Languages of Informality

Languages of Informality

Dr Nicolette Makovicky has been awarded a CEELBAS network grant of £2500 for two, one-day, interdisciplinary workshops. These workshops, which will be co-organised with David Henig (University of Kent), will bring together scholars from CEELBAS institutions, policy makers and representatives of third sector organizations to the debate linguistic, literary, and analytical aspects of informal economic practices across the contemporary post socialist Eurasia. These practices include networking, favouritism, clientelism, bribery, and corruption.

The first workshop ‘Vocabularies of Informality’, will invite scholars to consider comparatively the vocabulary, etymology, and semantics of localized terms for informal economic behaviour (ie. blat,znajomosci, štela, şpaga), as well as their appearance and role in regional literary and cultural traditions. Both of these aspects have been largely ignored by scholars until now.

The second workshop ‘Grammars of Informality’, will focus on  the problem of the development, compatibility, and comparability of the analytical language adopted by scholars studying informal economic behaviour across disciplines (History, Anthropology, Sociology, Socio-Legal Studies, and Economics). A re-examination of the analytical terms for informal economic behaviour is especially pertinent, as much of the terminology is highly normative, and tied to preconceptions about the nature of economy activity, civil society, and democratization in post-socialist Eurasia.

The Languages of Informality project comprises of an active research network, a research blog and mailing list, and an online dictionary designed to generate a database of vernacular words, phrases, and turn of speech about informal activites from across the region. To add to the online dictionary, please go to the 'Submissions' tab below.

If you are interested in joining the network and/or participating in the workshops, please do not hesitate to email us at and/or

Working papers, project reports, and debates from these workshops will be made publicly available on this website. 

    About the Project

    Existing studies of networking, favouritism, clientelism, bribery and corruption have largely come from within the Social Sciences, adopting a political-economic explanatory framework and relying heavily on the terminology of Soviet-era blat. Additionally, a substantial amount of the existing research and reporting on such activities by the Third Sector is formulated using a set of highly normative concepts derived from socio-legal analytical vocabulary. The project Languages of Informality breaks with this prevailing tradition in several, significant ways by focusing on three crucial – yet until now completely neglected – dimensions of their study: language and linguistics, literature and literary approaches, and academic terminology. By re-focusing on issues of language, history, and culture, these workshops aim to lay the groundwork for the study of informal economic practices from the perspective of the Humanities, and to critically re-evaluate and systematize established theoretical and methodological approaches from across a number of disciplines in the Social Sciences. Furthermore, through an active engagement with policy-makers, non-governmental institutions, representatives of cultural institutions and the media, the workshops aim contribute significantly to the formation of policy by questioning the assumptions and concepts which underpin contemporary languages of corruption and informality in the Third Sector.

    Contemporary academic and Third Sector terminology used to describe, define, and analyse informal economic behaviour has been largely derived from the understanding that informal practices originated to mitigate the deleterious effects of the socialist shortage economy and flourished in the ‘social vacuum’ created by the lack of civil society, mistrust of institutions, and concentration of power in the hands of the Communist parties. In the socialist context, in short, informal economic activities were analysed as an alternative political arena enabling the general population to compete for resources. Following the demise of Communist power across Eurasia, however, these same practices of networking and informal economic activities have been condemned as ‘negative social capital’ preventing the establishment of adequate connections between formal institutions of governance and the population. Relabelled ‘corruption’, ‘clientelism’, or ‘nepotism’, practices of circumventing official procedures and a preference for face-to-face dealings are now seen as opposed not to an illegitimate state, but the ostensibly democratic and open sphere of public civic culture. By regarding these practices in terms of ‘social capital’, the current analytical terminology thus continues to be dominated by a conceptual framework developed to describe the socialist-era political economy, and inflexible, ideal-type, notions of the social contract, civil society, and the community. In short, contemporary analytical vocabulary carries implicit analytical models and normative judgements which taint and twist vernacular languages of informality, and context-based analyses of the history, meaning, and function of informal economic activities.

