Urban Studies Street Vendors
Amy Schoenecker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0061


Street vending is woven into the history of urban areas across the globe. Despite this lengthy history, academic inquiry on street vending is recent. Research on street vending arose largely in lock step with research on the informal economy. A definition of the informal economy is not settled, but a commonly used definition by the International Labor Organization describes the informal economy as economic activities that are not covered or poorly covered by formal arrangements—be it in law or in practice. This lack of protections makes informal workers vulnerable. Some vulnerabilities vendors face include lack of licensing, no social security, and harassment and eviction by public authorities. Street vendors are one of the largest, and certainly most visible, parts of the informal economy. Most research on street vending comes from sociology, urban studies, and anthropology, while scholars in the fields of business, economics, and political science also study the topic. Found in cities worldwide, street vendors sell hot and prepared food and drinks, fruits and vegetables, clothing, electronics, media, souvenirs, and virtually everything else. Street vendors also provide services like shoe shining and shoe repair. Many vendors are stationary, returning daily to their same spot to regularize a connection with their clientele. Stationary vending set-ups vary, with some vendors simply selling goods from a basket or a blanket on the ground, while others have a semi-permanent stall that can be shuttered in the evening. Itinerant vending is also very common with displays ranging from pushcarts to mobile or hand-held displays. Some vendors are on the move to cater to a mobile population, with vending on trains or train platforms as a popular location. Other vendors may be mobile to avoid police tickets or harassment. While the term “street vendor” is commonly used in the literature, other common terms include “trader,” “hawker,” and “peddler.” Street vendors are largely an entrepreneurial group, though some are wage workers. Vendors tend to be poor, though this is not ubiquitous. In many contexts, vending provides a decent income, especially for those without formal education. It is not uncommon for vendors to operate through family, kinship, or other social networks. For example, a market may be dominated by a particular ethnic group. Given that many vendors operate in public spaces, street vending is often a contentious issue, with tensions between vendors and municipal authorities, residents and residents’ associations, and businesses routinely occurring. Governments often mark vendors and vending as disorderly and chaotic to justify removals and crackdowns. In reaction, vending or trading unions are common as are alliances with NGOs, politicians, and political parties. Additionally, vendors and markets are often self-organized, running along an internally created order that defies governmental assertions of chaos and disorder. Despite these strains, some cities and countries have legalized street vending, with some promoting street vendors as tourist attractions. The following themes will largely discuss the specific literature on street vending, but more general literature on the informal economy will also be invoked when helpful.

Contending Theories and General Overviews

Theoretical outlooks on street vending are largely tied to theories of the informal economy, with three major schools represented. First is the dualist school popularized by Hart 1973, wherein informal economic activities are depicted in juxtaposition to the formal economy. It was expected that as economies modernized, the formal sectors would envelop the informal, with the latter eventually disappearing. In distinction to such expectations, the informal economy is growing in many places. While Hart 1973 is most credited with dualism, the comparison of economic development in two Indonesian towns in Geertz 1963 was an initial exploration of the informal economy and development. Geertz believed that informal practices like street vending inhibit rapid economic growth. Second, legalism emerged with de Soto 1989, which suggested that informal entrepreneurs in Peru appear when the costs of doing business the legal way are too prohibitive. Finally, structuralist accounts argue an exploitative relationship exists between the formal and informal economies, where businesses in the formal economy utilize informal businesses to enhance their own profit. Moser 1978 is an early example of structuralism. Important edited volumes on the informal economy include Fernández-Kelly and Shefner 2006, which explores informality, including street vending, in the Global South, and Portes, et al. 1989, a critical book that defined the informal economy and explored it both in developing and in developed countries. Bhowmik 2012, another edited volume focusing solely on street vending, contains chapters on vendors across the Global South, including Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Studies on street vending often attempt to provide an overview of the phenomenon in a geographic context, exploring vending in a city, country, region, or even continent, including providing demographics of vendors, products sold, reasons for vending, and general working conditions. Mitullah 2003 analyzes street vending in six African countries to demonstrate the importance of the work for these countries, and to highlight the role of women vendors, while Goldstein 2016 explores Bolivian vending and the seemingly contradictory nature of the state as it sometimes enforces, while other times ignores its own rules. As studies in the Global South became numerous, scholars studying Western countries pointed out that postmodern conditions were creating the atmosphere for increased and sustained vending there as well. Boels 2014 discusses vending in Brussels, demonstrating the blurred line between formal, informal, and illegal, in line with structuralist thinking. Morales 1997 also takes a structuralist approach by analyzing the dynamic relationship between the formal and informal economies through street vending in Chicago.

