Multi-class families, regional disparities and the emergence of middle classes in Africa

Drawing on my own fieldwork in Ghana as well as secondary sources on West Africa, but also other African countries, this project will explore two challenges in particular. The first concerns the relationship between class and family. Conventional class theories consider class membership as comprising not only individuals, but entire households and families. In African societies, however, marriage ties and kin relations of upwardly mobile individuals often cut across class boundaries, resulting in ‘multi-class’ households and competing loyalties. How does this affect styles of ‘doing being middle class’ and the emergence of a self-confident middle class? The second challenge concerns the spatial dimensions of middle-class boundary work. In conventional class theories the nation-state is the obvious framework for defining class boundaries, but, as the paper shows, African examples point to the importance of subnational as well as transnational dimensions of class formation. The insights provided by the data from Africa lead us to ask: In what ways do subnational memberships and loyalties, organised around locality, region, ethnicity, or religion, defy, intersect with, or drive the emergence of national middle classes? How can transnationally attained economic, social and cultural capital affect social hierarchies ‘back home’? These challenges and the questions they raise force us to develop more nuanced understandings of social stratification in complex societies in general.

This project forms part of the project The new middle class in Africa in comparative perspective, convened by Debora James (London School of Economics).

Project leader(s):
  • Carola Lentz (Department of Anthropology and African Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University)

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