Trust on the Streets: How Does It Work and Why Does It Matter?

Acheson Finalist

Current hegemonic economic and socio-cultural standards prioritize the freedoms and needs of individual entities—whether be a country, business, or person. However, some sectors of society seek to balance the rights and interests of the individual with those of the collective. These sectors stray from individualist trends and, for a variety of reasons, instead employ collective-based approaches, such as trust systems, to achieve similar goals.

This paper examines the importance of trust and trust systems through analyzing street vendors and their reliance on one another for the prosperity of their businesses. Specifically, it seeks to answer this question: how do street vendors develop and use trust systems to respond to contextual situations in their work environment? Through observing street vendors in areas of high population density and high mobility across Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Cape Town, I gathered information regarding the forms and styles of street vendor interactions. From this data, I argue that, in a field as precarious as street vending, street vendors develop trust systems through repetitive action in order to mitigate risk and increase the likelihood of business success.

To advance this argument, this paper will first define trust and discuss and how it develops into the collective-based approach of trust systems adaptable to street vendors’ contextual situation. Second, this paper will offer an overview of the methodology used and its limitations, as well as give relevant historical context of each of the cities visited to provide a basis of understanding for the development of specific trust systems. Finally, this paper will turn its focus to the city-specific observations of how street vendors use trust systems and analyze how these systems help to mitigate risk and increase the chances of business success.

Theoretical Framework of Trust and Trust Systems

Trust is a socio-cultural concept based on actions and intentions. It is a central element to human relations and serves as the basis of social and economic networks. Due to its multidimensionality, the interpretation of trust is subjective and ever-changing; it is difficult to define, but also flexible enough to be applied in a variety of situations. As a result, trust is an abstract notion that, despite being overlooked due to a growing focus on the individual entity, is still a relevant and fundamental aspect of society that is present across different fields.

For this study, I define trust as the “real or effective psychosocial distance between individuals”.[1] This implies that trust is a social closeness to others based on levels of certainty and is specifically established through repetitive action and positive outcomes. According to the Law of Effect in psychology, if an action is carried out and reaps positive consequences, then, under the same situation, this action is more likely to be repeated in the future.[2] This repetition builds a level of certainty that is high enough for others to ignore the unreliability of human agency and decide to collaborate due to an increased sense of confidence that their actions will be reciprocated. Ultimately, if a person is worthy of trust, then positive cooperation is more likely to occur.[3]

In the field of street vending, trust—specifically, trust systems—fills in the vacuum left by the lack of formal contracts that establish guidelines for cooperation.[4] These trust systems are established through repetitive action. However, these actions are circumscribed to vendors’ contextual situations: location, risk, economy and other circumstantial factors. When these groups of actions are repeated to the point of near-certainty, they form a trust system—a series of actions that vendors can trust will occur and, thus, are willing to reciprocate as well. Overall, this trust system that builds up over time is the foundation for increased cooperation and, eventually, increased productivity.[5] For this reason, despite trends prioritizing the individual entity, vendors develop and use a collective-based trust systems to jointly ensure the protection and success of their businesses.


To investigate the relationship between street vendors and trust systems, street vendors were observed in areas of high population density and high mobility—such as transport hubs, central parks, and main boulevards—in the cities of Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Cape Town. The observations were done in short intervals during which the focus was on a group of street vendors and the physical and vocal interactions they had with each other and their surroundings. In addition to this, some interviews were conducted with street vendors and their representative organizations to obtain further information and clarification on the practices and systems that form part of their daily work life. During this process, repeated actions were identified and classified in response to how street vendors used them to respond to contextual situations in their work environments, leading to the deduction that a trust system has been established.

