The agonistic experience: Informality, hegemony and the prospects for democratic governance

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Introduction: Citizens, Informality and Urban Governance Citizens occupy an uneasy position in the major theories of urban governance and democracy, among them pluralism, elite theory and regime theory. Urban politics, at least in these three theories, is the domain of big actors and big institutions: politicians, bureaucrats, large administrative agencies, behind-the-scenes business elites, developers and construction companies, housing corporations, and pressure groups of all stripes. The one constant in this pluralist give and take is that urban policy pays heed to the requirements of a favourable business climate and, following currently popular neoliberal claims of irresistible pressures for change, to globalization and the escalating competition between 'global cities' (Lindblom 1977; Judge 1995, 28; Dryzek, 1996; Sassen 2001; Fainstein 2010). In this hard-nosed game there is hardly any room for the influence of citizens. They either sporadically combine in associations to exert pressure on specific issues or are largely indifferent to politics (Harding 1995, 43). Citizens do play a central role in another chapter of urban theory: the informal city. Informality is a key concept in theories of planning that concern themselves with urbanization. Informality refers to 'informal modes of organizing space, livelihood and citizenship' (Roy 2010). It is usually associated with hyper-urbanization in the Global South, and it has been most extensively studied in these contexts (Roy 2003; Corbridge et al. 2005; Simone and Abouhani 2005; Chatterjee 2006; Holston 2008). In the absence of state institutions that are sufficiently strong to provide essential services to the poor, the latter have to rely on their own practical skills to create such services. Born of necessity, informality also contains hope however. Informality becomes the expression of another kind of urban politics, a 'deep democracy', a 'countergovernmentality' (Chatterjee 2006) that, informed by local knowledge of the conditions and experiences of the poor, allows them to construct an alternative 'insurgent' citizenship that destabilizes 'entrenched' forms of citizenship (Holston, 2008).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPractices of Freedom
Subtitle of host publicationDecentred Governance, Conflict and Democratic Participation
EditorsSteven Griggs, Aletta J. Norval, Hendrik Waegner
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages32
ISBN (Electronic)9781107296954
ISBN (Print)9781107056107
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012


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