Street Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global South

Advanced Seminar

March 13–17, 2011

Street Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthStreet Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthAdvanced Seminar co-chaired by Karen Tranberg Hansen, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University; Walter E. Little, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Albany, State University of New York; and B. Lynne Milgram, Professor of Anthropology, Faculty of Liberal Studies, OCAD University. March 13–17, 2011.Street Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthAdvanced Seminar co-chaired by Karen Tranberg Hansen, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University; Walter E. Little, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Albany, State University of New York; and B. Lynne Milgram, Professor of Anthropology, Faculty of Liberal Studies, OCAD University. March 13–17, 2011. Street Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthStreet Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthStreet Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthStreet Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthStreet Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global SouthStreet Economies, Politics, and Social Movements in the Urban Global South

Street economies, activities that literally take place on the street, have grown throughout the world, but with a pace in the Global South that is unparalleled. An International Labour Organization report estimates that in the Global South informal vendors number in the millions and contribute up to 90 percent of the GDP of some African and Asian countries. In fact, more and more urban residents in the Global South make a living on the street because they are faced with weak or ineffective state and local governments, no social safety net, and few opportunities for secure employment.

“For the street vendors we discussed during this seminar, making a living in the street economy is often the first resort and the last resort,” explained the seminar co-chairs. “Indeed, street vending involves not only the poor with small-scale enterprises, but also formerly employed persons who establish new economic ventures.” These activities include hawking food, handicrafts, illicit drugs, sexual services, secondhand clothes, shining shoes, playing music, and many other kinds of items and services.

The seminar gathered together seven economic anthropologists and three cultural geographers who presented insights from long-term field research in Antigua, Guatemala; Cusco, Peru; Kumasi, Ghana; Lusaka, Zambia; Port Elizabeth and Durban, South Africa; Dakar, Senegal; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Baguio City, Philippines.

By occupying urban public spaces, or “captured spaces”—streets, sidewalks, aisles of public markets and parks—street vendors’ livelihoods often place them at odds with tax-paying, regulated businesspersons and public officials. Seminar participants agreed that street vending challenges the ways in which public space is conceptualized and practiced. Street vendors creatively engage in livelihood strategies that thrust them into politics. While politicians sometimes court vendors who constitute resident voters, more often vendors mobilize in resistance to repressive government policies aimed at removing them from public spaces.

Participants addressed a wide range of concerns related to the economic practices of street vendors and the politics in which their street vending lives are enmeshed. Contradictions abounded, revealing the complex social, economic, and political relations that temper widespread assumptions about how legitimate businesspersons and government officials contend with street vendors. For instance, shopkeepers and official market vendors do not always oppose unregulated street vendors. Participants provided examples of shopkeepers and marketplace vendors establishing symbiotic and mutual support systems. Such personalized agreements highlight the blurred boundaries between market and street and between shop and street. Other contributions showed that rather than being the bane of officials, street vendors are in fact patronized by officials who seek not only vendors' electoral support, but also income gleaned from the daily rental payments that many vendors make to city treasury offices.

Several other themes emerged over the course of the seminar week. Participants pointed out the variable ways transnationalism plays out in tourism contexts and in relation to migration, and discussed how conflicting concepts of heritage enter into street vendor politics and state regulations. Within a broader context, the participants debated why street economies have become the primary forms of livelihood for many urban residents in the Global South by offering rich ethnographic examples that illustrate how increased economic and political inequality and social unrest—in combination with dramatic population growth and demographic shifts—raise compelling questions related to new urban regulatory regimes. Participants discussed the very different historically and culturally specific ways in which street vendors and other workers in the street economy are affected by changes in regulation. A particular focus was on street vendors’ political mobilization for the right to earn a livelihood. In each of the case studies, the political negotiations between the state and vendors lead to very different outcomes.

At the same time, within the context of vendors’ calls for social justice, seminar participants also discussed street economies from a public policy position. “Our challenge was to interpret the various political and economic issues that street vendors face in relation to the urban concerns of regulation, including the flow of traffic, especially for emergency vehicles, health and sanitation of street vending locales, and mechanisms to tax or fine vendors,” reported the co-chairs. “Indeed, we questioned how attitudes about vendors might lead to particular kinds of regulations in order to reckon with the seasonality of street vending and more equitable uses of urban public space.”

In their comparative discussions, seminar participants approached street vending as a lens through which to explore several theoretical issues: 1) the ways in which culture-power-difference are mutually shaped and reconfigured in the public sphere; 2) how shifting from political-economy analyses to cultural politics analysis within the context of governance yields insights into activism and emerging conceptualizations of public space and citizenship; 3) the questioning of commodified cultural identities that go beyond simple touristic consumption practices; and 4) a clearer understanding how street vendors participate in social movements that are part of larger transnational political and economic forces. Through these inquiries, seminar participants identified processes by which differentially positioned vendors redefine the sites in which local-to-global processes play out, not simply by responding to such processes, but by actively engaging them and, in effect, redefining civil society.

Karen Tranberg Hansen, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University Reclaiming the Street: Processes of Boundary Redrawing in Lusaka’s Street Economy
Walter E. Little, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Albany, State University of New York Maya Street Vendors’ Political Alliances and Economic Strategies in the Tourism Spectacle of Antigua, Guatemala
B. Lynne Milgram, Chair Professor of Anthropology, Faculty of Liberal Studies, OCAD University Taking the Street into the Market: Vendors Reconfigure the Cultural Politics of Space and Work in Baguio City, Philippines
Florence Babb Vada Allen Yeomans Professor of Women’s Studies, Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, University of Florida Discussant
Ray Bromley Professor and Vice Provost for International Education, Department of Geography and Planning, University at Albany, State University of New York Discussant
Gracia Clark Professor, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University The Margins in the Center: African Street Vendors at the Crossroads of Globalization
Ilda Lourenco-Lindell Lecturer and Researcher, Department of Human Geography, Nordic Africa Institute, Stockholm University, Sweden The World Cup 2010, ‘World-Class Cities’ and Street Vendors
Suzanne Scheld Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, California State University, Northridge Casting ‘Lite’ on the Boundaries of Street Economics: Racialized Social Relations in Dakar’s Chinatown
Linda Seligmann Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University The Politics of Urban Space among Street Vendors of Cusco, Peru
Sarah Turner Associate Professor, Geography Department, McGill University Appropriate Space? An Everyday Politics of Street Vendor Negotiations in Hanoi, Vietnam

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