Understanding the Diversity of Middle Classes in 21st Century Kenya: An Interview with Postdoctoral Fellow Florian Stoll

Publication Date: 
October 18, 2017

Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology welcomed Florian Stoll from Bayreuth University, Germany for a year-long stay from October 2016 to September 2017. The research project at Yale “Understanding the Diversity of Middle Classes in 21st Century Kenya: Social Milieus, Lifestyles and Meanings in Nairobi“ is based on his research in the project “Middle Classes on the Rise” at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies. Dr. Stoll´s project takes up this research and connects the empirical data with approaches from Cultural Sociology to develop a new conceptual framework. He also taught a class related to his research on “Middle Class Milieus in the Global South” during the Spring 2017 semester. As his time at Yale came to an end, Florian Stoll spoke with the Africa Initiative about his research and his views on the place of Africa within sociology research.

Can you tell me a little bit about your research on urban “middle class” milieus, and what prompted you to focus on Nairobi in particular?

Since 2013, I have been part of the project “Middle Classes on the Rise” that examines urban middle-income groups in Kenya. The project has an anthropological and a sociological wing. In the sociological part, I study together with Prof. Dieter Neubert different lifestyle groups (social milieus) in the middle-income strata of Nairobi and Mombasa. During five research stays, I spent a total of 9 months in Kenya, where I conducted participant observation and biographical interviews. We decided to focus on Nairobi because it is a city where in the last two decades  a large middle-income population has emerged. Within this middle part of the population several groups with different conducts of life developed. As a point of comparison, we also researched Mombasa to explore local differences.

Our research engages with the ongoing debate about “African middle-classes”. Since 2000, many millions of households were able to improve their economic situation in Africa. In response, development organizations, international media and also academics got interested in this phenomenon and started studying it under the very attractive label of “African middle-classes”. However, because economic institutions and popular medial tended to consider only economic numbers to define the so-called middle classes, this debate became rather unnuanced. According to us, the transfer of the concept “middle-class” from Europe and North America to Africa is problematic because in the global North, these groups are associated with stability, leisure time, and a significant level of social security. Such associations are not necessarily relevant to the situation in Kenya and other African countries.

The economically defined middle-income-groups in Africa have very different lifestyles and only share a similar expenditure with regards to daily consumption, which puts them roughly somewhere between the rich and the poor. The conventional approach to income- or consumption-classes is unable to show the highly diverse ways of life. And, because the class approach has been developed with European societies in mind, we were aiming to apply a concept that pays attention to the particularities of Kenya and other African countries such as ethnicity, urban-rural ties, and household units that encompass the extended family — elements generally ignorded in Northern sociology.

Therefore, we decided to substitute the class approach with the milieu-concept, which takes the most significant elements in life as a starting point for constructing certain groups. This approach is focused on the questions: Which values are important to people? What do people spend their money on? And, what are their aims in life? Following this approach, we have been able to identify distinctive milieus in the middle-income stratum of Nairobi. According to our research, there are at least six milieus of a significant size in Nairobi.

The six milieus are the Social Climbers (a group with high saving rates which focuses on social advancement in the form of business or educational achievement), a milieu of dedicated Christians who are very active in their churches, a Neo-Traditional milieu with strong ties to their extended family and ethnic community, a pragmatic domestic milieu with a focus on moderate consumption and their nuclear family, a cosmopolitan-liberal milieu with strong pro-democratic convictions, and a milieu of ambitious but also hedonistic and consumption-oriented young professionals. These milieus have an identifiable core but we acknowledge that some individuals can show characteristics of more than one milieu.

We have comprehensively described our approach and these milieus in the Working Paper “Socio-Cultural Diversity of the African Middle Class. The Case of Urban Kenya” (co-authored with Dieter Neubert) that is available for download on the Homepage of the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies. Here at Yale´s Center for Cultural Sociology, I have expanded this research by integrating cultural arguments into the milieu study. For example, Cultural Sociology has given me some tools to improve the study of crucial meanings that members of a milieu share. And I also explored how cultural analysis can lead to a better understanding of why certain objects of consumption are particularly attractive to individuals in a milieu.

How do you respond to questions about the impact of your work on the day-to-day lives of Kenyans in Nairobi who may never interact with it?

By studying middle-income milieus in urban Kenya, we engaged with a research topic that has recently gained much attention in African Studies and Sociology. Our research looks for a new way to understand group formations and conducts of life in Kenya as an exemplary case study that (hopefully!) other social scientists will discuss. While the primary audience of our research is the scholarly community, providing a more nuanced understanding of “middle-classes” and milieus in Africa may in time also affect how Northern audiences and media perceive and talk about African settings such as Kenya. Hence, our research will contribute to a more realistic view of everyday lives in Nairobi and it criticizes the still predominant “Afro-Pessimism” of the Global North. For a long time, the public in the US and Europe perceived Africa as a hopeless continent continuously embroiled in wars, plagued by famines and refugee movements. This one-sided picture does not only homogenize a continent that is in reality highly diverse on a social, economical and cultural level, but it also constructs a binary opposition between a developed and stable global North and an underdeveloped Africa. There are many reasons why such a perception of Africa is not true and even has a negative impact on the inhabitants of this continent. By conducting field research and describing the living conditions of the middle-strata in urban Kenya, our research paints a more accurate picture of how people in Kenya live. It further refers to the new wave of “Afro-Optimism,” which evolved in the last decade in reaction to the more traditional “afro-Pessimism” when economists as well as parts of the Northern public started taking into account the improvements and economic growth in many parts of Africa. Some authors had very optimistic and obviously exaggerated expectations, in particular, with regards to the role of “the African middle-class” in driving economic development and spearheading pro-democratic movements. While our study does not deny the need to consider also positive developments, it creates a more nuanced images of the diverse groups with different economic aims and political orientations in the middle-income milieus in urban Kenya.

