In times of political radicalization and destabilization, increasing economic inequality and attraction to authoritarian leaders across the globe, a blog on global middle classes seems to require justification. The focus on such a topic was, one could argue, either an expression of both liberal naivety and an obsession with global development according to the Western model or – worse – an indication of being attracted to a cozy fairytale according to which everyone was able to achieve an adequate standard of living if only trying hard enough.
And indeed, there is every reason to be skeptical to an endeavor that aims at adapting a Western concept such as middle class to non-Western societies. On the other hand, scholars from various disciplines such as history, social anthropology, political sciences, economics and sociology have pointed out the emergence of social groups in Asia, the Middle East and Africa that share many similarities with the Euro-American middle classes. They started to examine the middle classes as a global phenomenon in both the historical past and the present age and to ponder methodological challenges and epistemological implications of such an approach. There are at least four reasons why such an undertaking is highly topical:
First, a focus on middle classes provides the possibility to point out similarities between particular social groups in the Western and non-Western worlds in terms of political ambitions, a cosmopolitan lifestyle, their quest for education and their belief in meritocracy. Recent research has pointed out that despite doubtless differences the world-views of doctors in Delhi, journalists in Dar-as-Salam or lawyers in Buenos Aires are similar enough to that of their counterparts in Europe and North America. This allows subsuming these groups under the very same concept of middle class. Such a focus on similarity might also be an antidote to the wide-spread belief that people are primarily shaped by the cultural area they are coming from and that cultural contacts ultimately result in a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ as Samuel Huntington argued. A focus on potential similarities of middle classes across the globe in contrast allows for examining shared ambitions and aims across geographical, religious and ethnic boundaries. Such an undertaking could thus be not least a source of hope if not indication that intercultural understanding and cooperation is indeed possible.
Second, however, this endeavour will need to go beyond tales of diffusion of a Western concept which had been devised in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Instead of understanding middle class society as a distinctly Western phenomenon that spread throughout the rest of the world, this blog explores the extent to which it was from its very beginning, and also in Europe and North America, the result of global entanglements. Recent historical scholarship for instance provided evidence that European middle classes emerged as the result of a worldwide exchange of goods and ideas in the 19th century. Likewise, middle classes in colonial areas such as India did not merely copy the Western model but fused it with vernacular models of sociability and thus created a new and highly original variety of middleclassness. Such an examination of Western middle classes in a global historical perspective might allow for what Dipesh Chakrabarty labeled ‘provincializing’ the concept of the middle class. Sociologists and social anthropologists in turn might want to inquire what we can learn about European and North American middle classes by studying them from the perspective of the global South. Such an approach could for instance examine whether the ways Asian or African middle classes deal with political crisis and social security provide tools for a better understanding of their counterpart in the global North.
Third, an examination of middle classes in a global perspective also needs to be critical towards the numerous studies, published by economists and corporate think tanks within the past decade, that herald the seemingly unstoppable rise of middle classes worldwide. In 2009 for instance, an article in The Economist argued that for the first time in history more than half of the world was middle class – thanks to rapid growth in so-called emerging economies (in particular China and India). Such numbers however, have to be examined with a great deal of caution as estimations about the size of this group vary considerably depending on criteria applied. A study by the World Bank for instance in 2005 estimated the Indian middle class at 264 million which mean that about 20% of all Indians were ranked among the middle classes. In the same year, however, a McKinsey Global Institute study said that only 50 million people in India were middle class. And a recently published Credit Suisse report estimated the Indian middle class on the basis of their wealth rather than their income and came to the conclusion that only 2% of all people living on the sub-continent can be considered to rank among the middle classes. Such differences, which could be confirmed by the results on other areas, may be considered evidence that the concept of the middle classes is not an innocent one but often linked to specific economic goals and political ambitions. There is probably more than just some truth in the suspicion that the financial institutes which sponsored these studies could aim for propagating the rise of the ‘new middle classes’ in the global South in order to attract investors to the emerging markets of India, China or Sub-Saharan Africa. Even though anthropologists and political scientists found evidence for the emergence of middle class groups throughout the non-Western world, and even though historians pointed out that their existence can be traced back well to the mid-19th century, caution towards the implicit teleology of the term middle class is indispensable.
This concerns, fourth, not least the notion that the middle classes were the torch bearers of democracy and free markets as modernization theory would have it. Of course, historical experience seems to suggest that societies that allow for the establishing of a vital middle class are more stable and more prospering than societies in which no such group can take hold. This probably results not least from the aim of these groups to invest into education and personal development and to support initiatives of social modernization. Yet, it might also be an effect of a distinct middle-class attitude towards intermediation and moderation. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that middle classes can very well be attracted by authoritarian ideologies in times of economic and political crisis. This was the case for instance in Western Europe in the 1930s or in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Currently, populist politicians such as Donald Trump or Marie Le Pen are not least supported by members of the petit bourgeoisie who are afraid of social decline.
Irrespective of their disciplinary background, scholars examining the middle classes as a global phenomenon will encounter similar problems such as the notorious fuzziness of the concept, its implicit teleology or the epistemological challenge of using a distinctly Western concept for the examination of both Western and non-Western societies. However, recent research in disciplines as different as history, social anthropology and political science has brought forth possibilities of how to circumvent such difficulties by careful analysis and pointed out the advantages of such an undertaking. This blog aims at establishing an interdisciplinary and transregional dialogue between scholars engaged in such initiatives and point out how they dealt with the issues mentioned. This shall allow for a better understanding of how to establish research methods in global studies and address social processes whose analysis might be crucial for a better understanding of our globalized world.
About the author
Christof Dejung is a professor in modern history (Ergänzungsprofessur) at the University of Konstanz, Germany. His research focuses on global history and the history of Europe’s relations with the wider world. He is the author of Die Fäden des globalen Marktes (Böhlau, 2013) and the co-editor of Foundations of World-Wide Economic Integration. Power, Institutions and Global Markets, 1850-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 2013). A volume on the worldwide rise of the middle classes in the age of empire, which he co-edits with Jürgen Osterhammel and David Motadel, has been commissioned by Princeton University Press.
 Christof Dejung, ‘Auf dem Weg zu einer globalen Sozialgeschichte? Neuere Studien zur Globalgeschichte des Bürgertums’, Neue Politische Literatur 59 (2014), 229-253.
 Sanjay Joshi, Fractured Modernity: Making of a Middle Class in Colonial North India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 2001.