When using an observation-based methodology, many factors can affect the gathered data and the conclusions subsequently drawn from this data. For one, there is the impact that I as the observer have on the environment being observed, especially when it is difficult to analyze what exactly is changing, how it is changing, and if I affected said change. For another, there is the impact of my personal biases and perceptions on the observations I made of the environment and the actions conducted within, , even more so when it comes to trust and trust systems, given there is no definite way to see them. Therefore, while acknowledging that the full answer to my research question cannot be obtained through observation alone, this approach is the best way to examine an environment in its natural form, leading to more accurate analysis about how street vendors use trust systems. Thus, based on the data collected and the theoretical framework presented, conclusions were drawn about how trust systems are used as a collective-based approach by street vendors in their precarious working environment.

Historical Context

To fully understand the reasons behind the development of specific trust systems by street vendors in each city, one must first comprehend how the social, economic, and political context of each city has influenced the lives and working environments of the street vendors.

In the case of Buenos Aires, racial marginalization and an economic crisis have pushed many people into the street vending sector, only to be faced with imminent persecution by official forces. With Argentina being considered the Europe of Latin America, racial identity is tied to national identity. This is especially true in Buenos Aires, where the locals “claim the European-ness of [the city] and its people, while distancing themselves from various non-white people….”.[6] These non-white people are primarily migrants who hail from bordering countries and African nations, a large part of whom are working as street vendors.  In addition to this racial marginalization, the city of Buenos Aires has been experiencing an economic crisis since the beginning of the 20th century.[7] Despite having a relative self-sustainable system, the Argentine economy crashed in 2001 on account of high inflation rates, poor management of economic policies, and the onset of neoliberalism[8].[9]  Because of this, many people have turned to street vending as a means of living during these unstable times. However, between racial prejudice and economic pressure, Buenos Aires street vendors face many financial- and persecution-based impediments to success.

For street vendors in Barcelona, the public and informal nature of their business defies the pristine and cosmopolitan image of the city that is advertised to the rest of the world. Due to this branding, in addition to tourism[10], Barcelona also attracts a lot of migrants who view the city as having a more stable economic and political environment for living than their home country.[11] A small portion of these migrants, mainly those of African nationality, dominate the street vending sector. Therefore, in Barcelona, these street vendors face difficulties not only because of the contradictory image that they present against the city’s brand, but also because of their non-white and migrant status in a white-dominated area, leading to high levels of persecution of street vendors in order to cleanse the areas in which they work.

Street vendors in Cape Town experience similar circumstances, wherein the city’s racial divide—in addition to high crime rates—is woven into the daily fabric of their work environment. The institution of apartheid left a tangible legacy of segregation and inequality in the city between whites and non-whites and their areas of living, labour and consumption. This disjuncture has led to a large income inequality gap that has given way to high levels of crime, especially towards migrants and their businesses, due to growing xenophobic sentiment in the South African population.[12] Additionally, under the structure of racial capitalism, there has been high levels of government control over sectors of lower-class society—such as street vending .[13] Street vendors in Cape Town, most of whom are non-white and migrant, are thus faced with structural and physical obstacles that they must overcome in the process of conducting their business.

Observations & Analysis

            Given the contextual situations of each aforementioned city described, street vendors develop and use specific trust systems to respond to the challenges in their work environments. In this way, trust systems help them achieve two main goals: mitigating risk and increasing their likelihood for business success.

Mitigate Risk

In regard to mitigating risk, street vendors take action to not only protect their business, but also those of their surrounding peers. These actions constitute one of the trust systems used by street vendors in their precarious work environments.

As observed in the cases across three different cities, street vendors face two main forms of risk: institutional risk and local risk. I define institutional risk as any occurrence that leads to exposure to the law or any other formal establishment, such as police encounters. On the other hand, I define local risk as any small-scale conflict that only involves people in a surrounding region, such as theft and loss of goods. Given these two types of risks and the different contextual situation of each city, trust systems were adapted to respond accordingly to the circumstances and ensure the maintenance of security.

