Formal-Informal dualism

The focus on ‘informal’ roughly started in 70s with ILO country mission report on Kenya and writings of Keith Hart, which discussed about informal economy. But ever since, the discourse on informal is shifting. From informal as ‘parasite’ in the 1980s, to De Soto’s (Soto, 2002) claim of looking at informality as a solution by bridging the gap between formal and informal, to the apocalyptical picturization by Mike Davis (Davis, 2007) and finally urban informality as a dominant normality in postcolonial worlding cities (Roy & Ong, 2011) by Ananya Roy et al.

The theoretical framework in these shifting paradigms is based on the binary theorization of the context, into the formal and the informal. Where the economically weaker section is seen as living in the ruptures of the legal systems and is called the informal. More so because the ILO country mission reports (the genesis of the informal sector discussions) were mainly focused on discussing the unemployment status and policy recommendations for the same, which thus highlighted the plight of urban poor (Moser, 1978). The informal, understood as- ‘of which is devoid of formality’, thus most of the discussions pertaining to informal are portrayed against the formal. Informality thus becomes an anarchic appropriation of what could not be absorbed in the formal, weather picturised in a positive or negative connotation.

Urban theory on the other hand is professing the shifting of its base, from the ‘north’ to the ‘south’ where urbanization is happening at an unprecedented pace. Jennifer Robinson argues this, in milieu of developmentalism and the project of modernity (Robinson, 2006). Robinson paints modernity as a synonym of the ‘west’. She argues “assisted by the expansion and dominance of Western economic, political and cultural forms, the assumption that being ‘modern’ involves being ‘Western’ proliferates both in the academic literature, and in popular discourse…”(Robinson, 2006). In developing the case for decolonizing the urban theory she further argues “If being modern is to be contemporary, to embrace change and dynamism, then the condition of modernity is present in every dynamic, changing society”(Robinson, 2006). Thus Robinson proposes a need for post-colonizing urban theory. Robinson proposes to study the cities as ordinary, rather than grouping them into special categories and comparing, because when we start to compare the cities, we tend to organize them in hierarchical order and thus diluting the nuances of a city.

This claim of shifting the center to the south and de-colonizing the urban theory has rendered not much change in the conceptualization of the relation between informal and formal dichotomy. Because the formal-informal dualistic approach is the colonizing tool, when it comes to urban studies, as Marris in 1981 said, “a slum is a slum only in the eyes of someone for whom it is an anomaly – a disruption of the urban norm and relationships that to the observer seem appropriate to his or her own values and perception”[1]. Slum as read synonymous to the term ‘informal-settlements’ strengthens the argument for the dualistic differentiation as a colonizing tool. If we need to de-colonize urban theory then we need to break away from the formal-informal dualistic distinction and device a new way of looking at the growing cities of the south.

Similar is the case with Ananya Roy, when she makes a case for subaltern urbanism. She makes a geographical association with the nature of the subaltern. She argues “I am interested in this shift: from the subaltern marking the limits of archival recognition to the subaltern as an agent of change. As the subaltern is granted a distinct political identity, so this figure comes to be associated with distinct territories. One such territory is the slum. It is also in this way that the idea of the subaltern has entered the realm of urban studies, leading to the emergence of a formation that I call subaltern urbanism. Two themes are prominent in subaltern urbanism: economies of entrepreneurialism and political agency.”(Roy, 2011). It is interesting to note here that what Roy identifies as the two prominent themes of subaltern urbanism, is the apt categorization for ‘projects’ that valorizes the territory she refers to as slums. Most of the urban projects in slums either see the slum as a hub of economic opportunities due to its entrepreneurial nature or are philanthropic in viewpoint due to its formulation as a political agency. Both, the ‘projects’ and theorization of the ‘subaltern urbanism’ reinforces the dualistic nature of the informal and formal in the development discourse. It is thus no different from the economic discussions in the ILO reports of the 70s, which situates informal sector as a high potential zone. “Since the utility of the informal sector concept was first recognized, researcher and policy makers in a number of different but related disciplines have applied it to a diversity of empirical data, and in many different contexts. What has resulted is a complete confusion about what is actually meant by informal sector.” (Moser, 1978).

