At a conference a few months back, a senior academic asked my panel – ‘How relevant do each one of you think is to study informality? Isn’t it an outdated/irrelevant term?’. Going by the way the question was formed, I got reminded of my initial days of informality research where my biggest concern was to get rid of the term ‘informal’. I even started calling it ‘non-formal’, because informal is a dependent term which means anything that is ‘devoid’ of formality, while non-formal is a more independent term meaning anything that is ‘not’ formal. By this time, I was definitely out of this paradigm, so I responded, rather unclearly. The unclear response has been refining in my mind. It was not the answer in itself, as I was quite clear of it, but the articulation of it via language. Thus, here is what I feel is a clear(er) articulation of what I think about research on informality.
Let us look at a familiar situation. Raj is in love with Simran and is friends with (sort of) Preeti. Now Raj and Simran wants to get married, they don’t want to elope and live together. Raj even puts his life at stake to be able to marry Simran, while he could have just safely run away with Simran’s mother’s help. Raj and Preeti are friends, but Preeti has feelings for Raj. Now let us take it case by case –
Case 1: Raj can easily run away ‘informally’ with Simran and ‘live happily ever after’. But he (and Simran) struggles to get married. So Raj goes out of his way to ‘register their partnership’. In other words, Raj and Simran want their love to be formalized.
Case 2: Imagine a hypothetical situation drawing similarities from Case 1. Raj is friends with Preeti, and tells her that “let us register our friendship in the court of law!”…. Of course, Preeti would have thought he is crazy!
Now in both the cases above, the central actor (Raj) is the same, and the peripheral actor (Simran and Preeti) are the same. The only thing that changes is the relationship between the central actor and the peripheral actors. Basically, formalization of one relationship is extremely important and necessary, while the same formalization for the other relationship sounds ridiculous. (it sounds ridiculous only in a specific context through).
Thus, if we just study what needs/wants/has to remain informal and what needs/wants/has to be formalized, reflects a lot regarding the context (in this case the cultural milieu of DDLJ). A similar example of Jack and Jill. Jack and Jill fell in love and started living together, and have babies and so on and so forth. No marriage, no formalization of relationship. On the other hand, Jack has a job of filling water from a hill top. His relationship with the person for whom he fetches water is formalized through a job contract, and this contract is essential (and normal) for Jack.
Am not comparing the two stories here, but I guess the point is clear(er). Now if we look at an urban area, studying informality will reveal a lot more details than just about specifics. Thus, I claim studying informality is like an anthropology monograph, one always understands more than the subject and the intent of study.
The next twist in this thinking came when one of the professors in my committee asked- ‘This is all fine, and this your claim that informality is complex mesh is good. But then what is your politics.’ That Ah! Haan, moment when everyone takes a minute of pause for you to think….. As expected, my answer was unclear with my choice of words…. May be I need to watch more movies to get a clear way to explain this…. So the quest continues….this time on how to explain the politics of studying informality!