You are here: Home Research Objective


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.

This 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.

We 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.

The Five Main Research Areas

On a strategic level, we will explore the field of asymmetrical dependency from five different thematic and methodological vantage points.

The first research area (Grammars of Dependency) 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.

The second area (Embodied Dependencies) examines primarily non-textual relics of asymmetrical dependencies that have been “inscribed” in bodies and artefacts. 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) focuses on 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.

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.

Of course, our individual research projects will touch upon a number research areas, and we will be involved in the activities of a number of subfields. But the five research areas are also intended as forums for bringing together methodological expertise and for producing a additional value beyond the results achieved by the individual projects. We will pull scholars together and build on their collective expertise by establishing an International Center for Slavery and Dependency Studies. The work produced by this body will be conceptually and methodologically broader than existing institutes for slavery and labor history research, as well as empirically and thematically more specific than most centers for global history. As such, we will be able to play a leading role at the crossroads of current debates.

We examine all forms of societal, group-related, and individual hierarchization and oppression. By studying the empirical manifestations of social bondage and individual coercion in their own right, as well as juxtaposing them within an analytical framework that will continue to be refined within the cluster, the individual projects will produce case studies enabling us to develop a typology of strong asymmetrical dependencies. Eventually our research might even create a new taxonomy of asymmetrical dependency.

We are convinced that the strategic focus on pre-modern and non-European societies will not only help to close major research gaps in the field by recording specific developments within these regions for the first time. It will also significantly inspire the international scientific debate on slavery and other forms of asymmetrical dependency and provide new insights for our understanding of past and present-day questions of social inequality and economic exploitation.

Document Actions