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Since the early 2010s, development actors, financial experts, and academics have been discussing the “middle classes” in Africa. The rising income of considerable shares of the populations in many countries triggered a focus on a so-called “indispensable” middle class and was eagerly promoted by the African Development Bank. It had an aura of success in “development” and counteracted the long-cultivated perception in the Global North of Africa as a “lost continent.” Not surprisingly, the discourse received considerable attention.

Middle classes are defined mainly by daily income or expenditure. But the concept seemed to stand for much more than a slight financial improvement. Many of the ascriptions of middle classes in Africa were either hopes promising a better future, or unconsciously taken over mostly from middle class descriptions in North America and Europe since the 1950s. However, measurable empirical evidence was mostly weak with regard to middle class criteria, such as financial stability and well-paid employment or entrepreneurism, a lifestyle with consumption and leisure time, and a pro-democratic political orientation.

This middle-class concept came under critique and posed the question “Where and what (for) is the Middle?” Nevertheless, many of these connotations drew much attention to the “narrative of the African middle class.” Idealized as political actors, middle classes were turned into fictitious spearheads of democratization and opponents of corrupt regimes. The idea of middle-classes as political actors received increasing attention in reaction to the Arab Spring that began around 2011. North African and Middle Eastern countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey saw massive protests against authoritarian regimes. These protests were frequently labeled as “middle-class.”

Yet, the discussion about the middle class as political actors in Africa remained arbitrary. Although many referred to an economic definition of middle class, they added a range of characteristics, such as a certain political consciousness. The empirical foundation of middle classes in Africa, their political positions, and the theoretical explanations remained thin. They could be considered a kind of distraction from and a caricature of class analysis. We engaged, therefore, with some of the main arguments about middle classes and protest and have been discussing them more systematically with colleagues.

The starting point was a 2017 conference in Stellenbosch funded by the German Research Foundation´s Point Sud program. Scholars from a wide range of African countries and other parts of the world identified crucial questions and examined the relationship between middle classes in Africa and protest. Many of the presentations focused on South Africa, but other speakers discussed the situation in countries such as Kenya and Namibia. As a follow-up, we initiated a guest-edited special issue of the Journal for Contemporary African Studies on African middle classes and social protest now published. It offers a range of case studies from Ghana, Cameroun, Kenya, South Africa, and Namibia. In our introduction, we summed up four major difficulties in the transfer of the middle-class category from Europe and North America to African societies.

African societies are not only heterogeneous in comparison to each other, but also they have different historical trajectories from Europe and North America, where the concept of the middle class originated. There, merchants and self-employed craftsmen began to advance their positions in the 19th century, when overwhelming numbers of people were working on farms and in burgeoning industry (with North American settler colonies still a different case). In the 20th century, better education and demanding physical work led to higher wages in the industrial societies of the Global North. Households became mostly identical to the nuclear family, workers had one qualified occupation, and families benefited from several public and private security systems. This was the foundation of the middle class as a social group and way of life. Can we compare the situation of these middle-income groups with middle-income earners in colonial and postcolonial African societies? The innocent use of the term “middle class” suggests that.

There is no compelling connection between a middle-income position and a pro-democratic orientation. Again, the progressive European and North American “middle classes” were the outcome of a specific historical context with certain economic and cultural conditions. Even in Europe, the association of middle-class and pro-democratic worldviews has only been true for certain episodes of the 20th century. Consequently, a transfer of the concept to African settings must consider the divergent backgrounds. As history suggests, middle classes were as often displaying conservative if not reactionary tendencies as liberal democratic ones and were active participants in right-wing policies. By all standards, they were never homogenous politically.

In the international academic division of labor, European and North American research is still hegemonic. This is problematic on many levels: African contexts have been marginalized for decades and are still marginal in empirical research and theory building. The knowledge about Africa is limited and social structures in Africa are not a common topic of theoretical explanation. To date, research on Africa is in the mainstream of many disciplines in international academia considered merely area studies or knowledge about “exotic” contexts. The lack of data and expertise in international disciplinary debates such as sociology and political sciences is a major factor because we must rely on potentially misleading terms like “middle classes” to describe social strata in Africa.

In spite of the aforementioned critique, we think it is highly promising to study “middle classes” and protest in Africa. New groups of middle-income earners are part of ongoing political and economic changes. Urbanization, economic growth, and new ways of life are a matter of fact in most parts of the continent. It is crucial to develop a more nuanced concept of “middle-class,” rather than the overstretched but rather empty notion that persists. There are many questions: How do individuals arrive at their middle-income position? How stable is their situation? How can we study different groups in the same income range?

We, therefore, opt for a multi-dimensional and intersectional approach. Socio-cultural features such as the extended family as a household unit, ethnicity (as well as gender and religion) as a relevant factor, and the specific shape of political networks are significant influences. Middle classes and protest have to be investigated in relation to culture, lifestyle, ethnicity, and/or “race” and religion, as well as gender and other sociocultural positioning.

These and many other aspects must be understood in a mix of empirical research and theorization to get to an appropriate understanding of middle classes and politics in Africa. Our published thoughts and arguments, in company with many others, are a modest effort to contribute to a more nuanced, less Eurocentric debate to challenge the hegemonic status of Western scholarship.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.