The social uses of the law at a Soweto garbage dump: Reclaiming the law and the state in the informal economy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


The informal economy is typically understood as being outside the law. However, this article develops the concept ‘social uses of the law’ to interrogate how informal workers understand, engage and deploy the law, facilitating the development of more nuanced theorizations of both the informal economy and the law. The article explores how a legal victory over the Johannesburg Council by reclaimers of reusable and recyclable materials at the Marie Louise landfill in Soweto, South Africa shaped their subjectivities and became bound up in struggles between reclaimers at the dump. Engaging with critical legal theory, the author argues that in a social world where most people do not read, understand, or cite court rulings, the ‘social uses of the law’ can be of greater import than the actual judgement. This does not, however, render the state absent, as the assertion that the court sanctioned particular claims and rights is central to the reclaimers’ social uses of the law. Through the social uses of the law, these reclaimers force us to consider how and why the law, one of the cornerstones of state formation, cannot be separated from the informal ways it is understood and deployed. The article concludes by sketching a research agenda that can assist in developing a more relational understanding of the law and the informal economy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)222-234
Number of pages13
JournalCurrent Sociology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Critical legal theory
  • legal mobilization
  • social uses of the law
  • waste pickers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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