Digitization and Globalization of Informality

I am still amazed that people would think about informal job, or informal life, as something inherent to poor people, especially those not living in the so-called developed countries. For the majority of people, informality is something bad, unsafe, dangerous. Even scholars, as shown by Roy (2011), see informal life as “the habitus of the dispossessed” (Bayat, 2007) or transgression across ‘property line’ (Cruz, 2007). Others attempt to explain informality as “grassroots rebellion of the poor against state bureaucracy” (Soto, 2000) or as the “primary mode of livelihood in a majority of Third World cities” (Davis, 2004).

Roy’s (2011) goes against this old interpretation of informality defending that it “must be understood as an idiom of urbanization, a logic through which differential spatial value is produced and managed” (Roy and AlSayyad, 2004). That is, urban informality is neither directly connected to a geographic space (slum, third world, periphery) nor to the human condition (dispossessed) or labor condition (deproletarianized, entrepreneurial). Rather it is a mode of production of space that bridges separated geographies, people, functions, and desires. Ergo, “informal urbanization is as much the purview of wealthy urbanites as it is of slum dwellers” (Roy, 2011, p. 233).

I want to focus on the informal solutions created on wealthy urbanites that proves that this practice is indeed an attempt to transform the space. Couch surfing, for example, is a common practice among young travelers, especially in Europe. It is an inexpensive way to have a place to sleep while visiting a city; registered participants have access to thousands of couches around the world. Airbnb is another example of an out-of-the-touristic-route place to stay. The traveler can rent a bed, a room, or the entire place, which usually are someone else’s residence. Uber is yet another example of how anyone with a car and driving skills can sell their free time to get people from one place to another. All these activities are not new; they attempt to improve and solve problems in hotels and taxi industry, respectively.

Nonetheless, perhaps the problem is not the question of what and where are the informal activities, but how they are legitimate in our society. Carpooling or couch surfing is not more legal than let’s say sharing an Internet connection. However, one has more legitimacy than the other; carpooling is a civic duty and couch surf creates community, while internet sharing is stealing. This poses questions of how and why the law has come to designate some activities as ‘nuisance,’ while others, especially those that have a fancy look (a black car, in the Uber case), are creative interventions to overcome current problems. For Roy (2011) it is clearly an expression of class power and can, therefore, command infrastructure, services, and legitimacy.


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