P124


Rising African Urban Middle Classes: Narrative Mirage or Social Reality? 
Convenors:
Marie Nathalie LeBlanc (Université du Québec à Montréal)
Anne Calvès (University of Montreal)
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Chair:
Anne Calvès (University of Montreal)
Discussant:
Anne Calvès (University of Montreal)
Format:
Panels
Location:
BS004
Start time:
30 June, 2017 at 16:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:
1

Short Abstract:

This panel critically examines the relevance of narratives about the rising middle classes in urban Africa through a series of empirical case studies that explore some of the economic, political, social and cultural behaviours, attitudes and believes associated with this emerging social group.

Long Abstract

In the past decade or so, the international economic press and development agencies have heralded the rising of an African middle class. A new narrative about the economic rise of Africa and its associated growing middle class is slowly replacing the previous one on poverty, war and famine, which historically has dominated discourses on the continent. From the 1990s onward, the rising African class would have been propelled by economic growth, urbanization, Western-style education, the spread of democracy and the rule of law. As an urban phenomenon, it is often regarded as a potential venue for further « economic advancement » and « contemporary modernization ». As a distinct social group, members of the rising middle class are associated with new consumption patterns such as the frequent attendance of restaurants, supermarkets, gyms, the use of imported consumer goods such as household appliances, Internet, cell phones, cosmetics and the uptake of urban services such as banking, insurances, kindergartens and private schools. They are also believed to have widely adopted western values and attitudes on democracy, education, individual rights, as well as gender and family relationships. In this panel, we propose to critically assess the relevance of this narrative about the rising middle class in urban Africa through a series of empirical case studies that explore some of the economic, political, social and cultural behaviours, attitudes and believes associated with this supposedly emerging social group. The panel also proposes to question the assumed strictly urban character of rising African middle classes.

Accepted papers:

Author:

Roger Southall (University of the Witwatersrand)

Paper short abstract:

The paper will argue that the debate on the middle classes in Africa is myopic notably re the state; middle classes within overall class structures; in the world of work; and in relation to African capitalism - alongside an overall failure to explore the political role of African middle classes

Paper long abstract:

Global institutions argue the middle class in Africa is growing in size, is adopting globalised urban lifestyles. Is also viewed as a driver of both 'development' and 'democracy'. Generally the argument is that the African middle class, along with other (faster-growing) middle classes in the Global South, is becoming more prominent, more visible and more influential with the spread of market capitalism. Africanist scholarship has built upon this narrative, albeit critically - placing heavy emphasis upon such key issues as definition, consumption and the fragility of 'new' middle classes. However, this paper will argue that the contemporary debate on middle classes in Africa has significant blind spots.

These relate to the role of the state in making (and in some cases, unmaking) the middle class; the fact that to middle classes need to be appropriately located within class structures as a whole (this implying, too, that there is need to explore the segmentation of the middle class); third, there has been a failure to explore the middle classes in the world of work - as employees of states or national corporations, as professionals and or as white collar workers; fourth, there has been a failure to link the debate on the African middle class to that on African capitalism. Finally, there has been a failure to explore the political role of African middle classes beyond (useful) attitudinal surveys and particular case studies.

Author:

Dieter Neubert (University of Bayreuth)

Paper short abstract:

The middle class narrative makes simple assumptions about values and practices of people with a middle income. However, a closer look on everyday life practices, lifestyles and values shows that this group is more heterogeneous and hardly may be captured with the notion of “class”.

Paper long abstract:

At the first sight, the Kenyan middle-income stratum, usually coined as middle class, seems to represent the typical features of the middle class narrative. People express the notion of individual advancement via education and entrepreneurial activities, a consumption oriented life-style, and a strong support for economic development and a democratic society combined with civil society activism. A closer look shows at first that they it is hardly possible to describe that group via modes of production or socio-professional position. Additionally, people from the middle-income stratum show remarkable differences with regard to the relation between consumption and the investment in future advancement, and a variety of moral attitudes between liberal and conservative values, individualism or group solidarity. There is political commitment, but a large part of the members of the middle-income stratum is not politically active. For some members of the middle stratum urban-rural ties are crucial, others see themselves as city dwellers. Instead of a homogenous class with shared class interest and values, we find a heterogeneous middle-income stratum that is marked by different socio-cultural groups. When we want to analyze the structure of African societies this differences have to be conceptualized.

To capture that differentiation we may refer to the "milieu" concept provided by German social structure analysis. According to this approach the members of a society a mainly differentiated via socio-cultural differences including lifestyle, values and attitudes and everyday life practices. Based on an ongoing qualitative research on the middle-income stratum in Kenya examples for a set of different milieus are provided.

Author:

Marie Nathalie LeBlanc (Université du Québec à Montréal)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how consumption allows members of Ivory Coast urban Muslim élites to dissociate themselves from other Muslims and elite groups. The paper questions the links between consumption and class, and stakes in the repartition of resources and lifestyles in contemporary urban milieus.

Paper long abstract:

This paper is based on the ethnography of consumption practices amongst Muslim élites in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). I propose to examine how certain consumption practices including the use of some objects and the frequentation of certain places correspond is associated with the display of faith, allowing certain members of the country urban Muslim élites to dissociate themselves from other Muslims and from other elite groups. These strategies (conscious and unconscious) of social and religious demarcation appear through the connection between a display of their socio-economic status, the demonstration of their insertion into specific Muslim networks and the assertion of their belongingness to contemporary forms of urban-ness. Ostentation is central to these processes of identification. The case of Muslim elites in Abidjan raises two issues that need to be addressed when the question of the emergence of so-called middle classes in contemporary African societies is considered. One the one hand, it highlight an assumed correlation between certain consumption practices and the idea of emergent African middle classes. As the case presented in this paper will show, this conceptual association needs to be questioned. On the other hand, the ethnographic material presented in this paper shows how processes of religious and socioeconomic demarcation are largely framed through the affirmation of cosmopolitan urban identities and practices. The appeal to translocality, urbanity and hydridity reveals some of the contemporary dynamics that mark the relationship between faith, materiality and group belonging. These dynamics point to some of the stakes of the repartition of resources and lifestyles in contemporary African urban milieus.