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Moving Beyond the Binary Opposition of "Slavery Versus Freedom"

Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra, unsplash

"Asymmetrical Dependency" is a new key concept developed by the Cluster of Excellence "Beyond Slavery and Freedom" to open up fresh approaches to research into slavery and dependency. In the past, scholarly research on slavery was often dominated by the Americas or classical antiquity. Over the next six years, the research contributions of "Beyond Slavery and Freedom" will break new ground and expand horizons in terms of content, time and space.

The Cluster of Excellence "Beyond Slavery and Freedom"

In spite of the diverse forms that human bondage and coercion have taken over time, academic debates in the modern West have primarily focused on the most extreme one: slavery, and in particular, the trans-Atlantic experience of slavery which was closely entangled with the creation of the modern West. It still continues to inform our notions of what freedom and a lack of freedom mean. "Slavery" and "freedom" are ideologically charged terms. We will therefore use a more neutral terminology, and so move beyond the binary opposition of "slavery versus freedom" by suggesting "asymmetrical dependency" – or, more precisely,"strong asymmetrical dependency" as a new key concept, which includes debt bondage, convict labor, tributary labor, servitude, serfdom, and domestic work as well as forms of wage labor and various types of patronage.

Fesseln.pngThis is not our only strategy to move on from the dichotomy "slavery" and "freedom". We will move beyond this dualistic concept by focusing on societies that are usually labeled "pre-modern" –,  as well as on regions and contexts (including some in the early modern and modern periods) that were not directly affected by Western colonization. The reasons are two-fold:

First, the Arab world, Asia, pre-Columbian America, and even parts of Europe have not been studied as extensively as their Atlantic counterpart in this regard.

Second, the Humanities at the University of Bonn constitute a critical mass of outstanding specialists actively carrying out research on the pre-modern and on the non-western world.

Various forms of asymmetrical dependency have existed throughout human history in all parts of the globe. They are part of the "human experience". This is why our project start out from two basic hypotheses:

(1) There are enduring institutions of asymmetrical dependency in all human societies; and
(2) these asymmetrical dependencies are formative for these societies.

Against this backdrop, neither the divide between modern and pre-modern nor modernity as a paradigm are central concerns.

Sliederbild_Bentz_2.jpgWe will contribute to the academic debate an evaluation of the numerous and varied expressions of "asymmetrical dependencies" from a trans-regional and deep-time perspective. We are interested in social processes in order to better understand why and how different forms of asymmetrical dependencies emerged in different places and in different periods. We are interested in the factors behind their development over time.

If we take "asymmetrical dependency" as a starting point – or as the tertium comparationis in comparisons – we need a definition. Interestingly enough, sociology and social theory have not as yet produced a well-articulated theory of the institutions of asymmetrical dependency.

For this, we apply a tentative and rather broad understanding of "asymmetrical dependency":

Dependencies between actors are based on the ability of one actor to control the actions and the access to resources of another. This type of control over actions and access to resources is often reciprocal, and in this case, it is compatible with the autonomy of both actors. So the existence of strong asymmetries between actors is decisive for the loss of autonomy of one of them. In addition this asymmetrical dependency between actors has to be supported by an institutional background that ensures that the dependent actor normally cannot change their situation by either going away ("exit") or by articulating protest ("voice").

To test and re-conceptualize this definition, we will significantly broaden the empirical basis of research through a temporal and spatial extension of the field. We will connect current debates on asymmetrical dependencies in the ‘modern world’ with new research on societies outside of this sphere of influence. Asymmetrical dependency could even become the funding principle of a new social history.

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