In the social sciences, informality is regularly discussed as a territory: ‘the informal city’. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, precarious informal workers gained attention as people were targeted for cash transfer policies to increase adherence to and diminish the negative impact of social distancing policies. Focusing on informal workers highlighted new discussions about informality. In this Introduction, I discuss theories of informal practices in Brazil prior and during the pandemic, when this special issue ‘The prism of Brazil: informal practices in politics and society’ was conceived. This issue combines theory and ethnography to locate informality in time and space. I situate two shifts in the discussion of informality: (1) Prior to 2020, researchers started discussing informality as a practice across different scales of power, moving away from binary conceptions. (2) Informality was discussed as mutual dependency, where autonomy in housebuilding or income generation was framed as possible existence, not freedom. To counter effects of the pandemic in Brazil, targeting and locating people in ‘informal’ labour became important for conditional cash transfer, though still simplifying complex realities. In turn, disturbed social interactions highly affected co-dependency. In grappling with new scholarship focused on Brazil, I discuss the heterogeneity and dynamics of informality.