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Melber, Henning, ed. 2016. The Rise of Africa’s Middle Class: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements. London: Zed Books. 219pp. $34 (paper).

In The Rise of Africa’s Middle Class: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements, Henning Melber and his contributors challenge the discourse of the Africa-rising narrative, which has been present in the scholarly literature for nearly a decade now. The book questions two linked topics: the validity of the middle-class label in African contexts and the role of the so-called middle class in democratic transitions. Nearly all its contributors provide a much-needed critique of the purely financial thresholds that have been applied to define the middle class in Africa, most often ranging from income of $2 to $20 per day. The broad range of the category and the absence of other indicators usually present in class analyses—such as social status, profession, lifestyle, and cultural norms—drain the label of its analytical capacity: the term middle class “is rather used in an inflationary manner to cover almost everything without any further internal differentiations that exist within a very broad band of income groups, thereby signifying little to nothing” (p. 2). Additionally, through literature reviews and field studies, the authors remain rather skeptical about the actions of the middle classes that would foster democracy in their home countries. This book is framed by introductory and concluding remarks by its editor. The next five chapters reflect more theoretically on different aspects of the middle class; the first three focus on Africa as whole, and the latter two are tied to more specific case studies. Finally, the last five chapters are case studies of middle-class phenomena in particular countries.

Henning Melber critiques the recent discussion, led mainly by economists, which contrasts the euphoria of a rising Africa with rising income inequality. He thinks the concept of the middle class is still worth exploring, despite the conceptual challenges, but he calls for “proper” class analysis and the abandonment of a purely economic approach by looking at “empirical socio-economic and cultural realities and the degree and forms of political interaction and awareness within and among different segments of society” (p. 206). Carola Lentz shows how, with the end of colonialism, elite studies have become common within African studies, and how they have lately evolved into a study of middle classes. Her literature analysis thus becomes a starting point from which to become familiar with the themes that define the middle class: education, income sources, family relations, consumption, [End Page 98] and so forth; but for her, these criteria need to be coupled with an “understanding of middle class(es) as social formations that can embrace a broad variety of socio-economic situations and life-styles” (p. 41), and instead of asking what constitutes a middle class, scholars should analyze under which circumstances people start “doing being middle class” (p. 42). Tim Stoffel shows the proximity of the recent African middle-class discussion to debates on poverty alleviation. Because both observations rely on the same statistics, the same conceptual problems apply, namely, the unreliability of the numbers and the neglect of lifestyle and social status. Stoffel suggests using employment as the defining criterion, and integrating human development as a measure of middle-class status, since economic growth by itself does not say anything about the quality of the growth. Oluyele Akinkugbe and Karl Wohlmuth look at entrepreneurism in Africa and the challenges this group is still exposed to, such as limited access to credit, but they conclude that the middle class has limited potential to transform the sector, hence their inability to bridge the “missing middle” between micro- and big enterprises. Sirkku Hellsten approaches the African middle-class capacity to advance democratic transition through a culturalist lens. She contrasts imported Western (democratic) values with African traditional values, such as traditional rule and patrimonialism, asking “why would the African middle class have any particular reason to strive towards [a] normative direction that originally was not part of their own culture?” (p. 97).

Dieter Neubert, analyzing the Kenyan middle class, points out that many traits commonly considered typical of a middle class—such as being religious...


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