Colonial education, social status, and social mobility in Uganda

This is from an exciting paper by zu Selhausen et al. in Economic History Review:

This article uses Anglican marriage registers from colonial and post‐colonial Uganda to investigate long‐term trends and determinants of intergenerational social mobility and colonial elite formation among Christian African men. It shows that the colonial era opened up new labour opportunities for these African converts, enabling them to take large steps up the social ladder regardless of their social origin. Contrary to the widespread belief that British indirect rule perpetuated the power of African political elites (chiefs), this article shows that a remarkably fluid colonial labour economy actually undermined their social advantages.

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conditional probability of entering Class I (Kampala)

Sons of chiefs gradually lost their high social‐status monopoly to a new, commercially orientated, and well‐educated class of Anglican Ugandans, who mostly came from non‐elite and sometimes even lower‐class backgrounds. The study also documents that the colonial administration and the Anglican mission functioned as key steps on the ladder to upward mobility. Mission education helped provide the skills and social reference needed to climb the ladder in exchange for compliance with the laws of the Anglican Church. These social mobility patterns persisted throughout the post‐colonial era, despite rising levels of informal labour during Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Status inversion/disruption during colonialism is significantly under-appreciated as a cause of elite political instability in post-colonial Africa (paper on this coming soon). Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda are paradigmatic examples of this phenomenon of educated “commoners” butting heads with established pre-colonial ruling elites following independence. 

The authors also call for a more nuanced understanding of political power under British indirect rule:

Although many Ugandan chiefs were appointed as administrative officials under indirect colonial rule and in this way exercised both political and economic power over the local population, our micro‐evidence portrays a society in which access to secondary education and a labour market seemingly based on meritocratic criteria caused chiefs’ colonial power gradually to disappear. This shift, which was helped by colonial land reforms and increased African access to Kampala’s formal labour market, challenges the perception of British indirect rule as ‘decentralised despotism’. It also illustrates how mission education did more to foster social mobility among our sampled grooms than to entrench the traditional privileged classes.

Read the whole paper here (gated).



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