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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Freedom and Liberation in Mediterranean Antiquity

International Conference, 5-8 October 2022


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Dr. Jutta Wimmler

Research Area A Representative and Researcher and Coordinator of Research Group "The Concept of Slavery in African History"


Niebuhrstraße 5

53113 Bonn

+49 228 73 62563

Who works in this research area?

Prof. Dr. Matthias Becher
Research Topic: Between ‘Freedom’ and ‘Unfreedom’. Changes in Frankish Society in the Early Middle Ages

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Berges
Research Topic: Beyond Slavery and Freedom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible

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. Stephan Conermann
Research Topic: The Mamluks in Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) – Social Mobility of Ex-Slaves

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. Béla Bodó
Research Topic: Dependency of Jews on the State and the Political and Social Elites in Hungary and East-Central Europe after 1848

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

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

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

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

Dr. Sunčica Klaas
Research Topic: TBA

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

Malik Ade
Research Topic: Writing the Self and the Other: Representations and Dependencies in Colonial Nigeria

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

Zeynep Gökçe
Research Topic: Revisiting the Ottoman Households: The Maids and Mistresses 

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

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

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

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

Working Groups

  • Narratives Working Group I: Narratology in Slavery and Dependency Studies
  • Narratives Working Group II: Life Writing, Slavery and Dependency

(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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