AIAS Lunch Seminar 3 Dec. - Abel Polese (Uni. Edinburgh)

Living the state or surviving the state? Illegal workers, informal socio-economic networks, and their role in everyday life in Turkey and Ukraine

Abel Polese, Marie Curie Fellow, Human Geography, University of Edinburgh

Draft paper


Based on ethnographic fieldwork on informal actors in Turkey and Ukraine, this presentation suggests that the level of informal labour (and the quote of informal workers) in a state is directly correlated with the ineffectiveness of its management. That is the more a state is unable to grant its citizens decent living standards and working conditions the more the citizens will tend to create informal organizations ?or even institutions-, social and economic networks, to make up for the absence of the state in some sectors.

Deconstructing the state from a monolithic entity into a number of actors, and agencies, transmitting instructions from the top to the bottom (and, possibly, provide a feedback from the bottom) it appears evident that good management of a state, of its economic transition and the creation of a market economy, are all but an easy and straightforward processes. It takes a competent political elite to issue the right instructions, competent state officers to interpret and implement them at regional, city and local level, and effective communication to create the necessary conditions for people to live a decent life.
Even in the case of well functioning states, it has been suggested that ?peoplization? of the state (Jones 2007) worsen the conditions in a welfare state that may be already affected by regional differences (Putnam was the first, footing on game theory, then a number of scholars followed), however, where formal social capital is absent informal social capital (Pichler and Wallace 2007) is operating, often in conditions of apparent illegality. ?Apparent? because those practices may become legal as soon as they are institutionalized. Once extra payments to doctors and teachers are allowed, and taxable, the situation de facto remains the same but becomes legalized.

Where the state does not allocate sufficient funds to pay public workers, informal payments and favour exchange help to integrate meagre public salaries (Polese 2008); where the state complicates tax paying procedures and does not grant benefits to taxpayers, people will tend to fiscal fraud or underground businesses (Bovi 2003).
Turkey and Ukraine, with a number of relevant industries and uneven regional development nourishing a consistent emigration flow, have both a very high level of informal practices that can be considered harmful from a macroeconomic point of view because they are not under control of the state. Nevertheless this presentation wants to reverse the reasoning and suggesting that they exist in spite of state economic and social mismanagement but they come to consolidate because of state mismanagement.


  • Bovi, Maurizio, ?The Nature of the Underground Economy-Some Evidence from OECD Countries?, JIIDT, no. 7 (2003), pp. 60-70 Jones, Rhys, People, States, Territories. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007
  • Pichler, Florian and Claire Wallace, ‘Patterns of Formal and Informal Social Capital in Europe’, European Sociological Review, Vol. 23 No.4 (2007), pp. 423-436
  • Polese, Abel, ?If I Receive it, it is a Gift; if I Demand it, then it is a Bribe? on the Local Meaning of Economic Transactions in Post-soviet Ukraine? Anthropology in Action special issue: ‘Reflections on Gift Exchange in the Contemporary World’ edited by Denise Carter and Michaela Benson 5(3), (2008)
  • Putnam, Robert, Making Democracy Work. Princeton University Press, 1993
Day: Thursday 3 December
Time: 12.15 – 13.15 hrs.
Location: AIAS, 3rd floor building M, Plantage Muidergracht 12
Register: Please send us an e-mail before 2 December, 12.00 hrs.
A sandwich will then be provided.

Click here for an overview of all AIAS lunch seminars in the period September-December

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