THE PRACTICE OF INFORMALITY: Hustling, Anticipating and Refusing in the Postindustrial City


Drawing upon three years of ethnographic research conducted in drug and alcohol recovery houses and treatment centers in Philadelphia, this article argues that attending to the practice of informality in the subproletariat and precarious working classes of the postindustrial US city helps elucidate the twinned legacies of informality and surveillance in racialized US urban poverty. To do so, it recuperates Bourdieu’s practice theory with the invigorating insights of Black studies on the historic legacies of racializing surveillance to theorize the practice of informality in the postindustrial US city. Ultimately, the article argues that informal practice offers a space of concealment forged through the evasion and countersurveillance of racializing surveillance in the postindustrial US city.

Best Article Prizewinner for 2023 

In this ethnographically rich, theoretically insightful article, Ziv Tali provides a usefully phenomenological perspective on urban informality. Based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in Philadelphia, following a small group of racialized, surveilled, precariously employed men associated with an alcohol and drug treatment center, the article identifies a set of practices entailed in doing informality, including anticipating, refusing, counter-surveilling, finessing, and hustling. Contributing to longstanding inquiries into the conditions for and character of constrained agency in stratified urban spaces, this article provides an effective example of historically informed, contextually specific research that can help us think past an increasingly unhelpful analytic divide between cities in the global South and North.

This article is now free to view for 3 months, from August 2023.