Artesanado de Rua, Empresa Familiar, Cidade dos Mortos, Cairo
Artisan’s workshop, City of the Dead, Cairo (Alessandro Colombo)



This post is part of a series on informality in practice, to be published at regular interval on the ATS blog.

Formally, the series constitutes a theoretically-ambitious attempt at exploring the implications of key insights from practice theory for the realm of urban governance (both analytically and normatively). In methodological terms, the series will implement a heuristic research strategy based (in terms of its epistemological premises) on the potential of bottom-up theorization via case studies research.

Practically, the series will publish short posts telling stories – possibly with short video clips and nice pictures of exotic places. If this thing is going to fly, it will first become something self-sustaining, then a must read for the local community of scholars, then a trail-blazing publication, then an H2020, and finally a hugely popular and critically-acclaimed tv series like Black Mirror – only focusing on the more optimistic side of life.

If things don’t work ok, the two of us are committed to regularly publish posts for at least a year or so. In any case, when it’s over, the editorial board will meet and try to make sense of it all, and we’ll see.

And of course, the series is open to contributions which roughly follow our guidelines  – for more information please contact us at

Habitação, Sem Abrigo, Cairo downtown
Homeless shelter, downtown Cairo (Alessandro Colombo)


Our cities are the stage of a myriad of ordinary, informal activities and routines performed, time and time again, by masses of urban dwellers – walking through the neighbourhood, meeting friends, going to church, going to work or school, having a night out with colleagues, and so forth.

We call these routines “informal practices”.

As such, informal practices do not only exist in opposition to codes and laws; they are not something akin to breaking or ignoring formal rules. It’s not even the absence of a rule, or a plan, that define these practices.

Rather, informal practices exist alongside codes, laws, rules, and plans – in fact, they enable, complement and correct all kinds of formal arrangements.

Here’s what Hendrik Wagenaar has to say about administrative work, something that is usually understood as the domain of formal rules and hierarchies:

the visible aspects of administrative work (decisions, reports, negotiations, standard operating procedures, and – on a higher level of institutional abstraction – structures, legal rules, lines of authority, and accountability) are effectuations, enactments of the hidden, taken-for-granted routines: the almost unthinking actions, tacit knowledge, fleeting interactions, practical judgments, self-evident understandings and background knowledge, shared meanings, and personal feelings that constitute the core of administrative work (Wagenaar, 2004: 644)

In sum, practices are everywhere.

If this is true, and we want to make sense of how cities function and are governed, we should observe them also the point of view of informal practices – as Tommaso Vitale and Patrick Le Galès put it, “from the point of view of the experiences, the interactions, the uncertain rules that regulate everyday life or even a single moment” (Le Galès & Vitale 2015: 10).

We should acknowledge that, to borrow Abdoumaliq Simone’s words, the “incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents that operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used”, constitute “an infrastructure – a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city” (Simone 2004: 407-408).

In other words, informal practices make cities work.

Informal practices might have little to do with a conventional understanding of what “politics”, “policymaking”, and “participation” are, but they can have a pervasive effect on the relation between individuals and groups, on the one side, and the state on the other.

Citizens, through everyday routine and activities, can challenge the self-evident, “natural” legitimacy of hegemonic power, and learn instead that what can be achieved depends on their own formulation of the problems, from their creativity, knowledge and competence, and from their ability to articulate their needs.

Asef Bayat says that the mobilization of the disenfranchised poor in Cairo and Tehran as “life as politics”: a mobilization that is “quiet, largely atomized and prolonged… with episodic collective action”; that does not involve deeds that are extraordinary with respect to the daily routine of their lives (e.g. petitions, meetings, demonstrations), but instead the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary”: “the silent, protracted, but pervasive advancement of the ordinary people on the propertied, powerful, or the public, in order to survive and improve their lives (Bayat, 2013b: 56).

Cultivo substitui habitação, Cova da Moura
Sugar cane garden, Cova da Moura (Alessandro Colombo)

And so what?

Provided that all of that is true – that informal practices are everywhere, make cities work, and shape the politics of citizenship in our societies, etc. – it’s not that we have solved the key problem – we told you that there was a normative part. If citizens’ informal practices have a subtle but decisive impact on how our cities function, then how is it possible to recognize – rather than ignore, or crush – citizens’ autonomy? Do we need new institutions, or a different kind way of government to do so? Or we should change the way we spend public money, or implement policies?

The blog series

We don’t have the answer – we are not even sure we have the right questions, to be honest. We rather see something interesting that we know we don’t fully grasp.

In fact, this series is in some way an effort to accumulate a number of clues in the form of short stories and vignettes – clues that will hopefully help us to understand what we are talking about. The work will be largely an-academic – but if you want you can think about it as a collection of research notes, at a very preliminary stage of the research.

And since we remain optimistic about collective intelligence (against all odds and mounting evidence, we might say), we would like others to join in.

In other words, we would like you to contribute with your own story about informality in practice, to explain us why they are important.


Alessando Colombo is a PhD candidate in Public Policies at ISCTE-IUL.

Marco Allegra is postdoctoral researcher at ICS-ULisboa.



Bayat, A. (2013b). Life as politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East (Second ed.). Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press.

Holston, J. (2008). Insurgent citizenship: Disjunctions of democracy and modernity in Brazil. Princeton University Press.

Le Galès, P., & Vitale, T. (2015). Diseguaglianze e discontinuità nel governo delle grandi metropoli. Un’agenda di ricerca. Territorio, 74, 7-17.

Simone, A. (2004). People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture, 16, 407-429.

Wagenaar, H. (2004). “Knowing” the rules: administrative work as practice. Public Administration Review, 64, 643-656.


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