    The aim of this project is to critically analyse the language(s) used by citizens, academics, and policy-makers to speak about networking and informal economic activities in an effort to break the unreflective import of the morally inflected analytical categories outlined above. One way we propose to achieve this is to re-evaluate and re-establish the relationship between vernacular expressions and scholarly terminology. No consideration has as yet been given to the vocabulary and etymology of localized terms for informal economic behaviour, or to the extent of their comparability. Rather, subsumed into the general category of ‘informal practices’ expressions such as blat (Russian), guanxi (Mandarin), štela (Bosnian), şpaga (Romanian), and znajomości (Polish) are deemed comparable by default. This assumed equivalence leads to the mistaken assumption that they cover qualitatively similar (or identical) phenomena. By focusing on the history and uses of vernacular expressions, this project aims to problematize the prevailing tendency to regard normative, political economic approaches as a ‘one model fits all’ by allowing for a nuance, case-specific approach to studying such phenomena. The purpose is not simply to introduce a degree of cultural relativity to the definition of informal practices (by, for example, comparing emic vs. etic definitions of corruption), but to let vernacular terms inform the development of a new analytical terminology and novel directions in research. In order to achieve these aims, the workshops proposed would be deliberately cross-disciplinary, as well as geographically and historically comparative in nature.

    The Languages of Informality project comprises of an active research network, a research blog and mailing list, and an online dictionary designed to generate a database of vernacular words, phrases, and turn of speech about informal activites from across the region. 

    If you are interested in joining the network and/or participating in the workshops, please do not hesitate to email us at and/or


    See the  full list of entries


    How to Join

    The research network Languages of Informality is open to new members. We welcome interested students, scholars and emeritus scholars, as well as individuals from the Third Sector, government, and the business community. 

    If you are interested in joining the network, in attending one or both of the workshops, or if you want be added to the mailing list, contact us on and/or


    Current network members:

    [The research network Languages of Informality is open to membership to individuals from academia, as well as the Third Sector,the public sector and the business community. Email us at and/or if you want to join]

    Roxanna Bratu is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the London School of Economic. Her research looks at corruption and informal practices in Romania.  The title of her thesis is Actors, practices and network of corruption: the case of Romania's accession to EU funds.

    Catriona Kelly works on Russian literature and on Russian cultural history, particularly Russian modernism, gender history, the history of childhood, and national identity. She has published a large number of books and articles in these areas, sponsored by grants from the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy (see She is currently leading a large international project on Russian national identity, sponsored by a major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (see is working on a study of cultural memory in Leningrad/St Petersburg since 1957, supported by work in archives, interviews, and first-hand observation as well as work with printed sources. Other interests include oral history (for information about the Oxford Archive of Life History, see Catriona Kelly also works as a literary translator, particularly of poetry, and writes for the general literary press (particularly The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement). She is on the editorial board of several journals, including KritikaSlavic Review,Slavonic and East European Review, and Antropologicheskii forum/Forum for Anthropology and Culture (St Petersburg).

    Transition from command to market systems, disequilibrium and shortage models, Russian defence economics, economics of Russian health sector.

    Summary: Theory of the command and transition economies (especially shortage and disequilibrium models, second economy and de-monetized processes such as barter), economics of the health sectors in the USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe, industrialization and industrial policy in the USSR and Russia, and economics of the defence sector in the USSR and Russia.

    Dr Henig focuses on Central Asia and the East Mediterranean. In my doctoral research I focused on Muslim cosmologies, the resurgence of dervish orders in the post-Ottoman context, transformations of Muslim practice, local economy, and forms of relatedness and social support in the context of turbulent post-war and postsocialist changes in the Balkans. This has resulted in a series of publications, and a book manuscript that I am currently completing on cosmologies and rhythms of vernacular Islam in the Central Bosnian highlands.

    In his current research, he focuses comparatively on linguistic, moral, ritual, symbolic and technological aspects of informal economic practices in former state socialist societies. Furthermore, he is am developing two new projects, one on ‘frontier economies‘ in Central Asia, and one on the afterlife of military debris in postconflict polities.

    Gareth Hamilton completed his PhD in Social Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, and is currently a guest lecturer at the University of Latvia in Riga. Gareth also obtained his BA (Hons) in Modern European Languages (French and German) at Durham, as well as an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, after having taught in three secondary schools in the Austrian Land of Styria for two years as a British Council language assistant. Being particularly interested in German culture, he came to the department, and indeed discipline, to work with Professor Michael Carrithers and Dr Ina Dietzsch on Professor Carrithers’ ESRC-funded project on Sociality and Rhetoric Culture in postsocialist eastern Germany. As part of this wider project, Gareth’s PhD focussed on eastern German conceptions of personhood, through the optic of microbusiness entrepreneurship.

