Norms and Values of New Middle Class Consumers and Citizens: What do they care about?

By Mary Rutenge

To open the panel session, an overview on a paper by Alejandro Guarin, (GDI/DIE, Germany) and Peter Knorringa (Erasmus University, The Netherland) was presented titled ‘New Middle-Class Consumers in Rising Powers: Responsible Consumption and Private Standards’ .The paper raised two main points: the issue of discretionary consumption and on how little is known about consumer behaviours of emerging countries due to limited existing research.
This was followed by three presentations. The first one was on ‘Kenya’s Emerging Middle Class’ by Lena Kroeker (University of Bayreuth, Germany). She tackled two sets of questions: What are the heterogeneous socio-cultural contexts of the middle class in Kenya? And what aims and interest do middle class formulate, hence, what personal developments do they work towards? She gave five categorization of middle class (as initial findings) based on income, consumption, middle income as the middle of the society, Identity / Belonging and Milieus.

Questions like how do one indentify milieu when he/she sees it were raised. For example placing inter ethnic marriage as proxy of being a middle class. The paper criticised different types of middle class difinitions but was not very clear on what definition was using. How sure was the researcher that it was not middle class people she was talking to? Issues of geographical coverage and whether different age groups were included in the study were also raised. Again the issue of why using social strugles as starting point was raised. And why do things change and why do they stay stable. The study was based in Nairobi but also some parts of Kenya were visited for example to find evidences for ‘identity/belonging‘ categorisation because by definition this group did not show off their wealth while in Nairobi but when in their home villages. The research tried to be inclusive by looking into biographies across various generations within the same family.
Other issues raised during discussions were on the relation of middle class to political power. The issue of time frame was also raised; how inter generation were these middle class, on whether they were working with limited time frame. The answers were there were political involvement and people interviewed had longer time frame for example on how they wanted their children to be/live. And was agreed that at this stage definitions should be used with caution.
Second presentation was on paper by Paul T.M. Ingenbleek and Peter Knorringa titled ‘Transforming Markets for Sustainable Development: A market-Based Norm-Lifecycle Model on Company- Special Interest Group Interactions’
The paper was looking at processes and possible patterns through exploring on what sources of patterns one sees when particular responsibility initiatives are becoming up-scaled and mainstreamed. This was based on case studies from Europe, United States, and one or two in China. The presentation gave a Norm life circle model – the idea of the model was that norms about how we perceive things evolve over time in a society.
A question was raised including the role of UN as an important actor which could broaden the study to include not only consumers but to bring the state back in. Suggestions were made on including bad norms in the study as opposed to only ‘good norms’. There were also questions like which specific issues made it through in this model and which ones were dropped? Why holding corporations responsible not the government? The general answers were that could be done in the next stage (which issues made it, which didn’t) and the state role was important as many norms depended on nation states’ involvement to be effective; but private governance was also important especially to the countries of the global north.
Third presentation was by Imme Scholz & Alejandro Guarín titled ‘Consumers, the environment, and the new global middle classes’ which was a literature review based paper. It brought about five agendas; who are the middle class, the environmental consequences of consumption, divergence vs. convergence in consumer behavior, four trends in consumer behaviour in the new middle classes and sustainability implications of the new consumers.
The fact that the study begun with complexity of the phenomenon was credited but a point was made that the focus should have been on the pattern and practices and understanding why some are changing while others were not rather than on actors. This could solve the dilemma posed by this paper. The issue of whether researchers should always take China as an example also emerged.

Mary Rutenge holds a bachelor degree in Public Administration from Mzumbe University (2002); a master in Political Science from Meiji University (2007) and she is currently pursuing a PhD in Development Studies at ISS of Erasmus University. She is currently employed by Mzumbe University as a member of the academic staff.