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The African middle class (AMC) is an elusive category with high political significance. In spite of its vagueness and its controversial nature, this so-called social category is consistently used by a number of individual actors and institutions alike, including IO, NGOs, business interests, and political leaders in Africa for political purposes. The words “African middle class” are suggestive enough to produce new images of African social structures and turn the “hopeless continent” into a “miracle,” a new “powerhouse.” They are strong enough to grant new legitimacy to failing political leaders and the well off and to let people and academics alike anticipate the rise of democratic, stable, uncorrupted institutions. However, people “of the middle of the diamond” in Africa do not exist as a social community or a class. They do not share a common political identity. They have no political role of their own. The diversity of social subgroups may occasionally mobilize together, but for a short period of time and on highly different grounds. The political role of the AMC is as elusive as their mere existence. New social groups of limited prosperity are on the rise. However, they are far from making a class and mobilizing for political purposes. The rise of middle classes in emerging countries became a research theme at the beginning of the 2000s. The discussion took root in sub-Saharan African countries in the 2010s without any in-depth debate about its relevance. It was as if the AMC or classes already existed before the examination of a still very confused and heterogeneous set of transformations of the social structure of African societies was conducted. As a result, the AMC concept appears in almost all analyses as elastic, elusive, cobbled together, and uncertain as to its boundaries, its characteristics, its components, or its homogeneity. This confusion does not prevent authors from anticipating the meaning and effects of the AMC for political stability and democratization. Before studying how the people grouped behind this label can affect and be affected by politics and policies, it is necessary to understand how politically loaded this middle-class label is.


Oddbjørn Knutsen

The linkage between voters and political parties is to some degree based on stable social cleavages. Such cleavages express important and lasting societal divisions, allow parties and voters to establish long-term ties, and provide incumbents with clear representative and policy-making tasks against which they can be evaluated. Most research on cleavages has been based on the classic cleavages that were outlined in the Lipset-Rokkan model for social cleavages in industrial societies. These are: (1) the center–periphery cleavage, which is anchored in geographical regions and related to different ethnic and linguistic groups as well as religious minorities; (2) the religious conflict between the Church and the State, which pitted the secular state against the historical privileges of the churches; this cleavage has more recently polarized the religious section against the secular section of the population; (3) the class conflict in the labor market, which involved owners and employers versus tenants, laborers, and workers; and (4) the conflict in the commodity market between buyers and sellers of agricultural products, or more generally, between the urban and the rural population. Other social cleavages, such as gender, educational differences, and new divisions within the large new middle class, have been focused upon during the last decades. The new divisions within the new middle class are “horizontal” conflicts and can be conceptualized as a basic conflict between public and private employees, and as an alternative way of conceptualization, between those who work within technical, organizational, or interpersonal service environments. Some of the cleavages have declined in importance over time, while others have increased. Some cleavages have changed character such as the class cleavage where part of the new middle class has voted for the New Left and part of the working class has voted for the New Right in the last decades. Changes in the impact and character of different cleavages have resulted in strategic reconsideration of important policies and changing location of the parties in the political space.