In recent years, a number of academic analyses have emerged which draw attention to how most artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) activities – low-tech, labour-intensive, mineral extraction and processing – occur in informal ‘spaces’. This body of scholarship, however, is heavily disconnected from work being carried out by policy-makers and donors who, recognising the growing economic importance of ASM in numerous rural sections of the developing world, are now working to identify ways in which to facilitate the formalisation of its activities. It has rather drawn mostly on theories of informality that have been developed around radically different, and in many cases, incomparable, experiences, as well as largely redundant ideas, to contextualise phenomena in the sector. This paper reflects critically on the implications of this widening gulf, with the aim of facilitating a better alignment of scholarly debates on ASM's informality with overarching policy/donor objectives. The divide must be bridged if the case for formalising ASM is to be strengthened, and policy is to be reformulated to reflect more accurately the many dimensions of the sector's operations.