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Navigating the Informal Economy: Social Networks among Undocumented Zimbabwean Migrant Women Hairdressers in Durban, South Africa

John Mhandu


Published: 2020/12/01


This ethnographic study examines how undocumented Zimbabwean migrant women hairdressers in Durban (South Africa) use their social networks to navigate the informal sector. It draws on 15 in-depth interviews, participant observation, and three focus group discussions. The article focuses attention on the precarious employment situation of young migrants working in the urban informal economy and how their social networks play a two-fold supportive role. First, social networks paved the way by spreading information about the destination country, and they provide continuing assistance. Social networks determined whether migration should occur and in which form, whether temporary, circular, or permanent. Secondly, social networks are available in the opportunity structure and play a significant role in all stages of business creation by providing information and other resources. Against this backdrop, the study describes the three fundamental characteristics exhibited by these social networks: structure, content, and function. Structure refers to the types of relationships often called an architectural aspect of network ties. Content is the transfer of material or non-material resources which is significant in the business creation process. It includes attitudes, opinions, more tangible experiences and collective memory held within networks. Function refers to the satisfaction of needs including emotional support and instrumental aid. Theoretical insights of this study are drawn from Giddens’ theory of structuration.

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