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Arriving at a New Social History of Asymmetrical Dependencies

Photo by David Leveque, unsplash

The Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies approaches asymmetrical dependencies in different societies in five different research areas.

Five Research Areas - Five Thematic and Methodological Angles

On a strategic level, we will explore the field of asymmetrical dependency from five different thematic and methodological vantage points. In each of these Research Areas specific conceptual debates and approaches of the humanities are drawn upon and put to the test for arriving at a new social history of asymmetrical dependencies.


The first research area Semantics – Lexical Fields – Narratives aims to establish a new language of analysis. In other words, an important condition for our ambitious undertaking is questioning our own analytical vocabulary. We need to reconsider the key concepts, terminologies and categories that structure the way we think and speak about asymmetrical dependencies. The goal of the first research area is the exploration of the semantics, narrative patterns, and discursive structures used by historical actors themselves in organizing their world and talking about asymmetrical dependencies. Thus, Research Area A focuses on the textual articulation of dependencies and the production and use of a "grammar of dependency" by making use of the new interest in historical semantics.


The second research area Embodied Dependencies examines primarily non-textual relics of asymmetrical dependencies that have been "inscribed" in bodies and artefacts. It builds on the "material turn" and body history. The aim of this research area is to correct the widespread imbalance in the academic evaluation of written and non-written traditions by taking into consideration pre-colonial perspectives and to establish archaeology, art history, and object-based anthropology on an equal level with those disciplines of the humanities that focus on textual sources. In this way, we give "voice" to actors operating in non-textual environments.


The third research area Institutions, Norms, and Practices studies forms of asymmetrical dependency produced at the crossroads of conflicting institutions, norms, and practices. Their interaction must be conceived as a two-way movement: top-down, i.e., from institutions to practices (for example, when institutions create norms that are – or are not – implemented into practices), and bottom-up (for example, when practices produce norms and these become ‘institutionalized’)


The fourth area Labor and Spatiality is concerned with labor-related asymmetrical dependencies and mobility. Instead of starting with the Industrial Revolution and adopting European free, waged labor as the standard labor relation of modernity, all forms of labor will need to be taken into account in equal measure. Against this backdrop, the dialectics between spatial mobilization and immobilization of dependent groups or individuals will also need to be studied. By doing so, the Research Group is engaging in current debates in global labor history.


The fifth research area Gender (and Intersectionality) addresses asymmetrical dependencies specifically at the intersection of gender, status, class, ethnicity, religion, and age. Originally developed in the field of gender studies, intersectionality has since been productively applied to various forms of social hierarchization, discrimination, discreditation and stigmatization. Intersectionality does not only necessitate a rethinking of personal identity, but allows for an overarching analysis of asymmetrical dependencies present within identities.


Individual research areas within the cluster will touch upon several research areas, and the cluster’s researchers will be involved in the activities of a number of subfields. However, the five research areas are also meant as forums for bringing together methodological expertise and for producing a noticeable surplus value beyond the results achieved by the individual projects, which will manifest itself in collaborative research activities, joint publications, and a general outreach of the cluster into society. 

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