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Social Networks in Urban Nigeria

Book review of: Kate Meagher, Identity Economics. Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Nigeria
Chika Okoye
Bibliographical reference

Kate Meagher. 2010. Identity Economics. Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Nigeria. James Currey, Rochester and HEBN, Ibadan.

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Credits: James Currey

1Kate Meagher takes a fresh look at the informal economy of an African city by looking at market structures as a product of social networks that need to be approached from an ethnological and historic perspective. Analyzing the small manufacturing firms of the shoe and garment industry in the southeastern Nigerian town of Aba, she notes that social networks provide a clearer framework for understanding unofficial forms of economic organization than the concept of informality. Informality, she argues, brings with it an air of it being a result of African cultural and political backwardness even though it seems to be characteristic of all less developed economies, be they in Africa, Latin America or Asia.

2The study of social networks, in comparison, looks at concepts such as social capital and embeddedness, which draw not only from knowledge of economics and business but from sociology, history, politics and anthropology. Meagher emphasizes that incorporating such complexity, which hitherto was thought to be irrelevant when analyzing African economic structures, can be achieved by analyzing the social networks that connect traders within African markets. Meagher also highlights the problems that social networks can produce. In many cases, too much embeddedness produces a propensity for collusion, which hampers the development of greater economic efficiency. She notes that African social networks are frequently seen as hidden sources of empowerment and this view often clouds the awareness of the limits of informality, whereas the study of social networks is meant to focus on the institutional content, power relations and nature of relations with the state.

3The author provides an extensive analysis of why the Igbo of the Aba market have been able to develop highly effective trade and manufacturing systems despite being members of a stateless society and having very little central government support. Her choice of the Igbo is a response to the many studies that observe that this group has shown an ability to progress beyond mere trade to manufacture and yet they have been unable to take the next step to industrialization and full economic development.

4Studying the cultural reality of the Igbo people, Meagher observes that they do not regard customs to be static, thus allowing for the flexibility to adopt new means of developing opportunity. She notes that non-kin networks play an important role linking clans to outside groups. She convincingly debunks the idea that the lack of economic progress is a result of cultural practice and concludes that other environmental factors such as unsupportive governance, economic turmoil and the destruction of pre-colonial social networks have played a significant role in deterring economic progress. The regulatory aspects of the pre-colonial networks, she argues, were significantly weakened by colonization, allowing for the propensity for criminality to be more profound. Studying the relationships between traders of the Aba market and representatives of the Nigerian state, she notes that the “successful economic networks are not defined by their autonomy from the state, but are critically shaped by the nature of their relationship with the state at the local as well as the national level” (p. 25).

5Identity Economics also describes the consequences of the economic pressure of liberalization and globalization, which, according to Meagher, “have served to erode institutionalized practices and relations of trust within enterprise networks” (p. 81). Due to economic pressures, the uneven use of strong and weak ties makes it hard for the enterprise networks to respond to opportunities presented by the liberalization process and the need for non-economic loyalties. Those who already have are in the best positions, even though they may not be the most dynamic. Even the high level of associational participation of the group, such as belonging to hometown associations, church groups and social clubs, has done little to improve the collaboration or economic efficiencies of the local economy. Rather, it seems to act as a means of linking with more powerful and successful groups for competitive advantage. As the author notes, “social backgrounds and political objectives (also) shape the character of producers’ associations, as well as the nature of their linkages with the formal economy and the state” (p. 139).

6In her thoughtful analysis of the Aba manufacturing cluster, Meagher provides a thorough historiography as well as clear theoretical explanations of her conclusions about informal economic networks. The book is an easy read as it is clear and concise, accessible to academics and policy makers alike. Its main focus on the garment and shoe industry leads the author to focus on economic activities primordially dominated by men, with the consequence that the role of women in the informal sector is only peripherally addressed. The book covers the years 1999 to 2000, which correspond to the beginning of civilian rule in Nigeria after almost two decades of structural adjustment programs. Since then, however, there have been many changes within Nigeria that could have affected the relevance of the data concerning education and class presented by the author. This issue is partially resolved by the epilogue of the book, in which the author provides an update to her somewhat dated data. In that conclusive section, however, Meagher does not leave us with an optimistic view of the use of informal networks. Given the continued government neglect, all that is good about these informal institutions is fading fast. The example of the development of the Bakassi Boys vigilante group, as an alternative to armed robbery and police corruption, which eventually degenerated into a politicized unaccountable security force, is a great illustration of how economic pressure, poor governance and official neglect affect informality. Entrepreneurial ingenuity and market liberalization alone will not help the small informal businesses studied since they are plagued by intense competition, identity politics, and weak institutions easily captured by special interests. According to Meagher, gaining political clout and having a more focused association with state institutions will help increase the benefits of the flexibility that informality provides.

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Electronic reference

Chika Okoye, Social Networks in Urban NigeriaArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2013, Online since 20 February 2014, connection on 24 October 2021. URL:

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About the author

Chika Okoye

Chika Okoye is a Ph.D. candidate at the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, USA. Her research deals with the role of market women in the Nigerian informal economy. Email:

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