Small-Small: Moral Economy and the Marketspace in Northern Ghana


Over the past decade, the Ghanaian government has tried to include and accommodate the many people working in the so-called informal economy. This formalization process is in line with a global market-driven development discourse. The small-scale traders selling their goods from marketplaces and along the streets in major cities have been of particular interest.

While the Ghanaian government defines these actors as working in an “informal sector” and thus beyond the formal political and economic system, it simultaneously targets them with welfare services and various policies with the purpose of including them in the creation of a modern welfare state and shaping them into moral and entrepreneurial citizens.

In Tamale in northern Ghana, years of political neglect, violence, and structural adjustment have led to small-scale traders taking over streets, sidewalks, and infrastructure, which has created a boundless and dynamic marketspace that far exceeds the delimited and politically defined marketplaces. For the state, therefore, much of the formalization process is about restoring the control and power of public space through evictions and relocations of traders. In conjunction with the inclusive welfare services, this demonstrates the contradictions entailed in the politics of informality.

The study is based on an ethnographic fieldwork among small-scale traders in northern Ghana with a specific interest in the events that occur at the intersection where state, market, and citizenship meet. By asking what it means to be a trader in this contradictory process of formalization, the dissertation aims to understand this transformative moment in Ghana’s political and economic history.

In this study the emic notion of small-small is used to frame the norms of gradual progress and letting others in that define the moral economy of small-scale trade. Norms, values, and obligations generate trust and solidarity within the marketspace. But more than that, small-small produces a form of politics against an obstructive and unreliable state and it guides traders into the future by shaping dreams, aspirations, and possibilities. Situated in traders’ daily lives, work, and relationships, and through the small-small lens, this thesis investigates the underlying moralities of formalization. It describes the politics of the Ghanaian state, which in its attempt to create an inclusive welfare society, struggles to both protect the moral dynamics of small-scale trade while adhering to the norms and standards of an open liberalized economy.

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