The Peddlers’ Aristocracy: Social Closure, Path-Dependence, and Street Vendors in São Paulo

Abstract

Disabled street vendors occupy the best licensed locations in downtown São Paulo and have done so for several decades, despite repeated attempts to remove them from the streets or open up the trade to the able-bodied. Drawing on social closure and new institutionalist theory, this paper analyzes the policymaking process toward disabled and elderly street vendors over the last 60 years. It argues that these social groups initially benefited from a policy granting them special rights, which evolved into a monopoly over street vending licenses, and that political stability during the military dictatorship (1964–1985) allowed them to accumulate nonmaterial assets such as symbolic capital and political influence. Organized disabled and elderly vendors subsequently used these assets to shape the outcomes of reforms and preserve their relative advantage, thereby constructing the unequal legacy of social closure.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Municipal Decree 11039.

  2. 2.

    License holders must be at the stall in case of inspection, but the practice of subletting the stall to their assistants is not uncommon. It is hard to assess the scale of this practice given its illegal character. But whether license holders use the stall to sell their own merchandise or sublet it to other vendors, they enjoy an advantage compared to unlicensed street vendors.

  3. 3.

    In informal economies like street vending, income data are inevitably based on rough estimates. The figure cited here was provided to the author by two licensed street vendors and one storeowner and former street vendor working in the area. The figure is consistent with the highly skewed distribution of income in street trade (Bromley 2000).

  4. 4.

    I have used fictitious names for interviewees and organizations unless authorized to disclose real names by the sources.

  5. 5.

    Rumors circulated that an informal tax levied on disabled vendors by city inspectors went to a social policy fund set up by the mayor’s wife (Bertolli 1990).

  6. 6.

    Interview with party member and city official, February 2014.

  7. 7.

    Interview with party member and city official, February 2014.

  8. 8.

    Interview with Aldaiza Sposati, January 2014

  9. 9.

    Conversation with able-bodied licensed vendors, November 2013.

  10. 10.

    Interview with Aldaiza Sposati, January 2014.

  11. 11.

    Interview Rubens Possati, chief regulator of street vending in Sé, November 2013.

  12. 12.

    Interview with the author, February 2013.

  13. 13.

    Interview with Bruno Feder, November 2013.

  14. 14.

    Some able-bodied had managed to obtain licenses downtown through informal relations with city officials.

  15. 15.

    Interview with the author, February 2014.

  16. 16.

    The city unsuccessfully filed an appeal with the Superior Tribunal Federal.

  17. 17.

    See disabled vendor’s quote on p. 15.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Ari Adut, Javier Auyero, Manuel Balán, Fred Block, Daniel Fridman, Nadya Araujo Guimarães, Erik Martinez-Kuhonta, Philip Oxhorn, Bryan Roberts, and participants at a PhD dissertation workshop at McGill University for their comments and suggestions. This research was supported by a Doc.Mobility grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (award number 1434160), and a studentship from the Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies.

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Cuvi, J. The Peddlers’ Aristocracy: Social Closure, Path-Dependence, and Street Vendors in São Paulo. Qual Sociol 42, 117–138 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-018-9404-0

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Keywords

  • Public policy
  • Social closure
  • Informal economy
  • Brazil