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Theorising middle class consumption from the global South: a study of everyday ethics in South Africa's Western Cape

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Cheryl McEwan, Professor Alexandra Hughes, Dr David Bek



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND).


Emerging research on the increasing significance of consumption in the global South is concerned with its links to the globalizing middle classes. Against the backdrop of optimism invested in the new global middle classes to fuel consumption-led growth, this paper contributes to new debate about the articulations and significance of ethical consumption in the global South. Missing from much current mainstream policy, media and academic debate is acknowledgement of the diversity of the global middle classes and an understanding of how ethical interpretations and behaviour differ in various consumer markets around the world. In response, this paper draws on qualitative research in South Africa’s Western Cape to explore the cultural significance of everyday ethical realities in shaping consumption in the global South. In addition to addressing the relative absence of research into ethical consumption in global South contexts, the paper makes two key contributions based our findings. First, it challenges the tendency, particularly in economic discourses, to generalise about the ‘new’ global middle class consumers by highlighting the significance of locality and context in shaping consumption practices in the Western Cape; specifically it finds that, for diverse middle class consumers, thrift is an important ethical choice and practice determining consumption patterns. Second, it highlights the significance of everyday ethical practices in shaping consumption in the Western Cape, focusing specifically on how thrift is imbricated in concerns with not just economic constraint, but also care, habit and aspiration. The paper concludes with reflections on the wider implications of these findings and suggests that they illustrate a need to theorise ethical consumption from contexts in the global South, on their own terms.

Publication metadata

Author(s): McEwan C, Hughes A, Bek D

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Geoforum

Year: 2015

Volume: 67

Pages: 233-243

Print publication date: 01/12/2015

Online publication date: 10/03/2015

Acceptance date: 13/02/2015

Date deposited: 16/02/2015

ISSN (print): 0016-7185

ISSN (electronic): 1872-9398

Publisher: Pergamon Press


DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.02.011


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Funder referenceFunder name
ES/K005626/1Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)