Off the Books: Labor, Inequality, and the Informal Economy
Existing alongside the so-called formal economy—of employment, production, ownership, and sale within a recognized legal regime—is a shadowy realm of economic activity that takes place “out of sight,” “off the books,” and without ordinary social and political sanction. The informal economy employs legions of street vendors, domestic workers, and subcontracted workers, and, as their numbers grow, questions of immigration, precarity, wages, and worker protection take on increased political urgency—even to the point of deeply destabilizing social and political orders the world over. What is the relation between the informal and the formal economy? Can the latter exist without the former? What does it mean to be an informal worker? In what ways are patterns of informality encroaching upon traditionally formal sectors of the economy—i.e., via “uberization”? Why is “informalizing” happening? What is the future of work?
In this course, we explore the scope and function of the informal economy, particularly as it relates to labor, and attempt to understand its structural relation and possible futures within the neoliberal global economic order. We’ll begin by examining the development and competing understandings of the concept of the informal economy, from its first articulation in the 1970s to its recent definition by the UN International Labour Organization. Next, we’ll discuss 21st-century perspectives on informality and the rise of the so-called “shared economy.” We’ll also explore the intersection of informality with race and gender, asking: does informal work code as “woman’s” work? In what ways does informality entrench or even transform existing class and racial hierarchies? Finally, we’ll examine informality across multiple geographies, particularly as it exists in developing and underdeveloped countries. In what ways is informality a product of development or underdevelopment, and in what ways is it a refuge? Along the way, we’ll bear in mind the forms and future of informal work, asking: are we all eventually going to become “informals”?
Readings will be drawn from works by Keith Hart, Manuel Castells, Alejandro Portes, Milton Santos, Martha Chen, Alexandre Barbosa, Chris Tilly, Tom Slee, the International Labour Organization (ILO), Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). and others.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
June 09 — June 30, 2022