the acute crisis of rulers’ responsibility and accountability that mars many democracies. World-wide discontent with how the dominant elite manage power is generating grassroots opposition. The questionable legitimacy of local and supra-local bureaucracy, governance and the law is compounding this problem, contributing to the growing gap between the rulers and the ruled, which is particularly evident in the urban field. Ethnographic knowledge gained through long-term field research has an important role to play in understanding and addressing this gap. A major aim of this workshop was to stimulate critical scholarship and the exchange of ideas among a strong field of professional researchers engaged in demonstrating the epistemological significance of charting new theoretical directions on ‘legitimacy’ and ‘legitimation’ as loci of ethnographic research that matters to urban futures. Publications based on the work done during this meeting will contribute to an ethnographically-based theorization of “legitimacy  and urban governance”.


Italo Pardo and Giuliana B. Prato eds. 2018. Urban Ethnographers Debate Legitimacy. Special Issue. Urbanities-Journal of Urban Ethhnography, 8 (Suppl. 1), pp. 1-81 (http://www.anthrojournal-urbanities.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Vol-8-Suppl-1-April-2018.pdf ).

Italo Pardo and Giuliana B. Prato. 2018. Legitimacy: Ethnographic and Theoretical Insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-96238-2).

Italo Pardo and Giuliana B. Prato eds. 2019. On Legitimacy: Multidisciplinary Reflections. Special Issue. Urbanities-Journal of Urban Ethhnography, Vol.9 (Suppl. 2), pp. 1-140. (https://www.anthrojournal-urbanities.com/vol-9-suppl-2-april-2019/).