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Blog Entry #4

Written by Morten Nielsen.

2019.03.11 | Middle Class Urbanism

When the world moves, you move along with it. By remaining still.

When we wrote up the application for this research project, the world looked slightly different. The scale of the global environmental disaster that we have created for ourselves hadn’t completely sunk in yet, a sane person was governing the free world and Africa was considered by many as being the economic driver for the future. The growing African urban middle class, in particular, was highlighted as the vanguard ideological warriors, who would steer the continent – and the world – towards a viable future complete with equal civic rights, continuous growth and freedom for all. Very promising, indeed. 

The initial idea for the project was thus to examine this new phenomenon. If the urban middle class was, indeed, considered and acted upon as the saviors of the free world (well, so to speak…), what might the ramifications be on a concrete level? How does this aspiration and drive manifest itself in the city across its different and overlapping registers and domains and among its multitude of interacting actors, who never really seem to agree on what is actually going on? As our field site, we chose Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Maputo has not only been my main field site since 2004, it was also one of the African countries singled out by commentators and analysts as having the largest growth of the urban middle class. At the time of writing, Mozambique was still considered by the international development community as one of their main donor ‘pets’. It had a yearly economic growth of approximately 8% and the Frelimo government was more than willing to implement basically any structural adjustment program that the World Bank and IMF could think of. 

The question was, then, how to go about doing such a research project. I had previously been managing another interdisciplinary research project and network of collaborators and was convinced that such a project could only be carried out if it was genuinely interdisciplinary and on the basis of a methodological design that would force all collaborators to fully immerse themselves in the overall project. As far as I saw it, the nature and ramifications of the phenomenon that we wanted to examine (middle class urbanism) was such that we would need insights from multiple disciplines – anthropology, history, urban studies and architecture – and these would have been developed on the basis of a genuinely shared methodology and analytical approach.

So, we came up with the idea of the ‘Integrated Conceptual Framework’ (ICF). Admittedly, at the time of writing, ICF was devised not least to impress upon non-humanistic committee members from the funding agency that we, as humanistic researchers, were actually capable of applying strict hard sciency methodologies, which could generate comparable sets of data across the different disciplines. The idea with ICF was – and is - basically that all team members work on the basis of the same analytical framework, which we revise along the way. And we do fieldwork together. Although it has proven insanely difficult to practically coordinate, we have all gone to each other’s field sites, taken part in the collection of data and have developed individual and collective analytical ideas as a team. 

Not long after we were told that our application was successful, things started to unravel in Mozambique. In 2016, a secret US$2.2 billion arms and fishing boat transaction was revealed, which involved Swiss and Russian banks and lucrative deals for several members of the national political elite. Shortly after the seriousness of the secret transactions were made publicly known, eight countries withdrew from the budget support group and IMF abruptly cut off its disbursement programme.Coincidentally, our research team was at a workshop in Maputo when the story of the scandal broke and it was immediately obvious that it would have serious political and economic repercussions. However, no one could have anticipated have severe it would come to affect literally all domains of urban life. With fewer funds flowing into the country, the economic capacities of the middle class were reduced accordingly. Not only was the metical gradually weakened in relation to the dollar, also foreign financial agents not immediately associated with the Western donor community (e.g. Chinese construction consortia) started to slow down their investment activities in the country. 

While the most important implication of the financial scandal was of course that Mozambicans were far worse off than before, the immediate implication for us was that the initially defined object of our study simply did not exist any longer. The anticipated economic vanguard, the urban middle class, was transmogrified into something else and so an important task at hand for us was to figure out what to do about that. Basically, it did not make much sense continuing to study the middle class as if nothing had happened. The world had changed and we had no choice but to change with it. 

The anthropologist Roy Wagner argued almost thirty years ago that in order to compare different phenomena, it is necessary to preserve the proportion of scale (Wagner 1986).  If I want to compare, say, Brazilian and Mozambican concepts of property rights to land, it is possible to do so through a restricted contrast between lineage-based rights and ownership rights acquired through monetary purchase but I am still talking about concepts of property rights. ‘I am dealing’, in other words, ‘with a class of phenomena which permits comparison’ (Strathern 1990:211). The question is, then, how the process just described can be made to contain proportion of scale that allows for comparisons to be made. For if the phenomenon or concept that we set out to compare in the first place (i.e. middle-class urbanism) has ceased to exist – or at least endures in a radically different form, what are we actually comparing then? 

For empirical phenomena to operate as axes of comparison and therefore also as analytical scales, their ’status and thus their applicability must be independent of the data’ (Strathern 1991:xviii). This means, basically, that whatever is compared across different subprojects has to remain stable. Or invariable, as it is also defined. Our problem was, however, that the object of our study was undergoing radical changes and we simply could not be sure of what we were actually looking at. Was middle class urbanism a collapsed ideological project? Was it a political strategy? Was it an aesthetic value? Or was it (the horror!) a figment of our collective analytical imagination?  

While there is no conclusion to our project yet (we are still very much in the middle of the process!), I think that we can already say something about the research strategy that we chose (whether by accident or overtly) in order to study an empirical phenomenon, which may or may not exist any longer. For, in a sense, we changed absolutely nothing. We embarked on fieldwork both individually and collectively and studied middle class urbanism almost as if the world was the same as before the economic scandal. With the result being a certain disproportion of scale: 

By sticking to seemingly inflexible analytical scale (say, middle class urbanism), we get significant insights into the forms of data that negate analogies between different social phenomena. In other words, by keeping one analytical scale steady through series of consecutive events, we come to identify the non-comparability of the same ethnographic phenomena that lend themselves so easily to comparison. The point is, of course, that what we have defined as ’analytical scale’ is itself cut from the ethnographic phenomena it allegedly compares so that ’holding steady’ essentially means to move at the same pace as the phenomenon from which it is originally abstracted.

Put somewhat differently, it has become possible to capture the pace of ongoing social, political and economic transformations by ‘sticking into the ground’ as it were, an analytical concept that is relatively stable and then measuring everything around it in relation to it. This is, I think, fundamentally different from conventional empirical analyses based on a fixed theoretical framework. In the latter case, the ambition is to gain insights about a detached concept or idea (say, property rights) through empirical studies. What we have ended up doing is to apply an empirical heuristic as measuring rod for the kinds of transformations that occur in a particular context. This will not necessarily give us any insights about the nature of middle-class urbanism. But it will (hopefully) give us crucial insights about a particular form of urban transformation. 



Strathern, M. (1990). Negative Strategies in Melanesia in: R. Fardon, (Ed.): Localizing Strategies: Regional Traditions of Ethnographic Writing. Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press: pp. 204-216.

Wagner, R. (1986). Symbols That Stand for Themselves. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.