Bootlegged concert recordings, undocumented immigrants building houses in the U.S., New York City street vendors selling designer knock-offs—these are examples of a largely unexamined economic activity, the informal economy. These economic activities are considered illegal yet still viewed as socially acceptable or legitimate by some substantial segment of society.

Because nearly nine percent of the GDP of the United States (and perhaps more than 60 percent in some African and South American countries) is involved in the informal economy, it is a topic worth exploring, says Duane Ireland, Distinguished Professor of Management and Conn Chair in New Ventures Leadership. He and two Mays colleagues (David Sirmon and Laszlo Tihanyi) and Justin Webb (a recent graduate of the Mays Ph.D. program who is now at Oklahoma State University) have examined how the informal economy works and the reasons some ventures thrive, despite barriers of legality and legitimacy.

The illegality of bootleg DVDs in most countries has not prevented them from becoming a significant source of income for many entrepreneurs willing to take the risk of operating in an informal economy.
The illegality of bootleg DVDs in most countries has not prevented them from becoming a significant source of income for many entrepreneurs willing to take the risk of operating in an informal economy.

The cornerstone of their research is a matrix for categorizing entrepreneurial activities based upon legality and legitimacy. While some entrepreneurial activities in the informal economy are considered illegal yet legitimate (e.g., the sale of counterfeit products or use of undocumented workers as labor to build a home), other entrepreneurial activities fit different classifications of legality and legitimacy. For example, tobacco-based and adult-oriented products in the United States are legal yet considered illegitimate by large societal groups.

In contrast, illegal drugs and human trafficking are considered illegitimate by the overarching society. Distinguishing among different classifications of legality and legitimacy is important to understanding the mechanisms through which these entrepreneurial activities are able to exist, grow, and be sustained even while occurring outside of the law.

Ireland says one aspect that he finds fascinating is how a business can move between categories over time, due to the intentional actions of the business or due to shifts in the definitions of legality and legitimacy. Take for instance, alcohol sales in the United States in the 1920s during prohibition. Though it was illegal, speakeasies and bootlegged liquor became quite commonplace and legitimate. Then in 1933, the industry once again was legalized. This is a great example of the fluid nature of the boundaries in this area.

In a similar vein, the production of marijuana is an example of the porous nature of the matrix, as it is moving from illegal and illegitimate in the United States to illegal but legitimate, or legal but illegitimate, depending on some groups’ norms, values, and beliefs and various state and local laws.

Another example is Napster ten years ago and Youtube.com during its initial operations. It was alleged that Napster allowed users to violate copyright laws by sharing audio files freely. The online service was hugely successful from 1999 to 2001 when it was shut down due to issues of legality. At least initially, similar allegations suggest that Youtube violated copyright laws by not removing items from its site that were posted by individuals who did not have permission from the owners of the postings. However, for some large groups and with an increasing expectation of free content on the Internet, Youtube is still seen as legitimate, despite the fact that some postings may not be legal with respect to copyright laws.

The paper “You say illegal, I say legitimate: entrepreneurship in the informal economy,” appeared in Academy of Management Review in 2009 and was a finalist for best paper that year.