Beyond Informality. Organising life and work in the urban space in the global North and South

Project: Research council

Project Details


Decades of neo-liberal restructuring followed by the 2008 global economic crisis has resulted in a marked increase in precarious and insecure employment. Where this has developed most intensely, it has challenged the sustainability of formal waged employment and associated forms of citizenship and welfare as the principal means by which the individual survival and social reproduction of urban communities is achieved. Consequently, informal employment in many places has become normalized and can be related to a range of activities undertaken by social actors that are attempting to address this crisis of social reproduction. In the cities of the Global South, the organization of new productive activities beyond the formal workplace have become linked with issues such as poverty, hardship and exclusion and have resulted in collective actions and mobilizations related to issues such as housing, food, land, education and health. These ‘survival strategies’ are increasingly spreading to areas of the Global North as formal employment opportunities have been undermined by the impact of the global crisis and subsequent austerity policies. This project will focus on the above developments in order to capture some of the positive and proactive collective strategies that are attempting to reorganize work beyond employment. These initiatives mark the emergence of a new politics of work based on new organizations and struggles for dignity and solidarity. The project will explore and systematize these developments through a series of case studies in the Global North and Global South that include examples of neighbourhood cooperatives in The Netherlands, reclaimed factories in Greece, migrant neighbourhoods in Spain, movements of the homeless, landless and unemployed in Brazil, home-working by women in India, urban gardens in the USA, indigenous markets in Ecuador, workers in the popular economy in Argentina, and the development of community commons in the UK.
These cooperative activities by a new social activism are crisscrossing urban spaces in creative and innovative ways to become permanent features of the city and are leading to alternative forms of organizing work and working. The dominant tendency in both academic and state policy discourse has been to define these developments in terms of the ‘problem’ of informal work and workers. This, however, tends to downplay the transformatory role of the social actors involved in these projects and initiatives and the ways in which these emerging forms of ‘work’ outside employment, including cultural production, contributes to the social reproduction and re-imagination of communities. In this context, the boundaries between work and non-work space are becoming increasingly permeable and fluid, including a blurring between work space and the private spaces of home and family. Work is increasingly intertwined with the urban fabric of the city in ways that conflate questions of urban development and policy with the politics of work, employment and culture. The project will use participatory action research methods and artistic interventions to (i) capture the meaning, framing and experience of these examples of work outside employment in ways that link production and social reproduction (ii) how these new initiatives are challenging the boundaries between work and non-work forms of identity, organization and politics, thus innovating community life and the world of work; (iii) use empirical and conceptual insights developed by the project to produce policy ideas that can inform innovative policy based on a better articulation of ‘labour’ and ‘social’ policy and the potential for a more holistic approach to improving the relationship between work, culture and community in urban spaces. The project will change the public negative perception of these endevours labelled as ‘labour informality’ and encourage support for work cooperatives and alternative work practices in order to strengthen community and collective life and contribute towards the production of social capital and social cohesion.
Effective start/end date1/02/1831/01/21

Collaborative partners

  • University of Bath (lead)
  • University of Barcelona (Project partner)
  • Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Project partner)
  • Free House (Project partner)
  • University of Bristol (Joint applicant)
  • Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Project partner)
  • University of Michigan-Dearborn (Project partner)
  • South Asian University (Project partner)
  • Bath Spa University (Joint applicant)
  • University of the West of Scotland (Joint applicant)


  • work
  • labour
  • social reproduction
  • urban space
  • city
  • social movements
  • Rotterdam
  • Bristol
  • Thessaloniki
  • Quito
  • Buenos Aires
  • Sao Paolo
  • Barcelona
  • New Delhi
  • Michigan
  • sociology of work
  • labour informality

RCUK Research Areas

  • Social policy
  • Development studies
  • Sociology


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