P141 – The African Middle Classes in Comparative Perspective
8 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Heilbrunn John / Colorado School of Mines/LAM
Darbon Dominique / LAM-SciencesPo-Bordeaux


This panel begins with the premise that economic growth in the early 21st century has had a transforsmative effect on Africa. Among the foremost effects of this economic growth has been the emergence of a dynamic middle class. Two hypothetical outcomes are salient aspects of the emergence of middle classes. In politics, the middle classes are  potential stabilizing forces that oppose military coups, radical regimes, and support electoral processes and stability. In the economy, members of the emerging middle classes have considerable discretionary income that permits them to purchase consumer goods, to educate their children in private schools, and to benefit from health care. With greater economic resources, the members of Africa’s middle classes have incentives to invest in capital forming enterprises and pressure their political leaders for more representative and accountable governments. This panel seeks papers that are consciously comparative to probe into the influence of Africa’s emerging middle classes to assess their impact on political economic development in a number of African states. The panel participants address questions of how the emerging middle classes in Africa are part of a larger pattern of political change.

Les classes moyennes africaines dans une perspective comparative
Les Etats et les sociétés africaines sont directement affectés par la croissance économique qu’elles connaissent depuis le début du 21e siècle et notamment par ce qu’on a appelé l’émergence d’une classe moyenne. De cette émergence découlent deux hypothèses : sur le plan politique, ces classes moyennes seraient des forces stabilisatrices susceptibles de s’opposer aux coups d’états et aux régimes radicaux et de soutenir les processus électoraux et la stabilité. Sur le plan économique, ses membres disposeraient d’un revenu discrétionnaire plus ou moins conséquent leur permettant d’accroître leur consommation de biens et de services (scolarisation, santé etc.). L’accroissement de leurs ressources devrait permettre à ces classes moyennes d’investir plus massivement dans les entreprises et de revendiquer un plus grand contrôle et plus grande responsabilité de la part de leurs gouvernements. Les contributions vont porter sur l’influence de ces classes moyennes africaines émergentes par rapport à leur engagement pour le développement économique et politique des Etats africains et sur la manière dont elles contribuent plus largement au changement politique.

Paper 1

Heilbrunn John / LAM – Colorado School of Mines

Darbon Dominique / LAM – SciencesPo-Bordeaux

The Middle Classes in Africa – A Framing Paper

This paper examines the questions that revolve around analyses of the middle classes in Africa. It intends to go beyond the mechanical measurements of the middle classes – absolute vs. PPP measures – to discuss who belongs to these groups that are the new middle classes. First, it considers how economic growth has directly influenced capital accumulation among diverse actors in Africa. Second, the paper considers the critical role of urbanization, housing, and demographic shifts across the continent. Third, the paper analyses employment patterns and the somewhat paradoxical strength of Africa’s informal sector. Finally, the paper looks at political developments that include a sense of political efficacy, participation in political parties, and questions of state legitimacy.

Paper 2

Resnick Danielle / International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

The Middle Class and Democratic Consolidation in Zambia

Class historically played a central role in Zambia due to the nature of the country’s political economy, particularly the centrality of mining and the strong presence of unions. More recently, the country’s transition from an aid-dependent economy to middle-income status has reinvigorated the importance of understanding class dynamics in Zambia and their intersection with political behaviors and preferences. This paper uses Zambia’s 2008 Governance Survey to examine the relationship between class, political participation, trust in political institutions, and values. Three notable findings emerged. First, when class is measured in purely absolute income terms, Zambia’s middle class appears to be relatively apathetic in terms of their political participation but more distrusting of political institutions and more likely to oppose practice of bridewealth. Secondly, the measurement and conceptualization of the middle class makes a difference depending on the outcome of interest, especially in Africa where typical correlates of class found elsewhere may not necessarily move in the same direction. Thirdly, the distinct class categories used here do not result in substantially different findings than if income per capita (in log PPP terms) is used on its own. This suggests that there might not necessarily be a middle class particularism in Zambia but rather that the main difference is between wealthier Zambians and the poor instead of the middle class and everyone else.

Paper 3

van de Walle Nicolas / Cornell University

Social Structure, the Middle Class and African Democracy

This paper expresses skepticism regarding the current conventional wisdom that the emergence of a sizeable middle class enhances the prospects for democracy in sub Saharan Africa. The linkage between the middle class and democracy is based on a historical analogy with the west’s experience in the 19th and early 20th century, which, this paper argues, do not necessarily fit the late late developers in the Africa region. In addition, the paper argues the evidence that the middle class has different values than the poor is mixed at best and that the link between attitudes and support for democracy is even more tenuous. Finally, the paper offers evidence that other characteristics of countries’ social structure, from inequality to ethnic heterogeneity are likely to have a much bigger effect on the likelihood of democratic survival, as will the nature and size of economic growth.

Paper 4

Cheeseman Nicholas / Oxford University

“No bourgeoisie, no democracy”? The political attitudes of the Kenyan middle class

Barrington Moore’s famous line “no bourgeoisie, no democracy” is one of the most quoted claims in political science. But has the rise of the African middle class promoted democratic consolidation? This paper uses the case of Kenya to investigate the attitudes and behaviors of the middle class. Analysis of Afrobarometer survey data reveals that the middle class is more likely to support the opposition and more likely to hold pro-democratic attitudes in Kenya and in some other states. This suggests that Moore’s claim holds, at least for some African countries, and that contemporary demographic changes will improve the prospects for democratic consolidation. The paper seeks to take a first cut at explaining in which African countries the middle class is more likely to play this role and why. However, while recognizing the potential for the middle class to promote democratic reforms, the paper also presents qualitative evidence from the Kenyan 2013 general election that raises important questions about the resilience of these attitudes in the heat of electoral battle. This evidence suggests that the middle class may be more inclined to democratic attitudes than their less well off counterparts, but class continues to intersect with ethnicity and its political salience is likely to wax and wane as a result.

Paper 5

Neubert Dieter / University of Bayreuth

Stoll Florian / University of Bayreuth

Nairobi’s unconscious middle class? Between regional-ethnic political mobilization and middle class life-styles

Kenya is one the African countries with long existing and still growing middle class defined by their socio-economic position. At the first sight this middle class shares a set of common values and norms such as striving for education, high esteem for family life, the importance or rural roots, religion as a source of values and an enterprising attitude. In Nairobi one encounters many fractions among the middle classes that are distinguished clearly by sociocultural characteristics (like values, lifestyle, ethnicity, urban-rural ties or religiosity). Several milieus animate the middle classes of Nairobi and not one class with similar sociopolitical attitudes and values. It makes a difference whether one considers rural communities with traditional values as sociopolitical ideal or liberal and individualized urban lifestyles. Voting patterns show that political mobilization follows clearly ethnic-regional lines and avoids class interests. Differences are evident in concepts of a good society, basic values and norms and aspiration that neither fins expression in defined political ideologies nor in stable political orientations, programs or programmatic party preferences. This paper questions whether the middle class in Nairobi and Kenya is politically unconscious?

← Back to list