Research Area A: Semantics – Lexical Fields – Narratives

The Research Area A 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.

We approach the phenomenon of slavery and other types of strong asymmetrical dependencies from three methodologically and theoretically distinct perspectives:

(1) Semantics, (2) Lexical Fields and (3) Narratives.

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Avatar Leetsch

Dr. Jennifer Leetsch


Avatar Schäfers

Dr. Kirsten Maria Schäfers

Who works in this research area?

Prof. Dr. Elke Brüggen
Research Topic: Semantics and Narratives of Asymmetrical Dependencies in Court Novels from the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries: German Texts in European Contexts 

Prof. Dr. Judith Pfeiffer
Research Topic: Historicizing Intellectual Asymmetrical Dependencies in Islamicate Civilization (Islamic Later Middle and Early Modern Periods, 13th-16th centuries)

Prof. Dr. Christian Schwermann
Research Topic: Historical Semantics of Asymmetrical Dependency in Early China (ca. 1200 to 200 B.C.E)

Prof. Dr. Peter Schwieger
Research Topic: Asymmetrical Dependency Relationships in Pre-Modern Tibet

Prof. Dr. Pia Wiegmink
Research Topic: Cultural Practices and Narratives of American Slavery and Dependency and their Transatlantic Entanglements and Circulation

Prof. Dr. Lewis Doney
Research Topic: Asymmetrical dependencies in the social status, daily lived experience and literary self-identity of pre-modern Tibetans and their neighbours

Dr. Anna Kollatz
Research Topic: Mughal Empire and the Indian Subcontinent up to the 18th Century

Prof. Dr. Hermut Löhr
Research Topic: Divine Dependency in Ancient Judaism and Emerging Christianity

Prof. Dr. Sabine N. Meyer
Research Topic: From Black | Indigenous to Black Indigenous: Negotiating Indigenous Identities in the 21st Century

Prof. Dr. Markus Saur
Research Topic: עבדות – cabdūt. Dependency in Ancient Israel and Judah

Dr. Kirsten Maria Schäfers
Research Topic: (Inter-)Dependency? Human-Divine Relationships in the Hebrew Bible

Dr. Veruschka Wagner
Research Topic: Agency and mobility of slaves from the Black Sea Region in Istanbul in the 17th century

Dr. Claude Chevaleyre
Research Topic: Global History of Human Bondage in Early Modern China (15th-19th Centuries)

Dr. Josef Köstlbauer
Research Topic: The Moravian Church and Slavery in the 18th and early 18th century

Dr. Elena Smolarz
Research Topic: Coerced Mobility and Slave Trade Practices in Central Asia in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Dr. Jutta Wimmler
Research Topic: The Imagination of African Slavery: European Concepts and Discourses 1450 – 1900

Dr. Jennifer Leetsch
Research Topic: Black Atlantic Ecologies: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Black Life Writing in the Plantationocene

Anas Ansar
Research Topic: In the Shadow of Humanitarian Crisis: The Rohingya Refugees and the Other Face of Modern Slavery in South East Asia

Mary Aderonke Afolabi-Adeolu
Research Topic: Slavery in African History: Historical Discourse in Selected Nineteenth Century Liberated West Africans Narratives

Boluwatife Akinro
Research Topic: The Other Side of the Door: West African Conceptions of Slavery Past and Present

Clara Hedtrich
Research Topic: Between Power, Weakness and Dependency. The Challenging Concept of Counseling in German Court Novels of the 12th and 13th Century

Honey Hammer
Research Topic: How Are Pharaonic Forms of Patronage Embodied in Middle Kingdom Textual Attitudes Towards Asymmetrical or Reciprocal Relationships (2050–1550 BC): An Emic Textual Analysis

Luvena Kopp
Research Topic: Fight the (Symbolic) Power: Domination and Resistance in the Films of Spike Lee

Ricardo Márquez García
Research Topic: Life Stories from the Cameroon Grassfields in Asymmetrical Dependency (c. 1850 - 1950)

Susana Macias Pascua
Research Topic: The Integration of the Kale in Early Modern Iberian Society (ca. Sixteenth to ca. Eighteenth Centuries)

Lukas Wissel
Research Topic: Conceptions of Asymmetrical Dependencies amongst Actors in the Contact Zone of the Lower Guinea Coast, approximately from 1680 to 1740


RA A Forum Asymmetrical Dependencies

This forum, established in early 2023, is dedicated to working out the specific contribution of Research Area A to the conceptualization of asymmetrical dependencies at the BCDSS. Members of this Research Area on "Semantics, Lexical Fields, Narratives" take a critical view of terminologies and textual constructions of asymmetrical dependencies and of the vocabularies used to describe social relations. As such, they are particularly sensitive to the way social r­­elations are constructed, signified, negotiated, and normalized through language, be it written or orally transmitted, and narratives – but also to the way language and writing can be used in a subversive way to challenge existing norms. The Forum aims to identify and explore the intersections of the fields of history and literary studies, but also considers points of contact to other fields, notably the social sciences.

