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The lived experiences of the African middle classes

Mercer, Claire ORCID: 0000-0003-0991-3693 and Lemanski, Charlotte (2020) The lived experiences of the African middle classes. Africa, 90 (3). 429 - 438. ISSN 0001-9720

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Identification Number: 10.1017/S0001972020000017


What are the experiences of the African middle classes, and what do their experiences tell us about social change on the continent? While there have been ample attempts to demarcate the parameters of this social group, the necessary work of tracing the social life and social relations of the middle classes is just beginning. The articles in this special issue provide compelling accounts of the ways in which the middle classes are as much made through their social relations and social practices as they are (if indeed they are) identifiable through aggregate snapshots of income, consumption habits and voting behaviours. Rachel Spronk (2018: 316) has argued that ‘the middle class is not a clear object in the sense of an existing group that can be clearly delineated; rather, it is a classification-in-the-making’. We agree, and our aim in bringing these contributions together in this special issue is to develop our understanding of how this process is emerging in different contexts across Africa. In her opening contribution, Carola Lentz suggests that we need more research on ‘the social dynamics of “doing being middle-class”’, or what we term here ‘middle-classness’, which attends to this ‘classification-in-the-making’ through urban–rural changes over intergenerational life courses, multi-class households, kinship and social relations. Such an agenda has recently been opened up by two edited volumes on the African middle classes (Melber 2016; Kroeker et al. 2018). We further develop this agenda here through a series of empirically rich articles by scholars in African studies, anthropology, literature and sociology that explicitly address the question of the lived experiences of the middle classes. Echoing Spronk's unease with taking ‘the middle class’ as an already constituted social group, what emerges across the articles is rather the unstable, tenuous and context-specific nature of middle-class prosperity in contemporary Africa. Social positions shift – or are questioned – as one moves from the suburb to the township (Ndlovu on South Africa) or into state-subsidized high-rise apartments (Gastrow on Angola). Stability gives way over time to precarity (Southall on Zimbabwe). Wealth is not tied to the individual but circulates more widely through social relations. Should one invest in the nuclear or the extended family (Hull on South Africa; Spronk on Ghana)? In a house or a car (Durham on Botswana)? And why does it matter – for the individual, the household, the family, the city, the nation and the continent? To grasp what it means to be middle-class in Africa today necessarily requires an understanding of the historical, social and spatial embeddedness of lived experiences at multiple scales.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2020 International African Institute
Divisions: Geography & Environment
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Date Deposited: 12 Jun 2020 15:09
Last Modified: 19 Jul 2024 05:45

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