  • Bhowmik, Sharit, ed. Street Vendors in the Global Urban Economy. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    One of the few edited books focusing solely on street vending. Contains chapters on street vendors from across the globe including India, Cambodia, and Bangkok, and overviews of Africa and Latin America. In the introduction Bhowmik explains that the book attempts to take a balanced approach to vending by highlighting the pros and cons of the often-contentious industry.

  • Boels, Dominique. “It’s Better Than Stealing: Informal Street Selling in Brussels.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 34.9–10 (2014): 670–693.

    DOI: 10.1108/IJSSP-04-2013-0049

    Researches vending in two markets, one formal, one informal, in Brussels, Belgium. Notes many similarities between the two markets, suggesting a structuralist understanding wherein the line between formal, informal, and illegal/criminal is a hazy one. Also finds many similarities between Brussels vendors and vendors in the Global South including vendors’ profiles, reasons for vending, and the regulation/eviction of vendors, which often resembles a cat-and-mouse game.

  • De Soto, Hernando. The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

    This book, comprising the legalist view, analyzes Peru’s informal economy in the 1980s and argues that too much regulation and high barriers of entry to the formal economy have pushed entrepreneurs into the informal economy. Suggests that the existence of the underground or informal economy is a creative response to an overly bureaucratic state, and that the costs of legality in Peru are simply too high.

  • Fernández-Kelly, Patricia, and Jon Shefner, eds. Out of the Shadows: Political Action and the Informal Economy in Latin America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

    Takes a political approach to understanding the informal economy in Latin America. Important topics covered include regulation, neoliberalism, gender, clientelism, and informal politics. Chapter 2, written by John Cross and Sergio Peña, specifically focuses on how informality, in the form of street vending, is regulated in Mexico City.

  • Geertz, Clifford. Peddlers and Princes: Social Development and Economic Change in Two Indonesian Towns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

    Geertz did not set out to analyze street vending in this classic book. Instead, the author sought to understand development, specifically the take-off theory—why some areas seem to rapidly progress economically. Geertz compares two Indonesian towns, suggesting that bazaar-type economies, termed later by others as the informal economy, are not suited to modern economic development. Instead, informal elements, like street traders, are seen as an impediment to rapid economic growth.

  • Goldstein, Daniel M. Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822374718

    Studies street vending in Bolivia in the context of a post-9/11 world with increased and sustained attention on issues of security. Analyzes how the urban poor, in this case street vendors, continue to operate in this heightened security context, while exploring the line between informality and illegality, and the relationship between informality and the state.

  • Hart, Keith. “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 11.1 (1973): 61–89.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X00008089

    A pioneering, landmark article on the informal economy. Hart coined the term “informal sector” in this study on informal economic activities by migrant workers in Accra, Ghana. The informal sector was characterized by self-employment, traditional forms of work, low productivity, and irregular income-earning opportunities, all of which occur, according to the author, outside of state purview.

  • Mitullah, Winnie. “Street Vending in African Cities: A Synthesis of Empirical Findings from Kenya, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa.” Background Paper for the 2005 World Development Report, 2003.

    Compares street vending in six African cities. Explains commonalities across cities including vending as an important source of employment; official records are few, which makes adequate planning difficult, and many vendors have little education. Additionally, the sector is dominated by women due to limited other opportunities, and to the flexibility that trading provides in being able to perform both household functions and income generation.

  • Morales, Alfonso. “Uncertainty and the Organization of Street Vending Businesses.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 17.3–4 (1997): 191–212.

    DOI: 10.1108/eb013305

    Analyzes Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market street vending community. Important in showing the relationship between formality and informality. Findings demonstrate that many families earn money from both the informal and the formal economy, and that part of the decision-making process about where and how to concentrate economic efforts includes risk analysis of uncertainty.

  • Moser, Caroline O. “Informal Sector or Petty Commodity Production: Dualism or Dependence in Urban Development?” World Development 6.9–10 (1978): 1041–1064.

    DOI: 10.1016/0305-750X(78)90062-1

    Critiques a dualist framework pitting the formal and the informal economies as distinct and relatively disconnected. Instead, Moser argues that labor is better understand as existing on a spectrum, with many jobs existing outside of a well-defined wage-sector position in a large enterprise. Additionally, Moser contends there are various types of relationships between the formal and informal sectors. All of this complicates a simplistic binary of formal versus informal.

  • Portes, Alejandro, Manuel Castells, and Lauren Benton, eds. The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    Represents an early and strong proponent of structural explanations of the informal economy; made many valuable contributions to the field. For example, in the introduction, Castells and Portes distinguish between formal, informal, and criminal economic activities, and provide a much-used definition of the informal economy. The chapters present cases on the informal economy spanning the globe, defying notions that the informal economy exists only in developing countries.

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