Publish at September 26 2022 Updated September 29 2022

The school on the run [Thesis].

The investigation of an apprentice street vendor

Silhouette of a woman opening her coat in order to resell products recovered in the garbage of department stores on Boulevard Barbes in Paris

"Honesty doesn't make you eat"

No less than 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted each year, or 1/3 of the food produced in the world. Europe alone wastes the equivalent amount of food needed to eradicate hunger in the world. At the same time, a process of impoverishment of societies has been in place for several years, leading billions of people to poverty.

Wanting to make ends meet by reselling with maximum profit goods of sometimes dubious origins, it is no longer rare to see here and there street vendors. Onlookers browse these markets, which are recognized by all as illegal, without being surprised by the cigarettes and souvenirs, food and consumer goods. Selling on the sly is selling goods on the public highway without special permission and without fixed facilities, so that they can quickly escape in case of control.

This is where food resellers slash prices unbeatable on lots salvaged earlier from the trash and unsold goods of department stores. Street vending requires very specific knowledge depending on the goods to be resold in order to be seen by customers without being seen by the authorities, but also to manage competition and dishonest buyers. 

How to get goods? What is the basis of the trading relationship? What are the subtleties to be mastered? What is the place of cunning and deception? How to escape this economy? This is what Gauthier Bayle proposes to discover in his thesis "Trade, Cunning and Deception: an Ethnography of the Parisian Street Sale."

Opportunity makes the thief: why read this thesis

As an apprentice street vendor, Gauthier Bayle takes the gamble of a so-called "open" mode of inquiry in which all people are aware of his intentions. By dint of regular and transparent contacts, he succeeds in blending into the mass and no longer worrying his subjects in order to collect data without interfering in the situations observed. This allows the author to reveal a set of economic, sociological or even anthropological aspects that remained hidden because of the illegality of the subject studied.

Working is a way to earn a living or to supplement a dignified income. However, in France, working requires papers and selling in the public space requires an authorization involving various taxes and the respect of codes or norms. Selling on the sly, under the cloak or even in the wild is forbidden in France. From the Eiffel Tower to the Boulevard Barbes, through the subway exits and the local garbage garbage cans of the stores, the author analyzes the dystopian reality of the street vendors of one of the most idealized cities in the world. 

Far from the sensational media simplifications, the author thus gives an account of all the nuances of his subject. A world where countless personalities intermingle against the backdrop of a model of loyalty weaving invisible links between all the actors composing an unusual community where cunning and deception are transformed into savoir-vivre and legitimacy. In addition to the harshness of the reported reality, the author offers, in the manner of the clichés that mark out his thesis, new points of view making hope, humanity and desire to exist emerge from his data. 

Excerpt: Encounters and Investigative Relationships: Jeanne 

"The Avenue de la Porte de Montmartre borders the motorway ring road at the very north of Paris and hosts a municipal food market every Thursday morning. Somewhere on its right sidewalk, near a bus shelter, the alley of a residence does not allow to install conventional stalls. On this space of about twenty square meters, one can do all kinds of business under the cloak. Some counterfeit: belts, perfume, watches, toys... Some basic products: toothpaste, shampoo, razor blades, chocolate, baby diapers. But mostly food.

As a result of a combination of circumstances, I met Jeanne 3 there on February 26, 2015. Underneath her matronly looks with muscular forearms, she was the only one to escape a police seizure that day. With her cart and large nylon bag, she pretended to wait for the bus. She told me she was sixty-seven years old, French by birth and an ex-employee of a record publishing company. I then sat down next to her and she explained that in twelve years, if she had learned anything useful, it was not to spread out too much merchandise so that she could gather it quickly when needed.

After that, I came back regularly for several months. Sometimes she'd invite me over for coffee at 2 p.m. when the market ended. If she had to slip away while she was selling, she would also sometimes ask me to watch her merchandise for a few moments. On still other occasions, she insisted that I leave with products that she had not been able to sell, not only to me, but to other sellers as well. That's how I realized that there was some kind of rule about this. Gifts of goods are indeed not uncommon between resellers. They can also buy and sell goods to each other. It is, however, much less common for them to reveal where they came from. That said, I was lucky enough to have discovered one of these recovery points on my own. From there, I had decided (for a while) to share it with Jeanne by bringing her on Thursday morning what I had found the day before.

Between 2015 and 2017 and according to a variable rhythm, I took part in the recovery of goods put in the dustbin (but still consumable) then in their resale in margin of markets of district of the north of Paris. I frequented the food resale points by direct observation during the first months, then by participant observation. I was, like each of them, the first beneficiary of the food I found, which allowed me (in a period of leaner times) to cut my food budget in half, at the rate of two recoveries per week at the peak of my activity. On the other hand, my participation was most often limited to one or two hours of selling and to earnings between three and eight euros. Investigating in this way meant that I was able to get supplies independently and regularly. I was able to do this so often because the store down the street from my house gathered a handful of people twice a week who were waiting to pick up its unsold goods. I got to know this group of reclaimers there as well as some of the resellers, and the field notes I compiled alongside them are almost as numerous."

High School of Business of the Scraps?

Cross-referencing the data collected by Gauthier Bayle allows us to reveal a social network in which each individual seeks to avoid an escalation of disloyalty. We discover that all the actors in this microcosm, including the police, soften their egos to allow for compromise if not mutual accountability. Seeking a form of social peace by allowing everyone to co-exist, they set up exchanges of favors, advice, mutualization or informal rules. However, this de-escalation of tensions remains weakened by all the failures or feelings of betrayal that shatter it.

Failing to come out of a High School of Commerce, the street vendors are taught their livelihood in the school of the street by a social apprenticeship copying the successes of the most audacious. The tricks of the trade are assimilated through the sum of personal experiences and direct or indirect companionship with their peers, their clients and the police. In this way, skills and informal knowledge based mainly on distrust and cunning are constructed, as shown by a formula that often comes back to the author's ears: "even your best customer is a thief."

From vices to debates?

In the dark light, the author unveils the world of street vending and its coherence with the societal context of a metropolis. Behind the false semblance of joy of some of the exchanges collected, tensions and strong social distress are felt. A sum of individuals rarely vitiated, living in an environment structuring itself by games of trust and betrayal in a street that unlike them will not give them credit.

Gauthier Bayle gives visibility to a community and their human relationships usually overshadowed by our routines. We glimpse how different social behaviors specific to a group that litter the cities are woven, transmitted, and acquired. 

Motivated by the problems of employment, justice, or even hunger stemming from urban poverty, these unusual entrepreneurs bring forth alternatives to a conventional economy. In such a way that some of these street vendors are learning to play a social role in spite of themselves by providing various consumables to the most precarious populations at unbeatable prices while making food waste profitable.

What about you? Ready to train on the run?

Good reading

This work was defended on November 17, 2021, in view of obtaining the doctorate in Sociology from the University of Paris Nanterre at the École doctorale Économie, organisations, société (ED: 396) within the Laboratory of Institutions and Historical Dynamics of Economy and Society (UMR 8533) (Nanterre - France)


Gauthier Bayle. Commerce, cunning, and deception: an ethnography of street vending in Paris. Sociology. University of Nanterre - Paris X, 2021. French. ⟨NNT: 2021PA100114⟩. ⟨tel-03649494⟩



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