Academic journal article African Studies Review

Exploring the Middle Classes in Nairobi: From Modes of Production to Modes of Sophistication

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Exploring the Middle Classes in Nairobi: From Modes of Production to Modes of Sophistication

Article excerpt


This article explores the middle classes as cultural practice by focusing on the young professionals, or "yuppies," of Nairobi. Young professionals are particularly interesting to study because they are the population that has reaped the benefits of a historical development of socioeconomic opportunities. They also occupy an interesting position in the context of local preoccupations with being modern or "sophisticated" in Kenya and in terms of the expectations and assumptions of previous generations. The article touches briefly on the history of class analysis in African studies and then, departing from Marx and following a Weberian analysis, shows how three factors are important in analyzing the middle classes and the forging of class identities in a globalizing world: access to education, resulting in salaried occupations; consumption patterns; and modern self-perceptions.

Résumé: Cet article explore la classe moyenne en tant que pratique culturelle en mettant l'accent sur les jeunes professionnels, ou "yuppies" de Nairobi. Les jeunes professionnels sont particulièrement intéressants à étudier parce qu'ils appartiennent à la génération qui a récolté les bénéfices du développement historique des opportunités socio-économiques. Ils occupent également une position intéressante dans le contexte des préoccupations locales sur le phénomène de sophistication au Kenya, en comparaison avec les attentes etles questions des générations précédentes. L'article aborde brièvement comment les analyses des classes ont évolué historiquement dans les études africaines; ensuite, en utilisant Marx comme point de départ et en suivant une analyse wébérienne, l'article expose les trois facteurs importants dans l'analyse de la classe moyenne et la fabrication d'identités de classe dans un monde globalisé: l'accès à l'éducation aboutissant à des professions salariées, les habitudes de consommation, et les perceptions modernes identitaires.

Key Words: Middle classes; postcolonial socioeconomic opportunities; education; consumption; self-perception


According to a 2011 African Development Bank (ADB) report, "strong economic growth in Africa over the past two decades has been accompanied by the emergence of a sizeable middle class" (1), with the proportion of Africans in this socioeconomic category having risen from 27 percent in 2000 to 34 per cent in 2011. The U.K. Guardian, in reporting on the ADB's finding, concluded that it "challenges [the] view of [the] continent as a place of famine and poverty" (Sumner & Birdsall 2011). Since the publication of the ADB report, other serious media outlets have also presented programs and articles celebrating the "rising" or "new" middle class in Africa, a concept that seems to serve the purpose of revising the outdated representation of Africa as the "lost" continent and helps shape new understandings of an "emerging" continent. While these media claims perhaps require us to distinguish rhetoric from reality, my purpose here is not to argue with their accuracy, or question whether the claims about an African middle class may have been overstated. Indeed, I welcome more attention to the wealthier echelons of African societies. What I wish to explore instead is how we can make sense of the term "middle class" in an African context.

According to the ADB, the middle class can be defined as "individuals or households that fall between the 20th and 80th percentile of consumption distribution" (2011:2). This translates, according to the report, into a daily per capita expenditure of U.S.$2.00-20.00-although this notion of such a range as "middle class" elicited scorn from vociferous online commentators, who responded with comments like "Ha ha ha! 'Middle-class Africans' of 2$ a day! I can't buy me a middle-class lifestyle in Lagos for that" (Sumner & Birdsall 2011). The ADB acknowledges that "it is difficult to define exactly who falls into this key group and even harder still to establish how many middle class people there are in Africa . …

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