In the case of Barcelona, where street vendors mainly face institutional risk, trust systems took the form of vocal and physical communication. Here, my observations were focused on street vendors in Barcelona’s central tourist hub: La Rambla.[14] These street vendors—known as manteros for the manta, or blanket, they sell their goods on—were mainly young male African migrants who sold backpacks, purses, soccer shirts, shoes, belts, and sunglasses to passersby. They usually set up in groups across the boulevard, the smallest being four and the largest more than ten. By effect, when conducting business, manteros were very visible as a large group of black people occupying space in a central and white tourist hub (See Figure 1). This is not the image of Barcelona that the city advertises. Therefore, the manteros—who do not have permits and whose personal legal status is unknown—are highly persecuted by the city police.

Figure 2. Manteros packing up goods to leave premises on La Rambla, Barcelona

When this occurs, the situation often evolves as follows. The manteros are selling their goods on La Rambla. One of them sees a police officer and responds by pulling the strings of their manta and throwing it over their shoulder (effectively packing up their goods), while also yelling (See Figure 2). Both responses are visible enough that, given their group set up, when one mantero responds, the others follow suit in a domino effect until all have safely left the premises with their products. In this way, the manteros avoid the institutional risk of being caught by the police.[15] Considering how this vocal and physical communication occurs every time a police officer is near, the repetition of this action has created an expectation that this is how all manteros should react under the same circumstances in order to decrease the risk of being apprehended. Thus, this creates a trust system that is adopted by these street vendors to mitigate risk.  

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Figure 3. Street vendors and their stands in Grand Parade, Cape Town

Conversely, street vendors in Cape Town mostly face local risks, so their trust systems are based on a lookout system. In this case, my observations were focused on street vendors in and around Grand Parade, a large open parking lot in the city centre near a transport hub with taxi ranks, bus stops, and train stations. Every Wednesday, there would be a large market where stands would be set up next to each other in, more or less, the same position every week, with walking space in between for customers (See Figure 3). This led to high levels of population density and mobility, increasing the risk of theft.

In response, street vendors developed an interdependent lookout system in which neighbouring vendors would keep an eye on both their own stand as well as other stands nearby. This was explicitly observed when street vendors would leave their stand unattended. During this period, the neighbouring street vendors would be paying attention to this stand through actions such as glancing, walking by, or, in some cases, even positioning themselves near the stand. If at some point a customer came to the stand, the neighbouring vendor would call for the owner. These actions were observed in multiple occasions across Grand Parade, indicating that this practice of being a lookout for your neighbour is implemented to such an extent that it is just another part of being a street vendor in Cape Town, as much as is attending to customers or handling cash. Due to this trust system, street vendors have a sense of certainty that they can rely on each other to decrease the chances of theft, and other local risks, in their work environment.

Figure 4. Repurposed goods sold by street vendor in Parque Centenario, Buenos Aires

Given the similar circumstances for street vendors in Buenos Aires, the local risks also led them to establish a trust system based on lookouts. These street vendors in particular are located at Parque Centenario, a park that hosts a large weekend market near a residential and commercial area dotted with bus stops. Here, I specifically looked at the street vendors that sell refurbished goods on mantas in a separate back corner of the market (See Figure 4). These street vendors usually set up in the same spot every week next to people they know. Due to high mobility and high risk of theft, the street vendors implement similar practices to the ones in Cape Town. They are always keeping an eye out for their neighbours’ goods, and, in this case, being on the floor and closer to each other make these actions easier. The lookout system is thus used to mitigate the risk of theft among these street vendors.

From these observations, it is clear how trust systems are developed from repeated actions and are used to mitigate risk in the work environment. It can also be seen how these trust systems would not be possible without the emphasis on its collective-based approach. Furthermore, these observations demonstrate how similar contextual situations lend themselves to the adoption of similar trust systems—as the different street vendors are all working to achieve the same goal.

