Gecekondular in Izmir

Gecekondular in Izmir (photo by Veyis Polat)

I’ve just read an article about the idea of ‘nomotropism’, by two Italian researchers (Chiodelli & Moroni, 2014). I sense that all my readers are clamouring to learn what this alluring term might mean, and how it might be useful to them in their various endeavours. Please allow me, then, to explain.

Let’s imagine, first, that you are at a railway station in a foreign country, and urgently need to travel elsewhere, but have no money for a train ticket. A brief investigation suggests that tickets are checked by inspectors on every journey, and that passengers found not to have a valid ticket are sentenced to death. You therefore decide not to travel by train.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, you find yourself in the same situation. In this universe, however, it appears that the penalty for being caught ticketless is a mere £20 fine. You also learn that inspectors appear on the train only occasionally. You therefore decide to travel without buying a ticket.

In a third universe, finally, there is a version of you quite unaware that tickets need to be purchased for train travel.  You get on the train, in ignorance of the idea that you are breaking any rules. It is only after a ticket inspector approaches you during the journey that your transgression becomes apparent.

So, in scenario one, you are behaving ‘legally’; in scenarios two and three, ‘illegally’. Looked at from the perspective of nomotropism, however, the three scenarios would be categorised slightly differently, as will be explained below.

nomotropism 2

Universe 2 is the interesting one here.  Of course, you are violating an institutional rule; your action is illegal.  And yet, in a strange way, the violation has been caused by the rules. You have considered the implications of these rules, and based your action on this consideration, even though you do not (and cannot) comply with the rules. If the rules were different, as they are in Universe 1, your decision might be different. In both cases, albeit with different outcomes, the rules have had a causal effect on your behaviour (your behaviour is ‘nomotropic’). In Universe 3, the rules are broken, but without you being aware of them (your behaviour is ‘a-nomic’; it is not caused by rules).

The authors of the article borrow the idea of nomotropism from Conte (2011), defining it as action which takes place in the light of rules. This is not necessarily the same as action which conforms to rules. In fact, as the table above suggests, actions which conform to rules are a subset of nomotropic actions. Nomotropism, then, is a broad category of action which is somehow caused by rules, but which may involve those rules being violated.

The authors propose that the idea of the ‘nomotropic violation’ (as per Universe 2) is a useful way of understanding the relations, in poorer cities, between unauthorised low-income settlements and institutional regulations. In fact, it seems like an interesting way of looking at a much wider range of processes in cities more generally, but I’m sticking with their discussion for now.

Here are a couple of their examples of nomotropic housebuilding:

  • in Turkey, the official processes for demolishing illicit buildings are more complicated when buildings are already complete, rather than still being constructed. People therefore aim to complete unauthorised buildings in as short a time as possible. Although, then, building slowly and building quickly both constitute violations of the law, people choose the latter after having considered the set of rules as a whole. Thus, this particular ‘illegal’ outcome is caused by the land-use rules which apply to this type of action.
  • Often, people buy land and the right to occupy it legally, but then construct houses on it which consciously violate building regulations. This is more expensive than simply building on publicly owned land, to which they have no right of tenure. Either course of action would represent a violation of the official code of rules. However, eviction/demolition is much less likely if the builder owns the land. Thus, a particular set of rules leads to one type of violation being more common than another: the rules cause this violation to occur.

One key reason why such nomotropic violations occur is that “urban policies and land-use regulations in the Global South are generally inadequate for dealing with the question of low-income unauthorised settlements” (164), since they are typically “inherited – or imported – from other countries, where the institutional, socio-economic, and even environmental and climatic conditions are quite different” (165). Many urban residents are simply unable to comply with the regulations: building becomes too expensive, or too bureaucratically complex.

Nomotropic violations may be detrimental to the wellbeing of a society as a whole.  In many cases, however, they may be welcome: if official processes are unable to deliver housing (or infrastructure) for all, then informal building – which often ends up being legalised through amnesties or gradual upgrading over time – may constitute an outcome very much in line with broader policy goals of accommodating urban populations. The letter of the law may have been broken, but a wider social order has been upheld.

I think we could add the category of ‘a-nomic compliance’, to describe behaviour which takes place without reference to the law, but is not in conflict with the law, to complete a spectrum of behaviours as follows:


The challenge, then, for poorer cities, would be to extend the legal framework so as not only to reward conscious compliance, but also to encourage nomotropic violations which are nevertheless in line with broader state intentions. This, the authors propose, might involve the following principles (166):

  • that the place of each public rule should be considered within a more general legal system and social environment (so that there is a ‘good fit’ between individual rules and their larger context)
  • that emphasis should be placed on the ‘meta-aim’ of the legal system, which is to favour the “peaceful co-existence of a plurality of individuals with totally different, and continuously changing, preferences and desires”
  • that rules which offer a “general ‘orientation’ for behaviour are more relevant than rules introduced to achieve specific end-states”
  • that rules should be stable over time
  • that rules should tend to be ‘negative’ (ie those which “prohibit individuals from interfering with the protected domain of other individuals”)
  • that ‘positive’ rules (ie mandating particular actions or impose duties) should be kept to a minimum, and thus not impede experimentation and initiative.

In effect, then, they outline a legal framework which aims to facilitate ‘DIY’ action. By making the rule framework ‘open’ but stable, they suggest that it (and the institutions which it represents) will be less vulnerable to disloyalty and disrespect. This solution would respond pragmatically to the observable failure of (modernist) land-use planning systems to meet the needs of poorer cities.

However, at this point, I start to have a few questions.

I accept that such a framework would not amount to the state abnegating its duties, precisely because the state in such cases has proven unable to fulfil those duties. But I am puzzled by the normative status of the state within all this. If we equate traditional representative governmental actors with ineffectiveness, corruption, and all the rest of it, then why should we allow those same actors to retain a steering role in the process? Is there not an asymmetry here – a tension between, on the one hand, the rejection of the effectiveness of traditional government institutions, and, on the other, the assumption that their intentions are fundamentally noble?

Relatedly, I’m not sure how the framework might account for action which deliberately poses a challenge to the established order, in a political sense. Those actions, in other words, defined not in terms of whether and how they react to a regulatory system, but rather by their active questioning of that system. The authors assume that it is a good thing that urban residents should be loyal to, and respect the state. Does this perhaps imply a ‘depoliticised’ view of the city?

And I am equally uncomfortable that the reliance on individual citizens and civil society actors here too readily valorises the power of emergent creativity, or the ‘intelligence of the swarm’ (you can add your own buzzwords). Should we be so quick to assume that this self-organising intelligence is only ever a positive force in society?  We may have taken on board the lesson, from the twentieth century, that the modern state also has a dark side. But perhaps we have forgotten the still older lesson: that the ‘swarm’ sometimes has an even darker one.

20 December 2014, London



Chiodelli, F. & Moroni, S. (2014). The complex nexus between informality and the law: Reconsidering unauthorised settlements in light of the concept of nomotropism. Geoforum. 51: 161-168.

Conte, A.G. (2011). Nomotropismo. Sociologia dil diritto. 27 (1): 1-27.