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FRINGE Centre blog series: ‘I’ for Invisibility

By Blog Admin, on 22 December 2015

In our third Fringe Centre blog, Alena Ledeneva of UCL SSEES discusses invisibility and informality.

In the beginning was … blat. The colloquial Russian word blat, best remembered as Bacon, Lettuce And Tomato, and just as common as BLT, refers to practices of getting things done through personal contacts. It was the knowhow of survival in the Soviet Union, totally invisible for outsiders but vital. The idiom ‘po blatu’ (‘through acquaintances’) was colloquially widely used but banned from official discourse. It certainly does not feature in any of the editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. As Joseph Berliner, the pioneer of the Harvard Interviewing Project, observed: ‘If we were totally reliant on the written sources of the Soviet society, we might hardly have guessed the importance of blat’ (Berliner 1957: 184). Just like most economies of favours – guanxi in China, jeitinho in Brazil, kombinacja in Poland, pituto in Chile, veze and vruzki in South Europe, wasta in the Middle East and torpil in Turkey, invisible for outsiders but common in their own societies – blat practices are associated with sociability, i.e. the use of personal contacts or networks, but also serve the instrumental purpose of gaining influence or accessing limited resources.

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The Global Informality Project, led by the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and the UCL IAS FRINGE Centre, provides the first multimedia online resource that explores such informal practices and local knowledge in a global perspective. Quite literally, we put local ‘ways of getting things done’, understood by insiders but invisible for outsiders, on the map, and develop a global collection of authored contributions, including ethnographic investigations, socio-economic analyses, historical expositions etc, and also provide visual images that are representative of informal practices. We also aim to establish informal patterns that elude discipline-based method and area studies focus. The project plan includes the online version of the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, the World Map of Informality, open access publications and FRINGE workshops.

(For more on the Global Informality Project see this interview with Alena Ledeneva)

The Online version of the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality: is based on WIKI software and has been developed with the help of CHIRP funds and the Digital Humanities Internship programme at the UCL. It is currently under construction and has about 50 experimental pages with images and entries. The entries are tagged by world region, country, period in time, as well as index and category. In prospect, we should be able to distinguish between practices existing under different political regimes in the same country, but also identify practices that outlive political regimes and socio-economic development. The entries will be searchable and it should be possible to ‘travel’ across time and space to get an insight into an ‘informal makeup’ of local knowledge at the time at a particular location. We are also considering possibilities of crowdsourcing for assessing contemporary practices: their visibility, familiarity, frequency, predictability, ambivalence, and impact.

World Map of Informality: The first global map of informality works on the basis of the Google Maps software and dots on the picture mark submitted entries. Interestingly, Russia has two dots, despite us having a lot of entries on Russian practices. The software places all Soviet entries in Moscow, whereas contemporary Russian entries appear to reside in Eastern Siberia…. We will of course try to improve on geographical sophistication with time, especially when the map becomes crowdsourced. For now, the map has been an important visualisation tool that reflects our progress, points out unconquered territories and serves as an orientation tool on the research-driven Political Analysis and Informal Practices MA courses at SSEES (students are most welcome to contribute to the map and to the project overall!).

Open Access Publications: The print version of the first volume of the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality will explore the boundaries between informality and corruption and focus on the ambivalence of informal practices and its implications for anti-corruption policy. Intellectually, it is part of the research agenda of the Centre for Study of Social and Cultural Complexity, the FRINGE Centre, as it looks into invisible practices and matters that fall in between discipline-based methods and area studies remits. The encyclopaedia will explore the existence of multiple moralities, which account for the I-nvisibility of informal practices, their I-llegitimacy, I-nstitutional arrangements, as well as the cultural and historical contexts of I-nformality (letter ‘I’ of the FRINGE, see the others decoded in the neighbouring blogs). ‘I’ in this context means ‘We’ as we join forces with Eric Gordy’s project on ‘Closing the Gap between Formal and Informal Institutions in the Balkans’, which recently received a major grant from the Horizon 2020 programme. (See Eric Gordy’s blog here).

Among other FRINGE projects, the Global Informality Project has been housed at the new UCL Institute of Advanced Studies and is keen to reach out to other areas studies centres and institutes at the UCL.

To date, the Global Informality Project has developed due to the enthusiasm (and kindness) of strangers, thus testing the hypothesis of whether the ‘informal’ works beyond the ‘personal’. Our growing ‘bottom-up’ network of scholars of informality from all over the world includes authors who are exceptionally committed, prompt on deadlines, open to cross-discipline and cross-area suggestions and are fantastic to work with! ‘We’ (the editorial team now includes Project Manager Anna Bailey, Costanza Curro, Elizabeth Teague and Sheelagh Barron) would like to thank everyone who has submitted entries and believed in us. We aim to make submission of informal practises across the globe much easier in the future by creating a comprehensible, easily accessible online resource serving not only the academic community, but also policy makers, businesses, travellers and the public.

The project was originally funded by SSEES, CHIRP, and FP7 ANTICORRP.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.