Informal labour brokers and contemporary capitalist economies

Convenors: Timothy Raeymaekers (University of Zurich) & Domenico Perrotta (University of Bergamo)

In comparative sociology and anthropology, the concept of broker remains of great relevance.  Famously, Jeremy Boissevain defined a social broker as a “professional manipulator of people and information”, who “places people in touch with each other either directly or indirectly for profit” and “bridges gaps in communication between persons, groups, structures and even cultures”. Such brokers are seen as central figures in the spread of colonial power, the development of patronage as well as a particular type of social and economic system, defined “broker capitalism”, typical of so-called ‘peripheral’ economies and States.

More recently, in the study of transnational mobility and labour markets, the role of the informal brokers has taken an prominent position. Over the last years, even if European labour market scholars have noted a trend towards the formalization of (migrant) labour intermediation (for instance through temporary work agencies, “posted workers” and governments’ schemes for the recruitment of seasonal workers), the role of informal brokers seems to remain important in bridging formal-informal ties.

But what kind of role such brokers play in contemporary capitalist economies is far from foreclosed. Some scholars depict a  downward exploitative relationship to so-called ‘informal’ labourers, assuming brokers become complicit in the formers’ “adverse incorporation” (Philips 2010) and channeled (hyper)mobility (Xiang and Lindquist 2014). As “thuggish” intermediaries, labour brokers are kept particularly responsible for debt bondage and human trafficking in complicity with smuggling and exploitation networks. Other scholars insist nonetheless on the more ‘positive’ role such brokers may play in enhancing ‘social capital’ and fostering trust in what are commonly described as ‘fragile’ social contexts. The underlying theory here is that of the “strength of weak ties” (Granovetter), which starts from the presupposition that networks with social ties in different environments than their close family and community are more likely to develop their social capital, and thus, to foster economic development.

This dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ brokers has served little to explain the important institutional function of informal brokers in bridging formal and informal capital accumulation, however: the question how labour intermediaries may perform and even transform certain regulatory functions either beyond or within state frameworks. Nor does it explain much about the political subjectivity of such intermediary figures, and the ways they are themselves part of “systems in the making”.

Inspired by the recent literature on migrant infrastructure, with its emphasis on the channeling, filtering and circulation of migrant mobility, this panel aims to focus on alternative conceptualizations of the relationship between migrant mobility, informal intermediation and contemporary capitalist institutions. It invites contributions from all social science disciplines. We give special priority towards longitudinal ethnographic work that challenges existing paradigms.

Possible questions to be addressed by the presenters are:

  • the transformations that systems of informal brokerage foster, prevent or delay in the economic sectors in which they are inserted;
  • the relationships between informal brokerage and public regulations of labour market and transnational mobility;
  • the conflicts over the figure, role, and activities of informal brokers;
  • the question of scale: how broker figures are capable of navigating and challenging spatially embedded distinctions between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ ‘sectors’.


Boissevain, J. (1974): Friends of Friends. Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Granovetter, M. (1973) The strength of weak ties, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, n° 6 (May),  pp. 1360-1380.

Phillips, N. (2013) Unfree labour and adverse incorporation in the global economy:  comparative perspectives on Brazil and India, Economy and Society, 42:2, pp. 171-196

Xiang, B. and Lindquist, J. (2014) Migration Infrastructure, in: IMR, 48 1 (Fall 2014), pp. 122–148.



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