Research Objective

The BCDSS investigates strong asymmetrical dependencies (such as slavery, debt bondage, serfdom, ...) in human societies/social domains/social orders and practices. Interactions take place both between human and between human and non-human actors. Agency is attributed to non-human actors by human ones. Non-human actors without intentionality (such as environmental disasters, resource dependency, climatic conditions, etc.) can in some situations cause very strong asymmetrical dependencies among human actors. 

We inquire into the forms, the functions, the developments, the justifications, and the changes of strong asymmetrical dependencies while always taking into account our own positionality. Comparing these forms is a major methodological and theoretical challenge. 

Over the last years, we developed some additional basic theoretical hypotheses related to the concept of asymmetrical dependency in order to provide resources for analyzing social relations of asymmetrical dependency. Any theoretical framework developed for slavery and dependency studies as a whole must be appropriate for a variety of methodologies and projects, including explorations of historical, archaeological, and contemporary forms of asymmetrical dependency. 

Knowledge Production

Research Areas

Research Groups

Working Groups

Research Infrastructure

Library Resources at the BCDSS

Slavery Digital Humanities

Bonn Center for Digital Humanities

Strategic Partners



Third-Party Funded Projects

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.

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