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Middle-Class Approaches to Social Security in Kenya

Part of the Frontiers of Globalization book series (FOG)


This chapter focuses on social mobility and the ways in which people act to cushion themselves against the threat of declining social status and its material effects. The African middle class is typically presented as both expanding in size and as moving upward, socially. Little attention is paid to the threat of downward mobility , and the ways in which that threat influences middle-class strategies to reproduce status. In this chapter, Kroeker argues that the middle class in Kenya has access to a variety of security arrangements derived from adequate and regular formal income. This distinguishes the middle from the lower class, which lacks such security. And still, the Kenyan middle class cannot rely solely on the social protection promised by ‘modern’ institutions. It has to invest, instead, in a mix of social security arrangements including solidarity-based practices and those increasing social capital. Social capital , as Bourdieu defined it, is a key resource for preventing loss of social status, as is the capacity to transform social capital into economic capital. In defining the middle class, at least in Kenya, these social capacities and entitlements (in the sense of Sen ) are as important as acquired property and wealth.


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  1. 1.

    This conversation was part of research sponsored by the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies within the subproject ‘Middle Classes on the Rise’. The subproject comprises a sociological and an anthropological wing and aims at describing the middle class in Kenya and beyond. Namely, it involves Prof. Dr Dieter Neubert, Prof. Dr Erdmute Alber, Dr Florian Stoll, and Maike Voigt. I am indebted to all these colleagues for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. Moreover, I would like to acknowledge Dr Tabea Scharrer’s and Dr David O’Kane’s efforts to comment on this chapter.

  2. 2.

    All names of informants have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.

  3. 3.

    During eight months of field research in Nairobi and Kisumu between 2013 and 2016, I conducted some 60 biographic interviews and network questionnaires in 40 households. I also conducted interviews with insurance companies and representatives of governmental social welfare organizations.

  4. 4.

    Anthropologists have criticized the over-simplified dichotomy of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ forms of social security (Benda-Beckmann et al. 2000). I am aware of this; however this debate shall not be at the fore of my discussion.

  5. 5.

    The International Labour Organization defines statutory social security in its preamble as: ‘the protection which society provides for its members, through a series of public measures against the economic and social distress that otherwise would be caused by the stoppage or substantial reduction of earnings resulting from sickness, maternity, employment injury, invalidity and death; the provision of medical care; and the provision of subsidies for families with children ’ (ILO 1984, 2–3).

  6. 6.

    Along the same line, in independent Tanzania it was argued by public administrations that a mentality of reliance on the state was undesirable, and that the availability of communal support and kinship networks must not be limited by statutory provision (Bossert 1985, 194).

  7. 7.

    The population of Kenya stood at 47.9 Mio in 2017.

  8. 8.

    Emphasis is hereby put on the regular income not on the amount of income. With a casual income, even if it is fairly high, someone may not want to subscribe to regular payments that would still be required during episodes of little or no profit.

  9. 9.

    In 2013, the provident fund has changed into a pension fund for all who are formally employed in the public or private sector.

  10. 10.

    Lachenmann based these findings on research concerning women’s access to health facilities in Burkina Faso and takes a Marxist-feminist perspective on social security.

  11. 11.

    This can be seen in studies on HIV/AIDS where those who are expected to provide economically to the aged and children become care seekers instead of care takers (Dilger 2003; Whyte 2005).

  12. 12.

    The kind of social security mix may tell something about preferences and, in consequences, about milieus. There could be combinations of social security arrangements which are more prominent within one milieu than within another. This is still to be analysed elsewhere.

  13. 13.

    None of my informants were Muslim or Hindu. It would be interesting to see if mosques or temples effectively carry out the same function given that zakat (alms giving) is one of the five pillars of Islam .

  14. 14.

    Kenya is a predominantly Christian country. According to the last census (2009), Christians form about 82.6 per cent of the country’s general population, however, Kenyan Christianity—above all, in urban areas—is fast changing. Since the 1970s and 1980s large numbers of evangelical churches have expanded across Africa. These churches tend to paint the world in dichotomous terms, as a spiritual battlefield between demonic and Godly forces. In the financial realm, they tend to emphasize financial prosperity and overall success as the claimable right of every believer; they are marked by an entrepreneurial spirit; and they have an international orientation (Anderson 2004).

  15. 15.

    This provokes the question of which of these dual occupations defines a person’s class (see also Schnegg et al. 2013).

  16. 16.

    On 15 September 2015, I presented my findings on ‘The Kenyan Middle Class and Responses to Social Security’ in a public lecture at Maseno University.


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Kroeker, L. (2018). Middle-Class Approaches to Social Security in Kenya. In: Kroeker, L., O'Kane, D., Scharrer, T. (eds) Middle Classes in Africa. Frontiers of Globalization. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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