Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Informal Economy and Post-Socialism: Imbricated Perspectives on Labor, the State, and Social Embeddedness

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Informal Economy and Post-Socialism: Imbricated Perspectives on Labor, the State, and Social Embeddedness

Article excerpt

The post-socialist region is a fruitful site for research into the informal economy (IE). Recently, research has highlighted the persistence and variety of IE practices, with collections of case studies looking at Eurasian contexts as seemingly diverse as China and Slovakia. (1) These studies often "follow" the global logic of IE to contexts beyond post-socialist states. This article takes stock of this body of research, which has expanded from IE to look more broadly at the "informality" that links economic practices to informal organization within networks and political and civic structures. (2) "Informality" has been criticized for referring too loosely to "highly heterogeneous phenomena." (3) At the same time, however, institutions like the World Bank now use the term to acknowledge work's heterogeneity. Thus, a challenge to research on "informality" is to find approaches that justify this extended "carrying capacity" beyond the term "IE."

Moving beyond modernization perspectives that view IE as socialist debris or a by-product of transition (deficient institutionalization), informality research has potential as a holistic concept suited to integrate the study of everyday economic practices with institutionally-focused research. I argue for a holistic informality based on "imbrications": of economic practices, state processes' penetration by the informal, and social reasonings about behavior. Despite a dominant view of the autonomy of economic behavior, it is important to restate Granovetter's "problem of embeddedness": scholars should neither over- nor undersocialize economic activities. Rarely are social relations an epiphenomenon of the market. (4) At the same time, the "economic" should be recognized as part of (imbricated with) the social and local logics of everyday practices.

Like Granovetter's term "embeddedness," imbrication is a sensitizing and signposting concept rather than a wholly original formulation. Numerous scholars have proposed similar approaches, while falling short of "naming" it. For political scientists, imbrication is implicit in Helmke and Levitsky's work on informal institutions, where "socially shared rules" help explain incentives and constraints on political behavior. (5) Their interest is the political life of societies, yet their focus on how state processes may be rule-like and based on shared understandings points to the relevance of "informal institutions" beyond the strictly political sphere. An imbricated perspective would see informal political institutions as just one set of practices in correspondence with the social, cultural, and economic. Imbrication also finds inspiration in the "diverse" economies approach associated with the Community Economies Collective, (6) while stressing the ongoing relationship between informality and waged formal work. A sustained post-socialist articulation of the "diversity" approach is that of Stenning et al. on the "domestication" of marketized imperatives in Eastern Europe. (7) "Imbrication" itself can be traced to a reading of economic and social geography research, particularly on Ukraine and Russia, (8) that first questioned the formal/informal binary (9) and utilizes an older Total Social Organization of Labor (TSOL) literature. (10)

Imbrication therefore refers to the difficulty in disentangling formal and informal economic activities, as well as the social embeddedness of informality. This puts informality in an intimate relationship to the state, along with corruption, patrimonial ism, and clientelist practices, which would not exist unless they were imbricated with the workings of both state and market institutions. The capacity for informality to substitute for bureaucratic processes--and even allocate and accumulate state-like resources--in a "deregulated," but not unregulated fashion is emphasized. (11) This requires better integration into analysis of the work of street-level bureaucrats, who often have other affiliations (including clientelist credentials). …

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