The muddled definition of a class in between


I do not tweet, never had an account on facebook, nor do I own a car, a microwave or a flat screen TV. Being unmarried and a mum, I live in a rented apartment (70 m2) and work on contracts which are usually shorter than one year. The highest educational achievement of the head of household…? Well, I hold a PhD, but for the sake of making my point let’s assume the household head is male and more into business than education. For sure, marketing research would not place me in the middle class because of my limited consumerism. How about you? Are you in the global middle class?

I am not. The Global Income Calculator computes my data and gives me a surprising answer: In 2011 in purchasing power parity dollars, the calculator put me in the high income group worldwide, along with 59.5% of people in Germany. By the way, my income is not high, but the father of my child supports us well, but no one asked for that in the questionnaire that aims at defining my social class. Everything I stated in the first paragraph pointed into a different direction and leaves me puzzled about the definition of the middle class.

The term ‘middle class’ appears often enough in newspapers, consultancy reports and other pieces of writing in the public media, but it tends to be used without any further definition. There seems to be a common notion that either a position within a certain income range or participation in consumerism is reason enough (not) to fall under this category in the middle.

The dominant approach establishes, in either relative or absolute terms, a median income range based on the economic potential of either one country, or one region, or on global level. Authoritative sources include people with a daily income between $2 to $13 for the middle class in the Global South (Banerjee and Duflo, 2008) and $10‐$100 for the Global middle class (Kharas, 20103) per person and day. Comparing these outcomes, Visagie concludes that in South Africa those who are relatively affluent are far ahead from the median income earners ($955 in 2015) and, thus, the global ‘middle class’ equals the South African elites (Visagie 2013). Did all this analysis of income only result in the replacement of a weakly defined term with an equally contested concept of ‘elites’, the creamy layer floating on top? Certainly, we learn that we are very far from a universal definition of the middle class as well as from an idea of middle class lifestyle. Certain approaches crunch the numbers to define the middle class, but it is necessary to know, in addition, whether it is being referred to an individual a middle class household, or a middle class family (as an anthropologist I here think of mother-child units as well as large polygamous families) per day, per month or annually. But the wealth or income based definition of the middle class appears to be a solid indicator of socio-economic difference; solid enough that it is broadly cited in public media and academic debate. Hence, definitions vary with regard to the income besides the geographical, temporal and social scope. Comparing some of the studies, that aim at estimating the size of the middle class, the resulting figures differ by factor 10.

How about consumerism? Research Institutes, whether engaged in academic or market research, have established their own tools to figure out who is neither poor nor rich and, hence, a potential consumer of middle class goods. A study by South Africa’s Standard Bank was cited in The Africa Report from 24 August 2015 by stating that Kenya’s middle class has an annual consumption level of between $7,500 and $37,000 and there are about 400,000 such households to be found in that country. A more recent study, however, to be published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a Nairobi based think tank, speaks of far lower figures for Kenya. Using a monthly expenditure of $500 as its base, the IEA estimates that there are between 144,000 and 300,000 Kenyans who can be categorised as middle class according to their purchasing power. How do those institutes come up with these figures? The Standard Bank merely states that for its data collection, it used a tool developed by the Mexican Association of Market Research and Public Opinion. This tool specified a number of criteria for the study of class, including: educational achievements of the family head, whether the family home was rented or owned, amenities in the housing (piped water, electric power, the kind of heating, the type of floor), possession of media of entertainment and communication, mode of transport. Six income ranges were computed on basis of a household survey. However, it is not stated in The Africa Report whether and how the research tool of the Standard Bank Research Group was adapted to the research setting in Kenya. Neither the sources for the Institute of Economic Affairs nor for the Standard Bank Research Group are available.

In South Africa alone, the Black Middle Class may be as small as 1.7 Million in 2004 or as big as 9.3 Million in 2007 – depending on the approach. In the Mail&Guardian, 2013, a study of the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing is cited which combines criteria of income and consumerism. In the study, ‘Four Million and Rising’ South African black adults qualified as middle class if they met at least three of the following four requirements: ‘own a car, have a tertiary qualification, own a business or work in a white-collar or professional industry and/or have a household income of between R14 000 and R50 000 a month’ (Steyn, 2013). I tried to investigate on the methodologies used with little success. My research came to the result that the tools used by the South African Audience Research Foundation seem very similar to the Mexican questionnaire. The foundation uses solely non-income measures of lifestyle and status based on the Living Standard Measures, an approached developed in the 1970s and used by the World Bank. The purpose of this tool is merely to provide data for marketing, advertising and media. The Living Standard Measures does not consider income as a key factor for the definition of social class at all, but divides respondents into ten categories, of which categories five to seven are the middle class. In a second step, the income range of those respondents who fell within these categories is computed. Well, at least that is what I think how it works: again, the studies are not available, and there are hardly any further notes on the research set up.

Those surveys and investigations which gave presented data (controversial as it is) on the middle class have attracted much international interest in the recent past, but to what end? Do those studies provide the enlightenment they claim? Political scientist Dominique Darbon gives reason to believe that the media overrepresented the size and consumer capacity of the African middle class to attract foreign investments in Africa. Nestlé and others have already cut 15% of their workforce as the growth of the African middle class was disappointingly low. Besides, the African middle class does not consume the products it should.

