The Politics of Field Destruction and the Survival of São Paulo’s Street Vendors

Jacinto Cuvi

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Cuvi, J. (1). The Politics of Field Destruction and the Survival of São Paulo’s Street Vendors. Social Problems, 63(3), 395–412.

Brazil , Field theory , informality , street vending , urban policy

Drawing on recent developments in field theory, this article analyzes the struggle for survival of São Paulo’s street vendors in the face of a massive eviction campaign. I conceive of street vending as a social field divided into two unequal categories—licensed street vendors and unlicensed street vendors—and show that responses to the campaign varied along group lines. Unlicensed peddlers either abandoned the field or drew on local networks to continue peddling under harsher conditions, whereas licensed street vendors relied on well-established ties to actors in the political field. After these ties proved ineffective, licensed street vendors survived thanks to the intervention of a non-governmental organization (NGO) that activated the judicial field and mobilized the legal capital vested in the licenses. The linkage role performed by this actor with cross-field networks and expertise shows the strategic import of interfield relations, which replicate and reinforce the unequal distribution of assets inside the field.

Main finding
Licensed and unlicensed street vendors in São Paulo took different approaches to cope with eviction policies aimed at all street vendors. Unlicensed vendors relied on their physical mobility or social networks to resist, either completely exiting street vending or moving operations to other locations that were less policed, at high emotional and economic costs in both scenarios. Licensed street vendors, however, were successfully able to challenge the city government and eviction policies through access to resources in the judicial field. The use of the judicial field was made possible through the unique confluence of information and documentary evidence on street vending collected by a local non-governmental organization and the legal expertise and competence of the judiciary field to act against the state on behalf of disenfranchised groups. The links between actors in the different fields (civic and judicial) were crucial in both the implementation of eviction policies and resistance against them. The judicial system can reach past the limitations of social ties as an asset of resistance. These findings show, however, that the judicial system is not universally accessible, and that its activation often requires the intervention of third parties that have the appropriate legal expertise and knowledge.

Description of method used in the article
This study employs process-tracing analysis on 14 months of qualitative fieldwork data, including 80 semi-structured interviews, 300 examined documents, and over 400 hours of ethnographic observation. Interview participants included high- and mid-ranking officials from five administrations, leaders of street vendors’ associations, police officers, representatives of formal business groups, NGO workers, city councilmen, lawyers, a judge, and more than 50 licensed and unlicensed street vendors. Researchers asked officials about reasons behind policy decisions, the political forces at work, and intended and unintended results of policy measures adopted. NGO workers, and leaders of street vendors’ associations were asked about the connections between them. Street vendors were asked about their experience of repression under mayor Kassab’s administration and strategies employed to stay in business. The author attended 30 meetings between street vendors’ associations, government employees, and NGO workers. The author also conducted ethnographic observations by accompanying licensed and unlicensed vendors at their stalls with subsequent notetaking and casual chatter. Finally, around 300 documents were examined, including digital archives of city council public hearings, newspaper articles, and court records.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Other or N/A
Archival / Historical Interviews Participant Observation
Physical types
Sidewalks Streets
Geographic locations