Concepts of the future among freedom, consumption, tradition and moral

In Europe, Asia, Latin America, as well as in Africa the middle class or the bourgeoisie played a key role in shaping the future of societies throughout social upheavals. The middle class brought future concepts forward, which informed major societal debates.
The crucial question which lies at the heart of the sub project (SP) related to the role of the middle class is: To what extent is the formulation of various concepts of the future tied back to a heterogeneous socio-cultural contexts of the African middle class?
Put more generally: In which social environment do future concepts arise and on which aspects do they have impact? The ethno-sociological sub project shall highlight the combination of various future concepts of middle classes, which can be a breeding ground for the development of future designs as well as in their practice result from the ideas associated with it. Kenya is a particularly suitable field for the study. Already in the 1950s a notable middle class was formed, which has grown in importance and size since then. The ethnological sub project works on the micro level and captures the consumption and leisure attitude of the new middle class. It focuses on the intergenerational negotiation process within selected families with a view to future concepts. The sociological sub project consists primarily of the meso level. It examines current future concepts and their reception as well as the interdependence of future concepts and patterns of living.


The sub project focuses on social representations of future concepts and their contexts. The project will focus on current concepts of the future, their protagonists and addressees in the middle classes, the social environment, their genesis and their entanglement with current processes of social change. The core question of the project is: To what extent are various concepts of the future and a societal response to them tied back to heterogeneous socio-cultural contexts in which African middle classes act? More generally speaking: In which social environment do future concepts arise and in where do they unfold their impacts?

The middle class in Africa is on the one hand characterised by authors from development politics and by economist characterized according to their economic potential (Mubila et al 2011; McKinsey 2010; Shikwati 2007). On the other hand, in the debate on civil society the middle class is thought as genuine representative of a liberal-democratic model of society. Both of these views ignore socio-cultural differences within the middle class, which are expressed in very different plans for the future. Currently, there are at least the following types of future concepts to be found:

(A) Liberal-democratic ideas,

(B) The development discourse of development organizations,

(C) Pragmatic individual orientations towards career and consumption,

(D) Neo-traditionalist ideas with recourse to pre-colonial structures of authority, strong ethnic and family ties and indigenous land rights,

(E) Ideas which are heavily influenced by religious norms and which carry aspects of millenarian concepts of time and moral principles (including Pentecostal churches, Islamic movements i.a.),

(F) Notions of an upward mobility and security which are family-related and intergenerational.

Future concepts differ by manifold individual, familial and social aspects – i.e. social position being just one of them. Moreover they differ in terms of their range (concrete life plans such as professional career, political programs, ideas of afterlife), the possibility of shaping the future respectively ideas of predetermination of the future. Besides, future concepts differ as well in relation to the question in how far the conception of the future may serve as a model for the society as such or if it may merely be a matter of individual preference.

With the research, the interlinkage of various visions of the future and their specific social contexts shall be highlighted. Social contexts are here understood as social differentiations among the middle classes and can both be a breeding ground for the development of future concepts as well as a projection, and thus the consequence, of ideas on the future. The most common analysis of such processes of differentiation combines the investigation of socio-economic differences besides socio-cultural aspects which are represented in the lifestyles, respectively, milieus or patterns of conduct (e.g., Bourdieu 1979; Hartmann 1999; Hradil 1987). The application of such approaches on the African context requires further substantial conceptual developments. Firstly, patterns of life style vary. Secondly, indicators of socio-cultural differentiation which mainly apply in Europe, such as patterns of consumption and leisure, cannot simply be transferred to the African context. Thirdly, characteristics of socio-cultural differences (and thus the formulation of plans for the future and their reception) are significantly influenced by the experience of global networks (transnational education with stays abroad, the influence of diaspora groups, migrant labour). Consideration of these factors is an important contribution to the problem of generalizing and revising sociological theories as well as social anthropological concepts of social differentiation. These considerations can contribute to theory production in anthropology and to the improvement of systematic conceptions in sociology. By examining the role of transnational relations in the production of future concepts, the subproject offers new empirical material to mainly subject theoretically claimed globality and discarding of ideas for the future (Adam 2004, 16).

Some of the publications on the project include:

Dieter Neubert 2015: Die Fallen der „Rumsfeld Utopie“. Das widersprüchliche Verhältnis zwischen Mittelschichten, Zivilgesellschaft und Demokratie. . Festschrift für Reinhart Kößler. In: Hauck, Gerhard; Lenz, Ilse, Wehr, Ingrid; Wienold, Hanns (Hg.): Entwicklung, Gewalt, Gedächtnis. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot 2015, 128-141.

Antje Daniel & Dieter Neubert 2014:  Middle classes and political instability in Kenya. Civil society organizations during the post-election violence of 2007/2008. In: Dominique Darbon (eds.), Les classes moyennes en Afrique. Enjeux politiques d’une catégorie incertaine. Paris: Éditions Karthala, 155-184.

Dieter Neubert 2014: What is “Middle Class”? In Search of an Appropriate Concept. In: META, Middle East – Topics and Arguments, Heft 2 , S . 23-35.



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