Sheffield Desk on Popular Economy

A joint collaboration between the Department of Urban Studies and the Urban Institute to mainstream the University’s work on urban popular economies.

Man riding bike carrying goods through busy market

The Desk considers both the conditions that generate heterogeneous livelihood practices and well as their compositions. As conventional boundary markers among labour, market, household, social reproduction are frequently being reconfigured, fundamental questions are raised about the relationships between work and collective well-being. For whom and what does one work; what is the social objective of work; how does the invention of life practices depend upon both new or renewed experiences of the “social” or “collective” and what kinds of material arrangements underly these practices? These are the basic considerations of popular economy.

The Desk focuses on three dimensions or planks of these considerations:

1. Everyday antagonisms that situate the efforts to make ends meet, to realize both personal and social aspirations through economic practices that resist exclusion and attempt to materially create worlds that individual and household feel that are a part of. What are the ways in which collectives constitute themselves as viable entities within conditions that otherwise do not have the terms or political capacity to recognize them?

Theoretically, this plank is situated within the legacies of autonomist thought, notions of commoning and the under-commons. It concerns the formation of moral economies directed towards a life worth living that may be predicated on a multiplicity of contested imaginations and practices—a working out of what constitutes the licit and illicit, legitimate forms of accumulation and exchange. 

2. Institutions, Technicities of Governance, Political Deliberation. Efforts to mobilise resources, to materialise social imagination are situated within specific and multiple territories. These are territories of administration and operations. To operationalise particular livelihoods and collective aspirations means interacting with various modes and institution. How this situatedness is negotiated, contested or acceded to is critical for what any community or collective might become.

So how territories are defined, composed and governed are critical aspects of popular economy, including a concomitant emphasis on how specific experiments with creating viable local urban commons, sustainable livelihood beyond wage labor, and new systems of valuation also entail experiments with political mobilisation, engagement with various technical instruments of governance, and the consolidation of enduring institutions capable of providing security, judicious distributions of effort and participation.

3. Making and Producing. Outside of the domains of official wage labor, gig economies, or freelance work, how are livelihoods actually made? What kinds of mobilization and coordination of effort and skill go into producing something of recognised value? 

Going beyond simple categorizations of informal sector, popular economy is concerned with the details of how things are made, repaired, repurposed, or reinvented in specific contexts. How are particular instances of making actually organized in terms of design, labor, location, infrastructure, and finance. What are the complementarities and conflicts among different instances of production, such as issues of supply chains, the composition of labor, the organization of skill and capacity, and the provision for basic needs?