The Rise of Middle Classes in Emerging and Developing Countries: Patterns, Causes, and Consequences

Dr. Lena Giesbert
2016 - 2018
GIGA Research Platform South Africa
Evangelisches Studienwerk e.V. (Villigst)

Prof. Murray Leibbrandt, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), University of Cape Town, South Africa

Jan Hofmeyr, Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa

Prof. Stephan Klasen, Chair of Development Economics, University of Göttingen, Germany



Research Questions
The middle class has gained increasing popularity in explaining heterogeneous paths of development in the context of today’s low- and middle-income countries. This project aims to critically reflect on the relevance and instrumental importance of the middle class in the fields of development economics and politics. It focuses on the potential role played by the middle class as a development actor. In particular, the project investigates a) the political thinking and engagement of the middle class and its role for democracy, and b) implications of middle class formation for the labor market and the business environment.

Contribution to International Research
Modernization theorists and analysts of political transition have linked poverty reduction and the emergence of a larger, wealthier and more homogeneous middle class to political change and democratization, as well as the adaption of progressive political and market-friendly value systems. These theoretical propositions on the essential role played by the middle class as the backbone of both democracy and long-term economic growth implicitly assume some middle class particularism in values, preferences and behavior. However, empirical evidence on which to substantiate these ideas in the context of emerging and developing countries remains scarce. This project will add to a better understanding of what exactly constitutes middle class status and how these middle classes will behave and act in the socio-economic as well as the political discourse and practice. In line with more critical recent studies on middle class formation in emerging and developing regions, we expect that the characteristics, behavioral patterns and attitudes of this class are more complex and exhibit heterogeneity not only between countries and regions, but also between layers within this group of respective populations.

Research Design and Methods
The project includes both empirical investigations of the research questions set out above as well as collaborative networking activities among international researchers and practitioners working on related topics. The empirical investigations will be based on quantitative empirical household and opinion survey data. In a first step, a comparative framework will be applied to study the characteristics and roles of new middle classes using South Africa, India and Brazil as case studies. In a second step, we will take a closer look into these (or potentially other) case studies and analyse labor market and firm-level dynamics as determinants of middle class growth using matched employer-employee data (as available for example in the Brazilian case). Finally, we investigate the political economy of Africa’s emerging middle class, for instance by using data from the Afrobarometer to investigate the political attitudes of upwardly mobile lower middle-income groups and more affluent middle classes. The collaborative work of the project will include an international workshop on inequality and middle class development in Africa to be held in Cape Town with our South African cooperation partners. The project further intends to collect necessary (panel) data in a joint effort with the cooperation partners.