Middle classes on the rise: Concepts of the future among freedom, consumption, tradition and moral

Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies. Sub-Project ‘Middle Classes on the Rise’

Place: University of Bayreuth, Germany
Project leaders: Erdmute Alber, Dieter Neubert

The sub project focuses on social representations of future concepts and their contexts. The project will focus on current concepts of the future, their protagonists and addressees in the middle classes, the social environment, their genesis and their entanglement with current processes of social change. The core question of the project is: To what extent are various concepts of the future and a societal response to them tied back to heterogeneous socio-cultural contexts in which African middle classes act? More generally speaking: In which social environment do future concepts arise and in where do they unfold their impacts?

The middle class in Africa is on the one hand characterised by authors from development politics and by economist characterized according to their economic potential (Mubila et al 2011; McKinsey 2010; Shikwati 2007). On the other hand, in the debate on civil society the middle class is thought as genuine representative of a liberal-democratic model of society. Both of these views ignore socio-cultural differences within the middle class, which are expressed in very different plans for the future. Currently, there are at least the following types of future concepts to be found:

(A) Liberal-democratic ideas,

(B) The development discourse of development organizations,

(C) Pragmatic individual orientations towards career and consumption,

(D) Neo-traditionalist ideas with recourse to pre-colonial structures of authority, strong ethnic and family ties and indigenous land rights,

(E) Ideas which are heavily influenced by religious norms and which carry aspects of millenarian concepts of time and moral principles (including Pentecostal churches, Islamic movements i.a.),

(F) Notions of an upward mobility and security which are family-related and intergenerational.

Future concepts differ by manifold individual, familial and social aspects – i.e. social position being just one of them. Moreover they differ in terms of their range (concrete life plans such as professional career, political programs, ideas of afterlife), the possibility of shaping the future respectively ideas of predetermination of the future. Besides, future concepts differ as well in relation to the question in how far the conception of the future may serve as a model for the society as such or if it may merely be a matter of individual preference.

With the research, the interlinkage of various visions of the future and their specific social contexts shall be highlighted. Social contexts are here understood as social differentiations among the middle classes and can both be a breeding ground for the development of future concepts as well as a projection, and thus the consequence, of ideas on the future. The most common analysis of such processes of differentiation combines the investigation of socio-economic differences besides socio-cultural aspects which are represented in the lifestyles, respectively, milieus or patterns of conduct (e.g., Bourdieu 1979; Hartmann 1999; Hradil 1987). The application of such approaches on the African context requires further substantial conceptual developments. Firstly, patterns of life style vary. Secondly, indicators of socio-cultural differentiation which mainly apply in Europe, such as patterns of consumption and leisure, cannot simply be transferred to the African context. Thirdly, characteristics of socio-cultural differences (and thus the formulation of plans for the future and their reception) are significantly influenced by the experience of global networks (transnational education with stays abroad, the influence of diaspora groups, migrant labour). Consideration of these factors is an important contribution to the problem of generalizing and revising sociological theories as well as social anthropological concepts of social differentiation. These considerations can contribute to theory production in anthropology and to the improvement of systematic conceptions in sociology. By examining the role of transnational relations in the production of future concepts, the subproject offers new empirical material to mainly subject theoretically claimed globality and discarding of ideas for the future (Adam 2004, 16).

This study follows earlier work on the middle classes (middle classes, elites) in Africa (e.g. Bayart 1993; Daloz 2007; Grohs 1967, Lloyd 1966; Oppong 1973, Werbner 2004, Behrends and Lentz 2012) and takes ethnographic studies on the lifestyles of selected groups as starting point (e.g. Fuest 1996; Hahn 2008). These studies stress the important role of formal education for social mobility and social distinction as well as the constantly renegotiated ties of the elites to their regions of origin. However it has rarely been investigated how specific forms of differentiation relate to conceptions of the future (except Spöhr 2010).

Kenya is a particularly suitable research location, with a notable middle class the 1950s (Mubila et al. 2011, 22; Hornsby 2012). Finally, there are a number of studies on the social differentiation of Kenya, which serve as the starting point for the work (including Berg-Schlosser 1979; Githinji 2000).

Kroeker - Milimani MC
Foto: L.Kroeker

Research questions and approach

Against this background, the middle classes are considered pivotal producers and carriers of future concepts. So the following questions are especially important for the research:

• Which concrete conceptions for the future can be identified? Can different visions of the future and their genesis be linked to specific socio-cultural groups within the middle classes and the whole of the population?

• To what extent can the project recognize correlations (in both directions) between future visions and social changes (including the formation of the middle class)?

• In what way is the on future an useful approach for studying current social upheavals?

• To what extent are (changing) future concepts part of intergenerational conflicts and contribute in this way to change within the society?

The ethnological sub project works at the micro level. Participant observation at public places will reveal the consumer and leisure behaviour of the new middle classes. In addition the sub project studies intergenerational negotiation of future designs within selected families. Furthermore, it pays special attention to processes of distinction within the family that may shed a critical light on the concept of social classes in general. The sociological sub project focusses primarily on the meso level. It will capture current future visions and their reception through the analysis of the public discourse (including new social media) and through structured interviews. This sub project relies on a quantitative-qualitative method-mix and thereby differentiates groups among the middle classes by the analysis of their living conditions. Using this material the sub project examines interdependencies of future designs and patterns of lifestyle.

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