Research Area C: Institutions, Norms and Practices
Dependency is created at the crossroads of norms and related institutions and practices. In this context, the central fields of study in Research Area C are legislation and legal practice, establishing norms and social practice, as well as literacy and orality.

The interaction between institutions, norms and practices must be conceived as a two-way movement: top-down, for example, when institutions create norms that are – or are not – implemented into practices, and bottom-up for example, when practices produce norms/regularities and these become "institutionalized". The objective of this research area is to confront current slavery and dependency research with an institutional approach. This approach is supposed to bring together institutional economics and practice theory and to combine it with new debates on legal pluralism.

What we do

Over the last few years, the strong legalistic approach to slavery and asymmetrical dependency has been productively challenged. Under the heading of second slavery or hidden Atlantic, scholars examined the unfree living conditions of the emancipados, recaptives and kuli in the post-emancipatory colonial societies of Latin America, all of which had long remained invisible due to the predominant Western Abolitionist discourse. Additionally, a large number of previously unnoticed traditions relating to enslavement practices in Muslim and Christian societies in the Mediterranean from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries has been discovered. Unfree conditions in other times and spaces as well as diverse practices of enslavement beyond the legal institution of slavery have also increasingly come into focus. In other words, there is currently a shift within research towards acknowledging the historical heterogeneity of the phenomenon of slavery. Especially those forms of asymmetrical dependencies where religious justifications, a supposed agreement of the persons involved, symbolic payments, a signed contract, or a document of manumission render a categorization in terms of the common characteristics of slavery impossible have gained more attention.

Thus, the object of research is to analyze "slaving" as a historical strategy and enslavement as a human experience. Dynamics of slaving ought to be seen as both a product and a strategy of change itself, of time and timing. Instead of assuming a dichotomy between the powerful masters and powerless slaves, the objective is to analyze – from an expressly historical perspective – the contexts of both sides’ agency, asymmetrical dependency and mutual impact.

This productive revision and extension of our previous understanding of ‘slavery’ needs to be made productive for the study of all other forms of asymmetrical dependency and economic exploitation. In a dialogue between current slavery studies and the New Legal History, the concepts of justice, power and authority must be imagined in a much more pluralistic and complex way.


Based on this very broad understanding of justice and authority, this research area takes into account the wealth of institutional regulations and normative concepts in their historical variety. Statements on differences in terms of social status and on social hierarchies and dependencies will be examined in capitularies and codes of law as much as in loose collections of customary-law settlements, mirrors for princes and other instructional sources. Sacred texts, religious treatises and dogmatic literature as well as records of religious courts and secular jurisdiction will be examined for their normative conceptions of servitude, dependency and unfreedom.

The Research will also focus on the mutual effects between processes of institutionalizing and the establishment of norms relating to social asymmetries on the one hand, and social practices of slaving and subjugation on the other. These processes of negotiating social power and status relations will be analyzed on the macro-, meso- and micro-levels.

Key Questions

  • What were the effects of legislation by key authoritarian institutions on the legal practices of regional and local decision-making?
  • How did the social interactions of individuals affect the small- and large-scale organization of justice, norms and social order?
  • What was the ratio in the mixture between politics and religion on different levels, and what were the consequences of a change in the legal status of persons for their social behavior?

The answers to these questions will be positioned within a transculturally comparative perspective. The interdisciplinary exchange across different times, societies and cultures will serve as an ideal starting point for a comparison across space and time, and the study of transregional similarities and differences, entanglements and disentanglements in the regulation of social power and status relations.

Research Area C - Structures

  • Prof. Dr. MartinSchermaier, Research Area Speaker
  •  Prof. Dr. Wolfram Kinzig, Research Area Speaker
  • Anas Ansar, Main Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Christoph Antweiler, Main Affiliation
  • Dr. Mariana Armond Dias Paes, Main Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Matthias Becher, Main Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Ulrich Berges, Main Affiliation
  • Juelma Da Conceição Gomes De Matos De Ngãla, Main Affiliation
  • Dr. Christian G. De Vito, Secondary Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Thomas Duve, external Principal Investigator MPI for European Legal History, Main Affiliation
  • Maysa Espíndola Souza, Main Affiliation
  • Adam Fagbore, Secondary Affiliation
  • Katja Girr, Secondary Affiliation
  • Magnus Goffin, Main Affiliation
  • Honey Hammer, Main Affiliation
  • Henriette von Harnier, Main Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Julia A. B. Hegewald, Secondary Affiliation
  • Danitza L. Márquez Ramírez, Main Affiliation
  • Stanislav Mohylnyi, Main Affiliation
  • Jahfar Shareef Pokkanali, Main Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Markus Saur, Secondary Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Winfried Schmitz, Secondary Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Christian Schwermann, Secondary Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Peter Schwieger, Secondary Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Rudolf Stichweh, Main Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Konrad Vössing, Secondary Affiliation
  • Dr. Julia Winnebeck, Main Affiliation
  • Prof. Dr. Christoph Witzenrath, Main Affiliation


Collaborative Book Project on "Institutions, Norms and Practices"

A collaborative book publication on Institutions, Norms and Practices of Asymmetrical Dependency: Transcultural and Diachronic Perspectives (ideally published in a book series such as "Studies in Global Slavery", Brill, or "Work in Global and Historical Perspective", De Gruyter) will synthesize the research results of this research area.

The volume will contain transculturally and diachronically comparative case studies on the interrelation between competing social institutions, norms and practices of asymmetrical dependencies. Legal historians with expertise on Antiquity could do collaborative research with medievalists and Islamic scholars on the continuing influence of the tradition of Roman law in defining servus/ancilla in later societies. Another contribution to this publication could study the influence of Islamic law for the structuring of asymmetrical power relationships in diverse Asian societies or address the impact of papal decrees and scholastic debates on social practices of slaving in European societies.

A programmatic article published in a well-known Anglophone academic journal (for example "Journal of Global Slavery") will furthermore disseminate the results within international debates on global slavery and asymmetrical dependencies.


Avatar Schermaier

Prof. Dr. Martin Schermaier

Research Area C Speaker

Adenauerallee 24–42

53113 Bonn

+49 228 73 3934

Avatar Kinzig

Prof. Dr. Wolfram Kinzig

Research Area C Speaker

Am Hof 1

53113 Bonn

+49 228 73 7331

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