Increase Chances of Success

In addition to mitigating risk, street vendors also use trust systems to increase their chances of business success. Here, I define success as an increase in customer yield, which potentially leads to an increase in profit. Therefore, when conducting observations, actions that led to more customers were categorized as part of a trust system used to increase a street vendor’s success.

In Barcelona, this trust system was implemented on a basis of recommendation. As the La Rambla manteros are conducting business, they receive a lot of customers: some who are leisurely browsing, others who are searching for a particular commodity. If the customer is not drawn to any of one vendor’s offerings, that vendor suggests the customer stop by the mantero next to him to check out his goods. Similarly, if the mantero does not sell the item the customer explicitly wants, the mantero will direct the customer to a colleague in the same group that does. This practice ensures the customer does not leave the premises without making a purchase from at least one of the manteros. It creates a system of recommendation that allows for the circulation of customers within a group of manteros, increasing the customer yield amongst themselves. It is a natural strategy adopted by this group—and on other manteros using it—as a form of customer outreach, especially since there is no access to advertisement due to the informal nature of their business.

In Cape Town, the trust system used by street vendors is based on additional support. For street vendors in and around Grand Parade, the large influx of people in the area means there is often a high customer demand. In some cases, stands would have four to five customers at a time asking for prices, change, or other additional services. However, due to strong regulations on street vendors, there are usually only two attendants at a stand at any time. Under this situation, the neighbouring vendors—if available— would help with the management of customers. Through this additional patron support, street vendors in Grand Parade can cater to more people. Therefore, the willingness of street vendors to help their neighbours demonstrates how a trust system based on providing support has developed and is used by these street vendors to improve the success of their business.

For Buenos Aires, the street vendors used a trust system based on economic transactions. Here, I define economic transactions as any monetary exchange between the vendors.  This trust system developed in Buenos Aires most likely due to the economic crisis, causing people to have a shortage of cash as well as a lack of smaller bills, among other things. Such a case was mostly visible with the street vendors in Parque Centenario. There were multiple times when a vendor would be carrying out a transaction with a customer and would find himself without sufficient change to finish the purchase. In these situations, the vendor would look to his surrounding vendors for cash. When he asked for a certain amount of money, not only did other vendors offer it to him, but they also did so without asking questions or demands in return. Because of this, the vendor can successfully complete the transaction, increasing his customer yield. Under this trust system of economic transactions, street vendors in Buenos Aires have a sense of security in the completion of their sales, so much so that they are willing to repeat the actions for others as well.

Through these observations, the collective approach to trust systems is seen to facilitate the process of achieving the street vendors’ goal of success.  It can also be seen how the contextual situation of street vendors shapes the way in which they develop and use trust systems to also increase the chances of success of their businesses.


From the observations and analysis above, it can be concluded that street vendors build trust systems through performing repetitive actions in response to contextual situations in their work environments. These actions are repeated to such an extent that it basically forms part of the industry, so much so that street vendors willingly carry out these actions and participate in these trust systems because they are aware of its collective benefits in the process of achieving similar goals of mitigating risk and increasing their likelihood of business of success. Therefore, street vendors have demonstrated how trust systems function within the current society.

 In the larger scheme of things, this use of trust systems by street vendors concretizes the idea that collective-based approaches can still be successfully implemented under the hegemonic individualist framework of the world today. It proves that despite the growing framework that prioritizes the individual entity, there are still spaces in which, under specific circumstances, collective-based approaches can be put into use. For street vendors, it was the precarious work environment based on contextual city-specific situations that led to a collective-based approach as a solution. For other sectors of society, there are aspects of their structure that could also benefit from the implementation of a collective-based approach like that of a trust system. Thus, the use of these non-conventional systems can be put to practice, even if they don’t follow the reigning state of affairs. With that in mind, the question now is this: how can these collective-based approaches, such as trust systems, be used to challenge the status quo and potentially change the dominant structure of this individualist society?