    Prof Hosking has always worked on the borders of political and cultural history. His first book (1973) was on the pre-revolutionary State Duma, and his second (1980) on Russian prose fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, in which he argued that samizdat and officially published fiction differed less than one might expect.

    Increasingly his interests turned to the strange and paradoxical situation of the Russians as the dominant people first in the Russian Empire and then in the Soviet Union. Contrary to what one might expect, they did not always benefit from their situation; indeed, one might argue (as did Solzhenitsyn, for example) that they actually suffered from being the main bearers of empire. He examined their fate in what I consider my two most important books: Russia: People and Empire (Harper Collins, 1997) and Rulers and Victims: the Russians in the Soviet Union (Harvard University Press, 2006).

    In recent years his attention has turned increasingly to the question of trust as a social phenomenon. This change of direction was prompted partly by the fate of Russian society and the economy after the end of the Soviet Union. It seemed to him then that western politicians and economists were assuming that one could simply graft western economic institutions on to Russia and they would automatically function. But economic institutions - banks, insurance companies, stock exchanges and so on - depend on social trust which cannot be created overnight. So I started asking myself what structures of trust actually existed in Russian/Soviet society, and then to ask more general questions about the operation of trust in any society, which is one of the principal concerns of contemporary sociology. He has come to the conclusion that historians are too fixated on power and conflict, and that we need to say more about trust and social solidarity. Doing so should also enable us actually better to explain distrust and social disharmony.

    Caroline Humphrey, FBA, is an anthropologist who has worked in Russia, Mongolia, China (Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang), India, Nepal and Ukraine. She has researched a wide range of themes including Soviet and post-Soviet provincial economy and society; Buryat and Daur shamanism; Jain religion and ritual; trade and barter in Nepal; environment and the pastoral economy in Mongolia; and the history and contemporary situation of Buddhism, especially in Inner Mongolia. She has written on inequality and exclusion; the politics of memory; naming practices; ethics and conceptions of freedom. Recent research has concerned urban transformations in post-Socialist cities (Buryatia; Uzbekistan, Ukraine). Currently she is developing a research project on socio-political interactions on the Russian–Mongolian–Chinese border.

    My research is based on carrying out ethnographic fieldwork which has involved living in particular rural and urban sites in Bulgaria and Ukraine for protracted periods of time (amounting to a number of years).

    Field Research in Bulgaria: local-national politics; postsocialist reforms -  especially land privatisation, emerging market relations, rebuilding the state and new political elites; migration – rural-urban and transnational; exclusion/inclusion of socially disadvantaged.

    Research in Ukraine: postsocialist reforms – especially local politics, privatisation and emerging tensions; migration; role of western development agencies; local state rebuilding; cultural property.

    Dr Marina Kurkchiyan is Law Foundation Fellow in Socio-Legal Studies and Research Fellow of Wolfson College.  She is a sociologist who specialises in comparative legal cultures, the post-communist transition, and the impact of development issues on the rule of law.

    She has conducted research in many European and Central Asian countries, with particular emphasis on Russia and the roles of law, mediation and informal practices in resolving conflicts there. As a consultant to the World Bank, the EU, the DfID, the Open Society Institute and the UNDP she has completed a number of official reports on the interaction between law and society in relation to development.

    Since 2007 she has been working on ‘Legal Cultures in Transition: The Impact of European Integration,'  a large-scale international project sponsored by the Norwegian Research Council. Together with partners from Bergen and Glasgow she is analysing the extent to which legal cultures in Europe are adjusting to each other as integration proceeds.   Data are being gathered from the UK, Norway, Poland, Bulgaria, and Ukraine as an EU  'near-neighbour'. Research in each society will be focused on the operation of the legal institutions, the impact of the EU requirements and the resultant changes in public attitudes and practices.

