The Menard Family George Washington Forum: Capitalism and Informality
The Menard Family George Washington Forum on American Ideas, Politics, and Institutions at Ohio University, a JMC partner program, invites paper proposals for a conference and subsequent special journal issue on capitalism and informality. The conference will be held at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, on April 14 and 15, 2023.
Plenary lectures will be delivered by Kellee Tsai (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), Frederike Welter (Institut für Mittelstandsforschung (IfM) Bonn) and Justin Webb (University of North Carolina at Charlotte).
More than a half-century of developmental discourse has portrayed informality as a signal of
economic “backwardness”. From the writings of Max Weber to those of Clifford Geertz,
Keith Hart, and Alfred Chandler, social scientific theories have suggested that as economies
modernize, hierarchical and rationalized forms of economic organization will displace the
“unorganized, unincorporated enterprises” and anomic agents of the informal economy.
However, contrary to such predictions, informality remains the global norm. The informal
economy continues to comprise at least half of all enterprises, a sizable majority of all jobs,
and as much as 20 percent of gross domestic product in developed economies and 60 percent
in emerging markets.
A recent generation of scholarship has begun to challenge the idea of the informal economy
as a “little people’s alternative” — a static realm of simple, disorganized activity that exists
outside of history. Studies have shown that, across different societal contexts, participation
in the informal economy is driven by opportunity as well as by necessity, informal
organizations can also structured and hierarchical, and informal entrepreneurship can play a
powerful role in the reshaping of institutions. Scholars have also highlighted the
interdependency of formal and informal economies. Informal enterprises and workers continue to supply critical labor, goods, and services that are used across the formal economy and most are intrinsically linked to formal firms. The informal economy is even facilitating
the rise of new industries and new economic forms: artificial intelligence systems depend on
“ghost laborers” to code the big data from which AI learns; offshore financial centers rely
upon informal networks to arrive at understandings of acceptable practices; and sharing
economies operate efficiently because of the services of informal middlemen. The informal
thus remains inextricably interwoven with even the most modern elements of economies.
This conference will examine the persistence of informal economies and their relationship
with economic transformation. It will explore how informal economies have developed
complex organizational structures, have co-evolved in tandem with new industries and
modes of production, and have shaped the broader economic and social contexts in which
they are embedded.
The conference explicitly aims to bring together a diverse group of scholars from different
disciplinary backgrounds who work on a range of societal contexts. The organizers especially welcome contributions from anthropological, sociological, historical, and managerial perspectives. Examples of relevant topics include:
● The socio-cultural construction of formal/informal boundaries and their evolution
● The structure of organizations and enterprises in the informal economy, both
contemporary and historical
● Processes of informal economic organization
● Informal innovation (i.e. the novel recombination of labor, capital, and knowledge in
the informal economy)
● Interactions between informal enterprises and the formal economy
● Informal economies in post-socialist and post-colonial contexts and their relationship
to economic transition
● The role informal organizations play in the rise of new industries and sectors (e.g.
digital economy) as well as the functioning of old ones (e.g. finance, real estate,
● Governance and policymaking related to informal economy
Limited funds will be made available to participants to offset the costs of travel and lodgings.
The purpose of the conference is to collect and workshop a series of papers that will
potentially contribute to a future special issue. The special issue call will be open and
To apply, please send an abstract (no more than 500 words) of your prospective paper to the conference organizer, Adam Frost (firstname.lastname@example.org), and to Robert G. Ingram
(email@example.com) by September 15, 2022.
Participants will be expected to produce a full draft of the article to be disseminated to all
other participants one month prior to the conference (March 15, 2023).
The deadline for submission is September 15, 2022.
The Menard Family George Washington Forum on American Ideas, Politics, and Institutions at Ohio University teaches America’s foundational principles in their Western intellectual, political, and institutional contexts. It is grounded on the idea that students facing an increasingly globalized world need to understand what characterizes and distinguishes the nation in which they live and the civilization from which it emerged. The Forum helps students become enlightened citizens in a liberal democracy whose roots run deep in Western civilization, but whose ideals and interests transcend the West.
Want to help the Jack Miller Center transform higher education? Donate today.