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The structure of informality: The Zambian copperbelt and the informal/formal dialectic

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Full Publication Date
April 27, 2023

The study of urban informality has exploded since Keith Hart theorized the term the ‘informal sector.' This explosion has coincided with a growing interest among urban scholars who train their eyes toward the ‘Global South.' Informality is used as shorthand for any number of urban experiences and realities ranging from the economy to governance, housing, the state, agency, political resistance, the urban form, and poverty. Much scholarship carefully illustrates different versions and modes of ‘informality,' while equating the term's first use with the provenance of the practice itself. Despite the global heterogeneity of informality, its instantiation can be traced further back than the 1960s and 1970s. Nearly half a century since the advent of the term the ‘informal sector,' we are still left with a deceptively simple question. If the creation and practice of informality predate African independence, where does it come from? This paper argues that the Zambian Copperbelt's early 20th–century history of urbanization and migration produced the informal/formal dialectic, establishing the grounds for inequalities that proliferate in the present. The structure of ‘informality’ finds its roots in colonial spatial strategies central to the formation of global capitalism. Through this dialectic, urbanization became a key mode of colonialism.

Research Areas
Urban Systems and Built Environment

Zambian Copperbelt



Publication Type
Journal Article
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Full Citation

Finn, B. M. (2023). The structure of informality: The Zambian copperbelt and the informal/formal dialectic. Dialogues in Human Geography, 0(0). CSS23-17