Gambetta, Diego. “Can We Trust Trust?” in Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, edited by Diego Gambetta, 213-237. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988. (accessed December 4, 2019).

Garba, Faisal.  History of South Africa: Post-1994 to Present [lecture]. November 11, 2019.

Grimson, Alejandro. “Spatial Borders and Urban Politics: A Study of Buenos Aires.” in The City Is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age, edited by Miriam Greenberg and Penny Lewis, 178-196. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Joseph, Galen. “Taking race seriously: Whiteness in Argentina’s national and transnational imaginary.” Identities 7, no. 3 (2000): 333–371.

Lomnitz, Larissa. A., & Sheinbaum, Diana. “Trust, Social Networks and the Informal Economy: A Comparative Analysis.” Review of Sociology 10, no. 1 (2004): 5-26.

McLeod, Saul. “Edward Thorndike: The Law of Effect.” Simply Psychology. January 14, 2018. (accessed December 5, 2019).

Ntema, John. “Informal Home-based Entrepreneurs in South Africa: How Non-South Africans Outcompete South Africans.” Africa Insight 46, no. 2 (2016): 44-59.

Odera, Levy Charles. “The Role of Trust as an Informal Institution in the Informal Sector in Africa.” Africa Development 38, no. 3&4 (2013): 121-146.

OECD. (2018, July 26). “Migration Snapshot of the city of Barcelona.” July 26, 2018. (accessed December 4, 2019).

Plush, H. “Barcelona unveils new law to keep tourists away.” The Telegraph. January 27, 2017. (accessed December 4, 2019).

U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee. Argentina’s Economic Crisis: Causes and Cures, June 2003, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. (accessed December 4, 2019).


[1] Larissa A. Lomnitz & Diana Sheinbaum, “Trust, Social Networks and the Informal Economy: A Comparative Analysis,” Review of Sociology 10, no.1 (2004): 6.

[2] Saul McLeod, “Edward Thorndike: The Law of Effect,” Simply Psychology, January 14, 2018, (accessed December 5, 2019).

[3] Diego Gambetta, “Can We Trust Trust?” in Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, ed. Diego Gambetta (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 219, (accessed December 4, 2019).

[4] Levy Charles Odera, “The Role of Trust as an Informal Institution in the Informal Sector in Africa,” Africa Development 38, no. 3&4 (2013): 135.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Galen Joseph, “Taking race seriously: Whiteness in Argentina’s national and transnational imaginary,” Identities 7, no. 3 (2000): 355.

[7] U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Argentina’s Economic Crisis: Causes and Cures, June 2003, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2, (accessed December 4, 2019).

[8] Neoliberalism policies in Argentina gained popularity during the military dictatorship (1976-1983) and reached its height under the rule of Carlos Menem (1989-1999) (Grimson, 2017, p. 185).

[9] Alejandro Grimson, “Spatial Border and Urban Policies: A Study of Buenos Aires,” in The City Is The Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age, ed. Miriam Greenberg and Penny Lewis (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2017), 185.

[10]  In 2016, Barcelona received 36 million tourists, in comparison to its 1.6 million residents (Plush, 2017).

[11] In 2016, 23% of Barcelona’s population was foreign-born (OECD, 2018).

[12] John Ntema, “Informal Home-based Entrepreneurs in South Africa: How Non-South Africans Outcompete South Africans,” Africa Insight 46, no. 2 (2016): 54-55.

[13] Faisal Garba, History of South Africa: Post-1994 to Present, lecture, November 11, 2019.

[14] La Rambla is one of the most visited places in Barcelona. Extending from Plaça Catalunya to the Christopher Columbus Memorial, the 1-mile long pedestrian zone is lined by brand name stores, restaurants and landmarks that draw a lot of tourists to the area. Due to this high tourist population, La Rambla is one of the main spots in which manteros conduct their business.

[15] Being caught by police could entail fines, confiscation of goods and possible immigration problems depending on the street vendor’s legal status.