In informal as in rural economies, understanding processes of social and economic change poses a daunting challenge. Formal structural changes and policy initiatives are constantly cross-cut by local cultural, kinship and political dynamics that disrupt intended outcomes and mystify the majority of development economists. What has made the work of Judith Heyer stand out is her meticulous attention to these informal dynamics, and to the complex ways in which they shape rural society. Her use of detailed fieldwork and fine-grained analysis to trace individual and collective strategies that defy formal structural categories has inspired generations of students frustrated by what Polly Hill (1986) called ‘the poverty of development economics’ – myself included. A key lesson arising from Heyer’s work is that the study of inequality and social change in rural and other informal economic contexts requires attention, not just to large-scale structural factors such as ethnicity, caste and class, but to more fluid social forces such as migration, religious conversion or local gender politics that shape struggles to forge alternative channels of access and advancement.