Formless: A Day at Lima’s Office of Formalization

Peer Reviewed


In 2009-2010, a team of officials at Lima’s Office of Formalization worked to "formalize" (legalize) the hundreds of markets that operate informally in the downtown area of the city. To persuade businesses to apply for an operating license, the Office lowered the threshold of requirements and simplified the procedure. This strategy was akin to the kind of legal reform promoted by Hernando de Soto’s 1986 influential study of informality, El otro sendero: La revolución informal. But at what point does simplifying the law, in its aim to bring state regulation closer to the realities of informal vendors, produce, rather, the "informalization" of the state’s legal and bureaucratic apparatus? Drawing on fieldwork at Lima’s Office of Formalization and at the downtown markets of Mesa Redonda and El Hueco, this article is an ethnographic examination of informality not as the absence of legal or bureaucratic form but as a sequence of countless operations engaged in its deformation. Georges Bataille’s theories of general economy and l'informe (the formless) frame this study of the formlessness of bureaucratic form and of informal vendors unrelenting desire for autonomy from the state.


informality, political economy, urban culture

Editor's Footnotes

Cultural anthropology has published other articles on cities and urbanism, including "Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging 'City-Corporation'" by Ahmed Kanna and "Phantasms in a "Starry" Place: Space and Identification in a Central New Delhi Market" by Paolo Favero

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on political economy, including "The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia" by Karen Strassler and "Consuming Class: Multilevel Marketers in Neoliberal Mexico" by Peter S. Cahn. 

About the Author

Daniella Gondolfo is an associate professor of anthropology at Weselyan College. Her works include The City of Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima (The University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Related Readings

Hart, Keith. "Informal Economy." In The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, vol. 2. John Eatwell et al., eds. Pp. 845-846. London: The Macmillan Press Limited. 1973.

Lomnitz, Larissa. "Informal Exchange Networks in Formal Systems: A Theoretical Model." American Anthropologist 90(1988):42-54.

Mehlman, Jeffrey. Revolution and Repetition: Marx/Hugo/Balzac. Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press. 1997.

Miller, Daniel. "Consumption." In Handbook of Material Culture. Los Angeles: SAGE. 2006.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1) A classic trope in political economy is to view society as an opposition between a state and a public sphere. How does Gandolfo's description of both Peru's legal regime and informal economy challenge that division? To what extent can either the state or civil society be considered a unified whole?

2) A common reason given for "formalizing" certain economies is to make them "visible" to the state, in terms of regulation and tax among other subjects. It is to give them a form, in other words. Yet much of this formalization is also done in the name of deregulation, decentralization and other forms of neoliberalism. Is this a contradiction in terms? What is the goal of the state in this story?

3) A question Gandolfo asks is that, in lowering and simplifying the state's regulation regime, does the state manage to "informalize" its own bureaucratic structures? Building from this, to what extent does it seem that the state's formal structures and the informality of the market are codependent on each other for their existence?

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