Skip to content

WorkShop 03: Informal Challenges to the MENA Formal Politics

Twelfth Mediterranean Research Meeting 2011

Informal Challenges to the MENA Formal Politics

directed by:

Michalengelo Guida
Fatih University 

 [email protected] 

Bezen Balamir Coskun
Zirve University

[email protected]  



The study of informal institutions and informal politics is now common in political analyses. These research mainly analyse the cases from East Asia, Russia and former Soviet Republics (Tamada 1991; Dittmer 1995 and Dittmer et al. 2000; Cheng and Womack 1996; Chabal et al. 2004; Gelman 2004; Isaacs 2010). Informal institutions, now active players of political life, assume importance upon appreciation of the holistic nature of political behaviour, which cannot be fully understood without attention both to the formal and informal components of political systems. In spite of the richness in terms of the influence of informal institutions on formal politics of the region, literature on Middle Eastern politics takes little account of informal institutions and informal politics. This is due in large part to the difficulty for the scholar to penetrate into the tangle of unwritten codes, traditions and networks. Moreover, political scientists have been concentrated on the state and its institutions. Our workshop explores the varieties and opportunities the informal institutions of the region offers -from proxy leadership system in Turkey to the Islamic welfare networks in several regional states. The central aim of the workshop is a comparative empirical study that would answer the following questions within the MENA context:

  • What are the existing structural explanations for the dominance of informal institutions in the region?
  • What is the influence of informal political actors on formal political processes in the region?
  • How do informal institutions organise to exert pressure on formal political institutions?
  • How do informal and formal institutions interact and/or struggle to organise domestic politics of the particular country?
  • What kind of political and social arrangements involving informal and formal institutions are formed?
  • What are the challenges and support given by informal politics to the state authority?


Workshop Description

Mainstream comparative research on political institutions focuses primarily on formal rules. Yet, in many contexts, informal institutions, ranging from bureaucratic and legislative norms to clientelism and patrimonialism, shape political outcome stronger than formal institutions. This is even more true in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern context where forms of authoritarian rule, widespread mistrust of the state institutions, persistence of primitive loyalties, arbitrary red-tapes, and invasive role of bureaucracy in the market are, in different degrees, common characteristics of the area’s political systems. Scholars who fail to consider these informal institutions miss many of the most important incentives and constraints that underlie political behaviour. In this workshop we will discuss different patterns of formal-informal institutional interactions -complementary, accommodating, competing, and substitutive- based on the case studies from the Mediterranean.

Indeed, the forms that shape human behaviour are not limited to the formal ones. A complex web of informal institutions also exists. The demarcation line that distinguishes formal and informal institutions is blatant: informal institutions are not formally codified in official documents (Grzymala and Busse 2004). The distinction is not dependent on any performance contingency, nor on origin or nature, but on the simple but decisive fact of the codification of one but not the other. The informal is binding only insofar as it confers benefits upon the actors who subscribe to it. It is without the binding authority of the legally enforceable. Its ontology is the binding necessity that created it.

Curiously, confusion appears to be lurking in the linguistic distinctions between ‘formal institution’ and ‘informal institution’. ‘Informal’ does not mean ‘formless’, for although a formless institution is conceivable, the paradigmatic informal institution is well formed. In the mainstream literature, ‘informal institution’ has long been associated with secondary, even unproductive, institutions. The roots of this intellectual conservativeness are fixed in the historical developments that exalted the formal and denigrated the informal.

 For informal politics we intend, then, politics done outside the state, outside the written and clearly identifiable rules. Informal politics may be antagonistic to the state; for instance opposition in many of the states of the region has been set up clandestinely benefitting of the wide grey areas left empty by states’ inefficiency and its incapability of control over informal networks. Informal politics may be sympathetic or supportive of the legitimate or illegitimate power; for instance, the networks built between political elites and local notables to strengthen state authority in the peripheral areas of the country.

 The Weberian-modernist tradition argues that informalism is a threat to the impersonal order of rational rules. This stance envisages a rationally ordered formal model that best accommodates modern values. Accordingly, impersonality, calculability, formalism, rationality, and the separation of the market and the state are all hallmarks of modern society (Misztal 2000). On this model, informality connotes backwardness (Böröcz 2000). Similarly, Chabal’s and Daloz’s concept of informal politics is inherently negative. As a result of this formal / informal division of politics brings the idea that politics by definition is subject to state power (1998).

 In the late 1950s, Lerner (1958) claimed that all modernising societies are copying the developed Western models and their processes. According to Lerner this paradigm misled Western (and Eastern) scholars believe that there is a teleology that entails the necessity that Third World states become Western states. Accordingly some theorists are quick to label Third World states as failed states because they have never become the replica of the typical Western state. In this context, the accepted key criterion of a state’s success is the extent of the similarity/ dissimilarity between the Western model and that state’s extant model. Of course, this approach ignores the evident complexity of the Third World’s informal mechanisms. Furthermore cultural explanation was presumed to lie in the pursuit of answers to why and how non-Western societies cannot overcome their informality problem.