To us, as social scientists, economic approaches are merely an exercise of number crunching. The discomfort with current, quantitative-economic definitions of the ‘middle class’ is also displayed in the range of alternatives for the term proposed. Mosa Phadi and Claire Ceruti preferred the term ‘middling class’ (2008), apparently in relation to the British category of the ‘middling sorts’ (Bledstein and Johnston 2001). Phadi’s and Ceruti’s study subsumed under the term all those who displayed some class consciousness, and who referred to themselves as part of the middle class. It was, therefore, a term that showed individiuals’ aspirations, as well as their need to distinguish themselves from those with better or worse living conditions. The term ‘middling class’ had already appeared in earlier works. Laurie coined it, for example, and included ‘all those who lacked the income, status and staying power to be part of the solid middle class’ (2001: 100). Recently, this aspirational class receives more attention in the scholarly debate. Ivan Chipkin (2012) labelled ‘middle classers’ or Roger Southall speaks of ‘middle classing’ as an ‘aspirational category’. But also the term middle class may be used as an aspirational category, as Rachel Spronk (2012) advocates. The middle class in Africa are those who are the avant-garde of Africa, and those who aspire to become it. This would be a highly interesting group to study, but how can I again study people who have not yet accomplished what is needed to define them?

Should we still use the term even if we do not know what it defines? Some authors tried alternatives. Christiane Brosius (2010) explicitly refuses to define the term middle class, and prefers to speak of ‘middle classness’. This term alludes to attributes and life styles which are commonly associated with the middle class but not exclusively accessible to a middle class.

Goldthorpe and Erikson spoke of the ‘middle mass’ (Erikson and Goldthorpe 2001: 345). Both these authors try to include aspects of social mobility of a growing group of people. Barely three decades later, Steven Pressman now speaks of the middle class’ global decline; the conceptual confusion this produces is noted by Pierre Jacquemot, who proposes that ‘classe confusé’ with a negative connotation. With an equally frustrating undertone, Narasimha Reddy speaks of those ‘left behind’ by the rich, namely, the ‘bypassed’. On the Indian context, where class and caste intersect, P.G. Jogdand spoke about a ‘mobile class’ sprouting from reservation policy, next to the ‘elite class’ and the ‘creamy layer’, which describes those floating above the large segment of poverty. A translation proposed by Jacquemot may grasp the confusion best: the ‘muddle class’, may be a more fitting designation for those captured in the middle. (…or the confusion of researchers with their subject).

In the absence of a better term, neo-marxists like Daniel Bell studied the ‘new class’ between the workers and the capitalists in the 1920s. Bell (1979) summarised this debate by concluding that it dealt with a new and emerging class in the middle, and dealt with it by combining criteria of a social stratum with a cultural attitude which forms a sociological and linguistic ‘muddle’. And here we are back at a methodological dilemma – a vicious circle of not knowing what we look, how to look for it and how to call it.

Today, the urban dictionary suggests the usage of ‘muddle class’ with reference to those members of the American middle class who ‘try to survive the current economic crisis by “muddling through” with less money and less security’. Is the middle class merely a pun?

Those criticising economic definitions of class point at works of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Pierre Bourdieu. Those central European wise old men recognize relevant aspects of social classification such as profession, ownership, wealth, preferences, attitudes and the wish to draw boundaries between oneself and the others. Not all of these theoretical approaches, however, can be adequately untied from their central European context. Studies on the middle class consistently took European nation states of the 19th century as their starting point, and one wonders how this compares to South Africa, Kenya, India, Brazil or China today.  The term is used as if cultural ascriptions that inhered central European middle classes i.e. entrepreneurial behaviour, democratisation, western consumption patterns, and political attitudes, can automatically inferred from middle class formation elsewhere. Nor were Marx’ and Weber’s doubtless influential works the last word on class and the middle classes in either Europe or elsewhere. Particularly in German sociology starting from the 1980s alternatives to Marx and Weber were developed to grasp social differentiation more accurately. Some of these alternative definitions (such as Schicht, Stand, Lebensstil or Milieu) included social origin, educational background, or affiliation to traditional elites, lifestyles, or preferences in leisure time and politics, aspects which we regard as, in many cases, analytically preferable to economic parameters. All these concepts deal with social differentiation, and they indicate that cultural factors are pivotal when describing the middle class. In contrast to reductionist economic approaches do these sociological approaches analyse the middle of a society within its context and in relation to internal boundaries. The impact of such approaches is still very limited in an international, English-speaking scientific community.

Given all this, does it make sense to use the term ‘middle class’ with its various definitions and associations? Well, if it does, it is only because it is broad enough to accommodate a heterogeneous social group. Academic research in the social sciences took few years to criticise the term and to propose alternatives. However, finding alternatives to the term does not solve the problem of finding definitions. Only refining the definition does and the debate moved on to produce more qualitative, empirically founded descriptions of the research object.

Based on real life of the middle class in their own context I propose to take people’s choices rather than their apparent economic incapability into consideration. If I could theoretically own a car, a microwave, a flat screen and an adequately big apartment or house, I may be middle class. And yet, it is my freedom to consume differently from what market research companies ascribe to my class.



Bell, Daniel. 1979. The new class: A muddled concept. Society.Vol. 16 (2), pp 15–23.

Chipkin, I. 2012. Middle Classing in Roodepoort: Capitalism and Social Change in South Africa. PARI Long Essays / Number 2.

Brosius, C. 2014. India’s Middle Class: New Forms of Urban Leisure, Consumption and Prosperity. Routledge.

Jacquemot, P. 2013. Economie politique de l’Afrique contemporaine: Concepts, analyses, politiques. Armand Colin.

Phadi, M. & C. Ceruti. 2011 Multiple meanings of the middle class in Soweto, South Africa. African Sociological Review. Vol. 15 (1), pp. 87-107.

Spronk, R. 2012. Ambiguous Pleasures: Sexuality and Middle Class Self-Perceptions in Nairobi. Berghahn Books.



Dr. Lena Kroeker is the co-editor of “Middle Classes in Africa. Changing Lives and Conceptual Challenges” (with Tabea Scharrer and David O’Kane). The book is forthcoming with Palgrave.

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