What we do: We draw on a number of existing theoretical frameworks and discuss their usefulness in arriving at a common conceptualization of "asymmetric dependencies" from interdisciplinary readings. The forum convenes roughly every 4–6 weeks; each session is organized by a forum member, who provides a key text for discussion. The discussions are documented in our session minutes for later reference.

Past sessions:

  • January 2023: William H. Sewell’s Logics of History. Social Theory and Social Transformation (Jutta Wimmler)
  • March 2023: Judith Butler’s Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance (Jennifer Leetsch)
  • May 2023: Boaventura de Sousa Santos‘ Human Rights as an Emancipatory Script? Cultural and Political Conditions (Susana Macías Pascua)
  • December 2023: Jan Assmann and John Czaplicka Collective Memory and Cultural Identity; Susan D. Gillespie Beyond Kinship (Boluwatife Akinro)

Planned future sessions:

  • Kuchenbuch’s Servitus im mittelalterlichen Okzident; Dwyer’s Mastering Emotions; Fuentes’ Dispossessed Lives.

Coordination and Contact: If you would like to participate (even if you are not a RA A member), please contact Susana Macías Pascua (

(1) Semantics

Our approach to the semantics of the many different (predominantly pre-modern) languages we are interested in focuses on the word, i.e., the lexical dimension, as well as on pragmatics, in so far as meaning often turns out to be dependent on the contexts in which a word is used. We aim at identifying inventories of linguistic items (and their usage) that are pertinent to our topic at a particular time and in a specific historical (con)text.

Most of us will first adopt a synchronic approach and focus on a single text or a small set of texts. These case studies will allow us to compare different ways of conceptualizing asymmetrical dependencies linguistically. Our approach is based on the assumption that the meaning of a word can only be identified by taking its usage into consideration. Detailed analyses of key terms that are associated with the conceptualization of strong asymmetrical dependencies promise to provide new insights into the self-concept and knowledge of pre-modern societies.

(2) Lexical Fields

Our understanding of lexical fields is based on an onomasiological approach – which linguistic items are used to refer to a concept? Which words are used to express a concept? This means that the concept is a semantic unit. We are interested in single concepts such as wisdom or fear, but also in more complex semantic units like strong asymmetrical dependencies.

We consider concepts to be abstract units that are manifested in a particular language. In some cases, we can identify anthropological constants, which suggest that there are at least some universal concepts.

What provides deeper insight into the specific societies we are interested in is an analysis of the concrete expressions of concepts, which may look similar, but usually are not identical for people in different cultural contexts and language communities. A lexical field encompasses the set of linguistic items in one language that can be linked to a particular concept (e.g., wisdom) and the related conceptual network due to semantic relations.

In comparative studies, which seek to examine different cultural contexts, the concept of lexical fields promises to be enormously useful, since it is a tool that helps us to reveal differences in terms of usage associated with otherwise similar concepts.

(3) Narratives

We also focus on the analysis of narratives of slavery and other forms of strong asymmetrical dependencies. Our definition of the term narrative text is based on Dietrich Weber (Erzählliteratur: Schriftwerk, Kunstwerk, Erzählwerk. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998).

A narrative text is always a form of cultural self-perception and self-reflection. We define culture as the interaction of material, social and mental phenomena.

So by studying the mental dimension of the culture with the help of the methods supplied by literary studies we can try to reconstruct the system of values, norms, ideologies and collective concepts that is typical of a society, since this system (or at least segments thereof) manifests in condensed form in narratives. However, narratives of slavery and other forms of strong asymmetrical dependencies do not represent cultural realities mimetically; nor can they be accounted for in terms of straightforward relations of cause and effect. Instead, such narratives articulate individual and collective experiences, restructure these experiences and, last but not least, may have a significant impact on cultural symbolic inventories.

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