A direct impact on day-to-day lives of Kenyans in Nairobi was attained through our collaborations and conversations with colleagues from Kenya and other African countries. From the very start of our project, our research group at the University of Bayreuth has been in touch with colleagues from our partner university in Eldoret. We have also given several presentations, and attended workshops and less formal talks in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities. This allowed us not only to integrate feedback and critique from Kenyans into our research, but also to forge connections with Kenyan scholars and interact with the wider community.

Thinking more broadly about the field of cultural sociology, what do you believe is the current status of African communities as possible objects of research?

In my opinion, research on African countries has the potential to offer new analytical methods and strategies to the social sciences in general, and Cultural Sociology in particular. Since Cultural Sociology aims to go beyond the description of social structures such as institutions or economic stratification, it engages with the impact of narratives, and meaning structures and processes of social life. By looking at these issues from the bottom up, it creates the opportunity to rethink social phenomena such as the concept of vertical class differentiation, which cannot sufficiently grasp the many elements of lifestyle.

While research on Africa is still rare in most disciplines such as Sociology, Geography or Political Studies, the postcolonial critique since the 1990s has lead to an increased sensitivity for contexts outside of the Global North and made Africa an appealing research subject. Studies of Africa contribute to the process of “deprovincializing” (Chakrabarty) the Social Sciences and they are starting to address the imbalance between the prominence of Northern versus Southern contexts in the Social Sciences. While studies on “Southern” societies in South America, Asia and Africa have proliferated, research on Africa is comparatively sparse in the field of Sociology in Europe and the US, despite the fact that almost all colleagues admit that African communities are as significant as any other context for research in the world. So why is there relatively little research?

The power relations of knowledge production in North American and European Academia have set the standards that are only slowly being questioned. Theories from the global North have generally been developed with this region of the world in mind, and are not a priori applicable to the diverse contexts in Africa and other parts of the Global South. It is an empirical question and a challenge to find out which arguments from the Social Sciences are valid in Africa and other Southern contexts. Of course, we can only do this by intense field work and in close collaboration with colleagues from Africa who have a better understanding of social life and also theories from which Northern research can learn very much.

Another reason for the study of Africa is that we live today in a multipolar world which is not appropriately described as the opposition of a developed “first-world” versus an underdeveloped “third-world” (with the “second world” being the communist states). Moreover, the economic rise of countries in Asia as well as in Africa and South America makes it necessary to study these processes and to develop new theories.

From my experience, there is a large interest of the scientific community in doing research on Africa but it is not in the center of attention in the systematic disciplines. The marginal place makes it more difficult to discuss social life in Africa as there are fewer theories, empirical studies and also less collaborations. To a large degree, it is not an aversion against research in Africa but just the unusual character and the knowledge gap that is responsible for the current status.

Conceptions of Africa are also plagued by the long shadow of assumptions based on a uniform theoretical model of modernization. During the second half of the 20th century, the public and academics expected that “third-world”-societies would adapt to the institutional and social settings of “first-world”- societies. While scholars have started to realize that this assumption is not valid, it is necessary to find out in research which theories can more adequately explain the particularities of African societies.

In your opinion, what steps must be taken to increase the number of people who focus on and study African communities in their research?

Since sociological theory always had the ambition to understand all societies, it is important that disciplinary studies become aware that studying Africa is crucial to understanding the contemporary world.

In addition, bringing together area studies and systematic studies such as Political Science, Geography and Sociology in a transdisciplinary dialogue will furthermore benefit our understanding of this continent. For example, by including information on African countries into the curricula of sociologists and geographers will enable us to widen the scope of what society means. Similarly, it may be useful to introduce disciplinary theories about issues such as class and stratification to students in African Studies and other area related disciplines so that models can be developed for comparative approaches between phenomena in different regions, for example, between middle-income groups and their lifestyles in Kenya, Brazil and Germany. While several dedicated colleagues combine area and systematic studies, such efforts are still rather the exception and not an established component of systematic disciplines.

Other initiatives could be to intensify and encourage exchange programs and collaborations not only at research institutions that include disciplinary and area studies, but also by creating positions with a double focus in systematic and regional studies. My research on middle-income milieus in urban Kenya benefitted very much from the environment of my home institution, the Bayreuth Academy of African Studies, the large department of African Studies in Bayreuth and of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale. Working at these institutions has allowed me tointegrate the sociological perspective into to the particular contexts of Nairobi and Mombasa. Moreover, expanding partnerships with African universities, such as the existing exchange programs in Bayreuth, would  open up an entire range of new possibilities. It would demonstrate a greater commitment to consistently inviting the voices of African scholars to participate in the scholarly dialogue. Perhaps, one could create a professorship that is based at an American university and a Kenyan one. Furthermore, creating more positions for Sociology or Geography of Arica/Global South is crucial for changing the outlook of the disciplines.

Where do you hope to see the field of African studies in cultural sociology in the next 10 years?

It would be great to see more work on Africa and also new work in the next 10 years, taking steps forward so that it will be as normal to study Nairobi, Lagos or Maputo as New York.