If it is assumed that the south in particular needs a new way of looking at the urbanization, then the current approach seems inappropriate, which is quite evident in the dualistic conceptualization of the formal and informal. “Dualistic thinking has been criticized both in general, as a mode of conceptualizing the world, and in particular, in its relation to gender and sexual politics. Dualistic thinking leads to the closing-off of options and to the structuring of the world in terms of either/or. In relation to gender and sexuality, it leads, likewise, to the construction of heterosexual opposites and to the reduction of genders and sexualities to two counterposed possibilities. Moreover, even when at first sight they may seem to have little to do with gender, a wide range of such dualisms are thoroughly imbued with gender connotations, one side being socially characterized as masculine, the other as feminine, with the former thereby being socially valorized.”(Massey, 1995).

This binary theorization is limiting our understanding of the urbanization of south in general and India in particular. As shown in the work of Paul Bairorch in 1973, the re-conceptualization of the term ‘unemployed’ changes the entire paradigm in understanding or theorizing urban unemployment, “he stressed a divergence between the Western concept of unemployment and its meaning in many ’Third World traditional societies’ where to be without a job is not regarded as a disadvantage, agreeing with [J Berque, ‘le village’, unpublished mimeo, 1959] Berque’s opinion that, ‘it is the intrusion of Western values that has led to a situation in which the traditional leisureliness of the peasantry becomes the joblessness of underdevelopment.” (Moser, 1978). Experiences like these call for re-conceptualization of the formal-informal dualism as well.

As argued above, the binary conceptualization leads to an either-or situation, which dilutes the nuanced possibility of further categorization for research. ‘Formal’ in the binary becomes the dominant and ‘Informal’ becomes the dependent term, which would mean – ‘of what is devoid of formality’. Informal-formal usage restricts the urban to be distinguished into two categories, and diminishes the possibility for multi-layered enquiry.

‘Informal’ due to its dependence on formal and the connotation in the development discourse usually comes up in a negative sense and is almost always referred with urban poor. For the study of fast changing urban agglomerations (specific to India in this case), we need to have a far more neutral term. E.g. Roy uses the term Slum, which is almost always defined by the negative attributes. Slum as per the UN definition of 2002 identifies five points, ‘inadequate’ access to safe water, ‘inadequate’ access to sanitation and other infrastructure, ‘poor’ structural quality of housing, overcrowding and lastly the ‘insecure’ residential status. It is important to note here that the first two of the UN parameters, to define a settlement as slum, doesn’t fall under the informal-sector realm, and the rest three are in sort of a grey zone between formal and informal depending on specific case under study. This example shows the limitation of the usage of the term ‘informal’. Also the usage of the term slum as synonymous to informal-settlements brings along a negative connotation because as seen from the UN definition, a slum is largely defined by what it is not, and not by what it is. Generally the term ‘informal’ or ‘slum’ due to its theoretical conception of geographical locations within an urban area becomes synonymous to urban poor, thus skewing the policy decisions. As Arabindoo points out with her studies of slum-relocation in India – “slums are epistemologically inadequate in terms of conceptualising urban poverty thereby leading to distortions in crucial policymaking decisions.” (Arabindoo, 2011)

Since the term ‘informal’ was used in an economic sense (in the ILO report), the definition was based on the economic activities of the people. On the other hand when the term ‘informal’ started to be used in the urban studies, it started to oscillate between the, ‘activities of people’, ‘economic status of the people’, ‘physicality of space’, ‘quality of infrastructure used’ and many more alike. Now it is pretty clear that these parameters may fall into the formal-sector or depending on the case may require a completely different categorization.


Arabindoo, P. (2011). Rhetoric of the “slum”: Rethinking urban poverty. City, 15(6), 636–646. doi:10.1080/13604813.2011.609002

Davis, M. (2007). Planet of slums (Paperback ed.). London ; New York: Verso.

Massey, D. (1995). Masculinity, Dualisms and High Technology. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20(4), 487–499. doi:10.2307/622978

Moser, C. O. N. (1978). Informal sector or petty commodity production: Dualism or dependence in urban development? World Development, 6(9–10), 1041–1064. doi:10.1016/0305-750X(78)90062-1

Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26(3), 531–554. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00397

Robinson, J. (2006). Ordinary cities: between modernity and development. London ; New York: Routledge.

Roy, A. (2011). Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism: Rethinking subaltern urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(2), 223–238. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2011.01051.x

Roy, A., & Ong, A. (2011). Worlding cities Asian experiments and the art of being global. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell. Retrieved from

Soto, H. de. (2002). The other path: the economic answer to terrorism. New York: Basic Books.

[1] As cited in – FCL – Future Cities Laboratory Singapore ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC) at accessed 31st October 2014


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