Exchanges in public space: A network approach to street food vendors


The economy of street food vendors provides not only affordable food for the urban poor people, but also generates opportunities of self-employment. However, success of these tiny units is dependent on various networks that create this economy. Therefore, economic outcomes from these entrepreneurial activities could be embedded with the social relations through networks. Through an ethnographic fieldwork of nine months of multiphased study among the food vendors in the UdupiManipal urban continuum of the state of Karnataka, we explore this issue to identify the key nodes that create street food economy and their policy implications.


‘Street food vendors’ is an important segment of the food market with significant implications for food security for the poor people in urban areas. These tiny units of food processing and sale in urban public spaces have not gained significant attention from the researchers. In this paper, we unravel various networks that give rise to these nano units. Often, the performance of firms is discussed in a dichotomous framework of treating ‘economic’ and ‘social’ as abstract dualities (Elson, 2004). Paradoxically, in non-western countries where poverty is often very dense, the economic actions are “carried out through relationships that have been conventionally cast as ‘non-economic’” (Kabeer, 2004:1). This relational aspect of firms is examined here by investigating multiple embeddedness (structural, cultural, cognitive, and political [Zukin and DiMaggio, 1990]) of 12 cases of street food vendors (or gudangadi, literally box shop) from the Udupi-Manipal continuum in the coastal region of Karnataka. More particularly, we intend to examine how social and economic exchange is embedded through network mechanisms. By posing this ‘how’ question, we are filling an important gap existing in the literature on informal economy. Literature is scant on mechanisms of how networks are formed by entrepreneurs (Gulati, 1998). Unearthing the mechanisms will be a key step to understand the informal economy in a better way.

The paper is organized in three sections. In the first section, we review various theoretical concepts related to the network mechanisms of informal sector workers. Here, the role of embeddedness in the informal sector is examined and the particular case of street food vendors in India is examined in detail. This section also provides details of the research context and methodology adopted in this study. In the second section, different nodes that create the network existence of gudangadi is discussed. In the concluding section, we discuss the implications emerging from the network for the gudangadi economy.

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