Research Objectives, Research Approach and
Structure of the Research Areas and Research Groups

Despite the many different forms that human bondage and coercion have taken over time, academic debates in the modern West 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 continues to inform our notions of what freedom and a lack of freedom mean. “Slavery” and “freedom“ are highly ideologically charged terms. This is why we decided to employ a more neutral terminology, and so move beyond the binary opposition of “slavery versus freedom”. Instead, we suggest “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 clientage and patronage.


Research Areas

Research Groups

Working Groups

Third-Party Funded Projects

Connecting Late Antiquities (CLA)

Bonn Center for Digital Humanities

Slavery Digital Humanities

Library Resources at the BCDSS

Who we are

As a Cluster of Excellence funded by the German Research Foundation within the Excellence Strategy of the federal and state governments we 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 is 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 are 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 continues to be refined within the cluster, the individual projects 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 not only helps to close major research gaps in the field by recording specific developments within these regions for the first time. It also significantly inspires the international scientific debate on slavery and other forms of asymmetrical dependency and provides new insights for our understanding of past and present-day questions of social inequality and economic exploitation.

What We Aim to Find Out

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 starts 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 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.

Therefore, we move on from the dichotomy "slavery" and "freedom". We 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.

The detailed research objective can be found here.

What Matters to Us

Our Cluster of Excellence is not only dominated by pure research interests. Equally important to us is a series of "soft" goals to which we have committed ourselves.

We are convinced that gender equality policy promotes research and innovation through the inclusion of a diverse international talent pool. At the same time, it helps to overcome stereotypes for women and men. In our opinion, research works best in such an equal environment. Therefore, the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies is committed to equal opportunity, diversity, gender equality and fair treatment of all of their members.

This commitment is strongly reflected in the cluster's multinational community, its goal of achieving a balanced male-female ratio (50%) in all of its administrative and scientific branches, its promotion of a family-friendly working environment and its special support of young female researchers.

With these measures, we want to create a research environment that also symbolically corresponds to our broad research spectrum across epochs, regions and times: diversity under one roof. We want to create as many different perspectives as possible that can be freely and openly discussed. In this way, we can formulate common questions and think through ideas together.

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