    Prof Ledeneva's expertise is on corruption; informal economy; economic crime; informal practices in corporate governance; role of networks and patron-client relationships in Russia and other postcommunist societies. My recent books include How Russia Really Works (Cornell University Press, 2006); Unwritten Rules (Centre for European Reform, 2001); Russia's Economy of Favours (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and co-edited volumes Bribery and Blat in Russia (Macmillan, 2000) and Economic Crime in Russia (Kluwer Law International, 2000).

    Having conducted long-term fieldwork in Slovakia (2004-2009) and Poland (since 2008), Dr Makovicky has two main areas of interest. The first is the way socio-economic reforms and EU-integration on historically embedded modes of economic activity in Central Europe, particularly artisanal crafts, pastoralism, and the heritage industry. Paying special attention to the way in which these reforms impact the working practices and conditions of small-scale producers, as well as their struggle for commercial viability has been a fruitful way into investigating how post-socialist liberalization has reconfigured citizenship, enterprise, labour, and gender relations. Her second area of interest lies between the areas of Design History and Cultural Studies, and concerns the history of textile crafts in Eastern Europe, as well as the integration of folklore and ´folk art´ into domestic design in Czechoslovakia and Poland. She has a particular interest in the relationship between the production of so-called ´folk arts´ and the formulation of Socialist Realist aesthetics, and the ideological appropriation of crafts into projects of Communist state-building.

    Jonathan Paine is a doctoral candidate studying Modern Languages at Wolfson College. He studied French and Russian at Oxford as an undergraduate in the 1970s but has been an investment banker for the past 35 years and still works on a part-time basis as a senior director at Rothschild. His DPhil exploits this dual commercial and academic background to explore the relationship between transaction and literature, focussing on the 19th century and works of Balzac, Dostoevsky and Zola in particular, and on how the increasing commercialisation of 19th century society is reflected in contemporary literature not merely in literary representations of negotiation and transaction but in how authors transact, literally and figuratively, with readers and publishers to maintain and increase the value of their narratives.

    Mathijs Pelkmans is a specialist in the anthropology of the Caucasus and Central Asia. He has conducted field research in Georgia and in Kyrgyzstan. His first major fieldwork was carried out from 1999-2001. During that time he worked on the anthropology of borders, tracing the social biography of the iron curtain between (Soviet) Georgia and Turkey. By documenting changing patterns of everyday life along the border, he demonstrated why the demise of the iron curtain was unexpectedly accompanied by a hardening of social and cultural boundaries. His ongoing fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan, conducted first in 2003-2004 and followed by several shorter research trips, deals with the religious dimension of post-socialist change. Focusing on Protestant as well as Muslim missionary activity, this project studies the dynamics of conversion and re-conversion, and analyses concomitant reconfigurations of the 'secular' and the 'religious' in a 'post-atheist' Muslim-majority context. Dr Pelkmans received his PhD at the University of Amsterdam in 2003. Before joining the LSE in 2007, he held a postdoctoral position at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and taught at the University of Amsterdam and University College Utrecht. He was editor of ISIM Review and is now co-editor of Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology. He is consumed by doubt, a preoccupation which so far has resulted in a forthcoming edited volume titled Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies.

    Dr Reeves' research focuses on the way in which state space and state categories (of legal and illegal residence; of citizen and non-citizen; of ‘titular’ ethnic group and national minority) are produced and ruptured in everyday life.  She has been particularly keen to explore these questions in sites where the authority of the state – who represents ‘it’; where exactly it is located; what it can rightfully demand of its citizens – has been open to contestation.   This has led her, since 1999, to conduct research in Kyrgyzstan and in neighbouring districts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. During her doctoral research, between 2003 and 2007, she explored the everyday work entailed in ‘bordering’ the state in two regions of the Ferghana valley where everyday life has come to be transformed by the materialisation of new international boundaries.  This project explored the interactions between border-guards, customs officers, traders, herders and border-crossing ferrymen through which a judicial boundary is practically enacted.  In so doing, she has sought to take the production and contestation of ‘territorial integrity’ as an anthropological problem, looking at the work involved in bounding the state and the meanings of becoming ‘separate’ in a region of intense historical inter-dependence.   Since moving to CRESC, she has taken my interest in the anthropology of the state in new directions, through a research project (2008-12) that explores the vast ‘grey zone’ between legal and illegal residence and labour for Central Asian migrant workers in Russia.  She has focused on the dense and frequently shifting network of administrative regulations that determine the legality of residence and labour as well as on the ways that this particular grey zone is lived: the role of ‘clean fake’ documents in navigating urban space; the growth of ‘strategic citizenship’ as Kyrgyz migrant labourers seek to obtain temporary citizenship in Russia, and the ways in which the proliferation of trans-local relationships is transforming meanings of kinship, belonging, money and ‘home’.

