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(Re)ordering and (dis)ordering of street trade: the case of Recife, Brazil

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2020
Number of pages237
Awarding Institution
Thesis sponsors
  • Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT)
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Informal urban street trade is a prevalent feature across the Global South where much of the production and/or buying and selling of goods and services is unregulated. For this reason, local authorities have historically seen it as backward, inefficient and detrimental to the development of urban areas and have thus developed formalisation programmes aimed to control and ultimately make it disappear. Critics argue that the design and implementation of these programmes can marginalise and disempower informal traders as it acts against the traders’ livelihoods and long-established practices they have developed for decades. This research speaks to these concerns and aims to investigate how informal urban street trade manages to continuously reproduce itself despite formalising efforts to make it vanish. The study follows a post-structuralist approach informed by post-development sensibilities (Escobar, 2011). The purpose is two-fold. First, to critically investigate the implications of imposed power-knowledge essentialism inherent to formalisation processes (Foucault, 1980). Second, to analyse the ways in which cultural and socioeconomic development is enacted through the daily assembling of informal urban street trade (Farías and Bender, 2012; McFarlane, 2011).

The research offers a thick ethnographic inquiry, conducted over a one year-long period (2014-2015) in the urban centre of Recife, Northeast capital of Pernambuco state, Brazil. Recife is a particularly rich site to investigate these issues as informal urban street trade has historically been pervasive of its squares and streets and the municipally has in place a formalisation programme aimed to gather information about traders, license them and relocate them into purposefully-built facilities. The ethnographic inquiry focused on the practices, knowledges, materials and technologies associated with the daily work of both informal traders, selling on the streets, and governing officials implementing the formalisation programme, both on the streets and on the City Council office. Primary data collection was gathered through ethnographic observations and fieldnote diaries enriched with pictures and audio recordings of the day-to-day sensorial experience of informal urban street trade. This was enhanced with informal conversations as well as semi-structured and unstructured interviews with governing bodies’ officials, licenced and unlicensed street traders, formal shop owners, and a diversified set of urban citizens.

The thesis highlights that formalisation, through the introduction of regulations, classification schemes and practices of classifying traders through an information system, seeks to establish and expand an individualistic developmentality among all actors. Through this, formalisation aims to shape and normalise their everyday practices to focus on the City Council’s agenda of rendering informal street trade as problematic and turning the solution of formalised trade not only unquestionable, but desirable by all. More problematically, the formalisation programme’s overdetermination of what a socioeconomic order is to be and its imposition of individualising subjectivities to assist in its implementation acts against the traders’ collective and community-based understanding of work and livelihoods which, contrary to the formalisation discourse, greatly benefit the cultural and socioeconomic development of these communities. This is achieved through the traders’ daily assembling of work, value and supply on the streets. The findings reveal that the collective organisation of traders’ work is strongly based on a ‘cooperative ethos’ that is not only efficient in taking advantage of and adapting to the challenging conditions of street markets, but also is key on the ongoing fostering and strengthening of the local community identity. The findings also show that traders, through their tacit knowledge of the best fits between products, services and sites, are key in shaping the valuation of both formal and informal enterprises as well as urban sites thus bolstering the local economy. Lastly, the findings also reveal that, through their interactions with formal and informal supply circuits, street traders are fundamental for the distribution and promotion of local artists and producers thus helping on the support and fostering of local culture.

The main contribution of this research is it offers novel empirical and theoretical insights on the ways in which formalisation and informality are performed. It richly reveals the contested nature of development that is negotiated daily between the individualist developmentality imposed by formalisation and the communitarian- based development possibilities which are enacted through informal trading practices. These developmental possibilities are turned invisible by formalisation as classification enforces a strong reading of street trade which is ontologically distant and even contrary to the community-based values which make street trade not only resilient to formalising efforts but also adaptive to the challenging conditions and, more importantly, central to the cultural and socioeconomic development of these communities.