Critiquing the Category of Informal Sector: Reflections by Jan Breman

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In November 1976 Dutch sociologist Jan Breman, wrote a tripartite article series titled “A Dualistic Labour System-A Critique of the Informal Sector Concept,” and published it with EPW. Breman came to India in the early 60s for his anthropological fieldwork in the study of labour. It is thus his empirical research that foregrounds his understanding of the concept of “informal sector,” which for him is an outcome of a dualistic categorisation formulated by first-world countries. Breman’s approach through his papers is to show that the category of informal labour is complex, and labour cannot be categorised in a dualistic fashion. This distinction between formal and informal sector was insufficient on many grounds, Breman observed that the category of the informal sector of labour was “compensated by a somewhat arbitrary listing of those activities which meet the eye of anyone who strolls through the streets of a city in the third world.” 


The issue of informal labour remains relevant to us till date. Whether it be domestic workers or small-scale self employed sellers on the street, or loose and unskilled workers— there remains a tendency to categorise labour in a broad sense that lacks nuance. The recent migrant worker exodus amidst the peak of the pandemic is another reminder of how important it is to understand the complexity of the informal sector that survives at the margins of the urban economy. 


In the first article, Breman illustrates how the concept of the informal sector is analytically inadequate, and any attempt to demarcate the informal sector will give rise to numerous inconsistencies and difficulties. Moreover, by interpreting the relationship of the informal sector to the formal sector in a dualistic framework and by focusing on the mutually exclusive characteristics, we lose sight of the unity and totality of the productive system. In the second article, Breman writes that we need to emphasise the fragmented nature of the entire urban labour market rather than just dividing it into two. In the final paper, Breman performs an examination of the social structure associated with urban labour force. Thus, instead of the dualistic framework he uses an alternative method of analysis by classifying the informal sector into four broad social classes: the labour elite, the petit bourgeoisie, the sub-proletariat, and the paupers.


A few other works that are broadly related to this discussion:

  1. Post-Reform Setbacks in Rural Employment : Issues That Need Further Scrutiny, G K Chadha and P P Sahu, 2002
  2. Informal Labour Market and Structural Devolution, P K Viswanathan, Tharian George K andToms Joseph, 2003
  3. Work and Life in the Informal Economy, Jan Breman, 2005

  4. Inequality in India–II : The Wage Sector, Dipak Mazumdar, Sandip Sarkar and Balwant Singh Mehta, 2017
  5. Overcoming Precarity: How Informal Women Workers Coped During COVID-19, Kanika Jha Kingra and Ayushi Gupta, 2021



Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at with the subject line— "Informal Labour and Society."
Curated by Priyam Mathur []
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