 The collapse of the Soviet system left uneasy political conditions in most post-Soviet states. The major units of analysis deployed in the effort to understand these conditions were clientalism, patronage, and coercion by mafia-style organisations. Informal structures that lend themselves to analysis in terms of these units did indeed arise in the post-state-socialist societies, to the point that made the conducting of business, economic or other, near-impossible (Böröcz 2000). Obviously, in these conditions, formal state institutions cease to be operational, and negative informal institutions thrive. The rate of the rise of such informal institutions in the transitioning post-Soviet countries was even taken as the measure of state weakness (Gel’man 2004). The pre-dominance in the literature of infamous samples of the kind of informalism that manifested in the early post-Soviet states contributed to the consolidation of the view that informal institutions are negative institutions.  Similarly, informality in the inherently formal structures of a modern economy carries highly negative connotations – such as irregularity, absence of official sanction, secondary, hidden, shadowy, parallel, subterranean, black market, unmeasured, unrecorded, untaxed – and alerts both state and individual actors to the risk of losing money (Sindzingre, cited in Kanbu and Ostrom 2006). Capitalist economy has a natural tendency to make official every detail of a transaction, to protect the interests of the parties. The ultra-detailed insurance contract symbolises the essential link between formalism and capitalism. The major players in an economy – governments, banks,corporations, etc. – never accept informal mechanisms as valid transaction methods. Governments are extremely alert to informal economic mechanism, since they threaten reduction of the size of the tax base. Naturally, the reservations of modern economy contributed to the formation of the negative perception of informal institutions.

 Despite the existence of negative connotations, informalism is still an important aspect of human societies, even of the modern ones. In Böröcz’s (2000, p. 352) terms, a life conceptualised as cleaned of informalism is a ‘negative utopia, for ‘informality is omnipresent’ in the real world. This view, which treats the informal as a normal and indelible aspect of human social behaviour, sets itself against the traditional modernist view. It conceptualises informal institutions as functional or problem-solving, recognising their positive role in providing solutions to the various problems of social interaction (Halmke and Levitsky 2004). It argues that there is no fixed relationship between the formal and informal, and that therefore the important issue that demands attention is how each society finds its own mixture of rule-bound formality and rule-independent informality (Misztal 2000). Accordingly, informality of conduct and formality of rules are existential appositives that resolve their tension in the different ways of the different societies. Their relation is never fixed for all time, and their dynamism results in the evolution of styles of interaction (Misztal 2000). Thus it is more perspicuous to regard formal and informal institutions as interdependent than it is to regard them as mutually exclusive (Cheng and Womack 1996). It is this obligation of perspicuity that necessitates the inclusion of informal institutions in political analysis.

 As far as the MENA politics is concerned, the informal dimension has always played a crucial role. This is due in part to the unsettled nature of the Mediterranean politics that has made it difficult for the institutionalisation of politics and in part to the cultural preference for more moralistic and personalised authority relations.

 Given this background, this workshop on informal institutions and informal politics aims to bring together scholars working on different case studies regarding the role of informal institutions in the region’s politics. With this workshop we aim at establishing a group of scholars that will contribute to the study of the subject comparatively and at preparing an edited publication on informal politics in the Middle East. Specifically, we are interested in the following issues in each case study:


  • the reasons and mechanisms behind the emergence of informal institutions,
  • the nature of their stability and change,
  • the structural explanations,
  • the interaction between formal and informal institutions.


 We will seek scholars with different areas of specializations working on different aspects of informal politics in the Mediterranean. Each participant will submit a paper that will engage with a case study. During the workshop, participants will discuss both theoretical models and the specific case studies. Proposals submitted to this workshop should be empirical, focus on a specific case study and engage with the following questions:

  • What are the existing structural explanations for the relevance of informal institutions in the region?
  • What is the influence of informal political actors on formal political processes in the Middle East?
  • How do informal institutions organise to exert pressure on formal political institutions?
  • How do informal and formal institutions interact and/or struggle to organise domestic politics of the particular country?
  • What kind of political and social arrangements involving informal and formal institutions are formed?




Böröcz, J. ‘Informality Rules’, East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 14 no. 2, 2000, pp. 348-380.

Chabal, P. et al. ‘Beyond States and Empires: Chiefdoms and Informal Politics’, Social Evolution and History, Vol. 3 no.1, 2004, pp.22-40

Chabal, P. & Daloz, JP. Africa Works, Disorder as Political Instrument, (Oxford: James Curry, 1998)

Cheng T. & Womack, B. ‘General Reflections on Informal Politics in East Asia’, Asian Survey, vol.  36 no. 3, 1996, pp. 320-327.

Dittmer, L. et al. (ed.), Informal Politics in East Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Dittmer, L. ‘Chinese Informal Politics’, The China Journal no.34, 1995, pp.1-34

Denoeux, G. Urban Unrest in the Middle East: a comparative study of informal networks in Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon (Albany: State University of New York, 1993)

Gel’man, V. ‘The Unrule of Law in the Making: the Politics of Informal Institution Building in Russia’, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 56, no. 7, 2004, pp. 1021-1040.

Grzymala-Busse, A. ‘Informal Institutions and the Post-Communist State’, Unpublished Paper, 2004, pp. 1-28.

Helmke, G. & Levitsky, S. ‘Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics’, Perspectives on Politics, no.2, 2004, pp.725-740

Isaacs, R. ‘Informal Politics and the Uncertain Context of Transition’, Democratisation, Vol.17 no.1, 2010, pp.1-25

Lerner, D. The Passing of Traditional Society, (Free Press, New York, 1958)

Misztal, B. A. Informality Social Theory and Contemporary Practice, (Routledge, London and New York, 2000)

Tamada, Y. ‘Itthiphon and Amnat: An Informal Aspect of Thai Politics’, Southeast Asian Studies, Vo.28 no.4, 1991, pp.455-466



Page last updated on 04 September 2018

Go back to top of the page