Symbolic capital, informal labor, and postindustrial markets: the dynamics of street vending during the 2014 world cup in São Paulo


In contrast to industrial markets based on mass-production of material goods, postindustrial markets hinge on images, experiences, and emotions produced and exchanged on screens and in real life. Because postindustrial markets tend to be highly concentrated and technology-driven, they pose a threat to small businesses and low-skill workers in both advanced industrial economies and the Global South, where a large share of the population makes a living in the informal economy. Using the 2014 World Cup as a case of postindustrial economic activity hinged on spectacle, emotional experience, and intellectual property, I analyze the income-making strategies used by street vendors in São Paulo, Brazil. I show that organizers’ control of fan markets was limited by local conceptions of ownership over national symbols as well as informal workers’ flexible relation to legal norms and enforcement-dodging practices. Circumventing market barriers required risky and sophisticated strategies, however, which were more readily available to the more marginal section of the street vending population.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    This is not to suggest that intellectual property was not important in industrial markets. In fact, intellectual property law played a key role in the early stages of industrialization (see Ford 2017).

  2. 2.

    The distinction between exclusion and exploitation echoes the well-known distinction between the theory of social closure developed by Max Weber and the Marxist theory of exploitation. In its most common understanding, social closure refers to the erection of entry barriers by members of a privileged group to prevent others from sharing in their benefits. Whether or not the concept of social closure applies to the market practices described here is a complex question given both the variety of practices by which market incumbents preserve their advantages and the different conceptions of social closure in the literature (see (Cuvi 2018)), but the establishment of formal rules of exclusion is certainly one key mechanism in Weber’s (Weber 1978) original formulation.

  3. 3.

    Interview with unlicensed street vendor, August 4, 2014.

  4. 4.

    In his book, Boykoff (2013) elaborates on the “commercialization” of the Olympics and security measures.

  5. 5.

    FIFA forced Brazil to legalize the sale of alcoholic beverages inside stadiums (and to allow the trademarking of event names). The tightly regulated environment of recent World Cups contrasts with past editions such as Brazil in 1950, when an estimated 30.000 spectators attended the final game without purchasing tickets.

  6. 6.

    See Pesquisa Mensal de Emprego report published by SEADE, November 2017 at Retrieved January 23, 2018.

  7. 7.

    A municipal bill legalizing the street trade of non-packaged foods was adopted after the World Cup.

  8. 8.

    According to the VPRO Blacklight documentary Trade Mark Twenty Ten, even “2010,” during the 2010 World Cup, “belonged to FIFA.”

  9. 9.

    Interview with licensed street vendor, August 2014.

  10. 10.

    All names are pseudonyms.

  11. 11.

    Conversions are based on the exchange rate at the time of the World Cup.

  12. 12.

    Interview with street artist, July 19, 2014.

  13. 13.

    Interview with unlicensed street vendor, August 4. This interviewee said, quite tellingly, that the square was enclosed (fechado) “by Brahma,” the official beer sponsor.

  14. 14.

    See BBC “Brazil’s recession worst on record” at (published March 7, 2017; accessed December 6, 2018).

  15. 15.

    Interview with unlicensed street vendors, August 4, 2014.

  16. 16.

    Bourdieu (1977) is critical of this view, which he refers to as economism, while still holding that rituals “disguise” actual (and unequal) exchanges of resources.

  17. 17.

    Incumbents, not just challengers, can also take advantage of these symbolic commons, as Coca Cola’s commercial use of Santa Claus and Christmas imagery illustrates.


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I am grateful to Javier Auyero, Philip Balsiger, Fred Block, Ari Adut, Etienne Piguet, Daniel Powers, Philip Oxhorn, Bryan Roberts, Calla Hummel, and Nadya Guimarães for helpful comments and support. An earlier version of this article was presented in Neuchatel at the Rencontres Scientifiques de la MAPS. This research was supported by a studentship from the Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies, a Doc.Mobility grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, and a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (#1434160).

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Cuvi, J. Symbolic capital, informal labor, and postindustrial markets: the dynamics of street vending during the 2014 world cup in São Paulo. Theor Soc 48, 217–238 (2019).

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  • Brazil
  • Intellectual property rights
  • Policing
  • Social exclusion
  • Sports mega-events
  • Urban poverty