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 email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org.