    Focusing on the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s, Prof Reid's research takes two complementary directions:

    The history of Soviet everyday culture, material culture, design and consumption;
    The history of Soviet art.

    Both strands are united by an interest in mid-century Soviet modernity and modernism, and in gender issues in the context of the Cold War, as well as in the relation between state, art and design specialists, and audience and popular taste.

    She is currently completing a book on everyday aesthetics, socialist modernity and consumption in the Khrushchev-era standard apartment, provisionally entitled Khrushchev Modern: Making Oneself at Home in the Soviet 1960s. She continues to ne engaged in research on Cold War art and visual culture including Soviet participation in and reception of international exhibitions and World Fairs.

    Research interests: the anthropology of the state, socialist modernity and post-socialism, exchange theory, aesthetics, history of anthropology, and globalisation; northern Siberia.

    Dr. Ssorin-Chaikov's research interests were shaped by his international educational background; they bridge different anthropological traditions, such as Russian and English-language, and different topics such as the anthropology of the state and governmentality, exchange theory, sociology of translation, aesthetics and history of anthropology. In The Social Life of the State in Sub-Arctic Siberia (Stanford University Press, 2003), he developed ethnographic approaches to the state and its everyday life in indigenous Siberian sites defined through a cultural boundary between ‘state’ and ‘nature’. In this book, as well as in current work, he focused on socialist modernity and post-socialism, and the legacies of the Cold War. He has carried out field research among Evenki of northern Siberian, in other parts of Russia, in the UK and USA, and am involved in a number of exhibition projects, including curating the award-winning exhibition of gifts to Soviet leaders at the Kremlin Museum, Moscow.



    The two one-day network workshops will be organised by Dr Nicolette Makovicky and Dr David Henig, and will take place at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, University of Oxford, in March and May 2013.

    Consisting of 3 sessions each, the format of the network workshops have been carefully designed to foster interdisciplinary dialogue. Each session will consist of a positional paper (45 min) given by an invited keynote, followed by a roundtable discussion by 4 chosen respondents (60 min). Session 3 will be followed by an open-floor debate of the issues brought forward in each session.

    Under the title Vocabularies of Informality, the first workshop would invite scholars to consider comparatively the vocabulary, etymology, and semantics of localized terms for informal economic behaviour (ie. blat, znajomosci, štela, şpaga), as well as their appearance and role in regional literary and cultural traditions. Both of these aspects have been largely ignored by scholars until now.

    Positional papers for the first workshop will be delivered by Prof Alena Ledeneva (SEES/UCL), and Jonathan Paine (Oxford), and Madeleine Reeves (Manchester).

    Entitled Grammars of Informality, the second workshop would consider the problem of the development, compatibility, and comparability of the analytical language adopted by scholars studying informal economic behaviour across disciplines (History, Anthropology, Sociology, Socio-Legal Studies, and Economics). A re-examination of the analytical terms for informal economic behaviour is especially pertinent, as much of the terminology is highly normative, and tied to preconceptions about the nature of economy activity, civil society, and democratization in post-socialist Eurasia. 

    Positional papers for the second workshop Grammars of Informality will be delivered by Dr Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Cambridge), Prof Geoffrey Hosking (SEES/UCL), and David Henig (Kent).

    By providing a forum for the discussion of the linguistic, historical, and cultural context to practices that have generally been branded as bribery, corruption, and nepotism, and provide a forum for the discussion of possibilities for the development of a shared analytical grammar, these workshops aim to a) highlight the until now unexamined linguistic and literary aspects of socialist and post-socialist informal economic practices; b) allow for the examination, revaluation, and systematization of scholarly terminology across disciplines; and c) challenge both academic, policy, and third sector definitions of corruption and clientelism.