Research Area D: Labor and Spatiality

The Research Area D is concerned with labor-related asymmetrical dependencies and mobility. Instead of starting with the Industrial Revolution and adopting European free, waged labor as the standard labor relation of modernity, all forms of labor will need to be taken into account in equal measure. Against this backdrop, the dialectics between spatial mobilization and immobilization of dependent groups or individuals will also need to be studied. By doing so, the Research Group is engaging in current debates in global labor history.

Research Area D no longer adopts European free wage labor as the standard labor relation of modernity. Instead of this approach it takes all forms of labor into account in equal measure: "free" and "unfree" forms of labor, productive and reproductive labor, capitalist and non-capitalist labor relations – in both Western and non-Western societies, from within and beyond European (colonial) history.

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Avatar Schmitz

Prof. Dr. Winfried Schmitz

Who works in this research area?

Prof. Dr. Martin Aust
Research Topic: Histories of Forced Labor. Poland and the Soviet Union under German Occupation, Polish and Soviet Forced Laborers in Germany, 1939 – 1945

Prof. Dr. Winfried Schmitz
Research Topic: Asymmetrical Dependencies in Ancient Greece: Between Political and Cosmological Models, Legal Order and Social Interaction

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

Prof. Dr. Bethany Walker
Research Topic: Tied to the Land? Peasant Dependencies in the Pre-Modern Levant (13th-19th centureis)

Prof. Dr. Michael Max Paul Zeuske
Research Topic: From Pre-Modern to Modern: Chronological, Spatial, Corporeal/Individual

Prof. Dr. Reinhard Zöllner
Research Topic: ‘Slavery’ around and across the East Asian Sea

PD Dr. Gül Şen
Research Topic: Maritime unfree labor (galley slaves and convicts) in the early-modern Mediterranean world with a focus on the Ottoman navy

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

Vitali Bartash 
Research Topic: Forced Foreign Labour in Early Mesopotamia: Captives, Slaves and Deportees

Dr. Christian G. De Vito
Research Topic: Punishment, Labor, Asymmetrical Dependency

Dr. Lisa Hellman
Research Topic: 18th century prisoners of war in Siberia and North Asia

Adam Fagbore
Research Topic: Institutional Punishment and Organised Violence As Normative Modes of Patronage, Labour, and Governance in Pharaonic Egypt

Subin Nam
Research Topic: Consented or Forced Sex Work? A Comparative Study on the Prostitution System in Colonial Korea and Occupied Poland during World War II

Christine Mae Sarito
Research Topic: Knowledge Production of the Kisaeng in Sixteenth Century Korea

Nabhojeet Sen
Research Topic: Punishment and Labour Regime: The Indian Subcontinent, 1750s - 1870s

Ayesha Hussain
Research Topic: Asymmetrical dependencies among Pakistani migrants in Italy's informal labour sector: The role of Social Capital (previous project cancelled due to Covid-19 travel restrictions: Bonded labour and gender discrimination in the agriculture sector in Pakistan)

Maja Baum
Research Topic: Medical Treatment of Slaves in the Roman Empire

Bahar Bayraktaroğlu
Research Topic: Slavery, Violence, and Crime in the Ottoman Empire

Amalia Levi
Research Topic: Asymmetrical dependencies in a British Caribbean colony: The case study of the enslaved in the Jewish households of Bridgetown, Barbados

Diego Schibelinski
Research Topic: Sailing a Hidden Atlantic: Slave Ship Crews during the Age of Abolition (1807-1867)


Textbook Presenting a Narrative of Labor History

The research area will produce a textbook presenting a narrative of labor history based on the insights of recent scholarship. Such a textbook does not yet exist and is much needed, especially as the Cluster of Excellence as such will teach future generations about labor-related dependencies.

Unlike similar publications, this textbook will be not be an edited volume, but a publication written collaboratively by a small group of authors. It will be organized thematically, but base its arguments on empirical insights.

Key themes and narrative strategies include:

mobilization and immobilization of the workforce;
labor along commodity chains (e.g. silver, cotton, rice…);
global lives and prosopographies of laborers;
sites of labor (i.e., specific places, work-sites, institutions);
the working class (i.e., how can we reconceptualize the "working class" once we
go beyond its traditional conflation with modern wage labor?);
towards "free", waged labor? Forced labor, the ambiguity of contract, and labor precarity.
In addition to the textbook project, a programmatic article published in a peer-reviewed Anglophone academic journal like the Journal of Social History, the American Historical Review or Labor History will present the Bonn case for a temporal and methodological extension of Global Labor History to the international research community.

What we do

Lately a new and expanding field of research has emerged that advocates a systematic expansion of the traditional concept of labor and a revision of the master narratives of Western modernity. In that sense, slave labor is now conceptualized as one form of coerced labor alongside convict labor, debt bondage, serfdom or servitude. This approach has brought to the fore the many grey areas, overlaps and contradictions between (purely formal-legalistically and terminologically speaking) distinct forms of "unfree" labor and personal dependency relations.

The Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies's focus on societies and areas outside the realm of Western colonization and on pre-modern European phenomena can contribute to this debate by challenging present distinctions between "free" and "unfree" labor relations and helping to re-conceptualize long-term socio-economic shifts and trends beyond the European master narrative of the rise of the West. Transculturally and diachronically comparative studies have shown that unfree labor relations are not necessarily associated with despotic regimes and that the development of markets and economic growth is not always tied to the emergence of a capitalist economic system. Similarly, the idea that human history can be written teleologically, as a long-term development from unfree to free forms of labor organization, is considered disproved. What is still missing, however, is a dialogue between socio-economic historians working on earlier periods and global labor historians focusing on the time from 1500 up to

Goals I

The research area Labor and Spatiality will advocate a temporal extension of the field. While Global Labor History has understood its extension of traditional labor history mainly in spatial terms, it is high time to link this research with earlier periods.

In order to move beyond the Western/modern dichotomies of "free" and "unfree" labor relations as well as capitalist and feudalistic economic systems and to overcome facile labels of "modernity" and "pre-modernity", we only need to look at modern conditions inside and outside the West. This research needs to be combined with studies of the so-called "premodern era" both within and outside of Europe. What is called for is a strategic alliance between Europe-centered pre-modernity studies and the diachronically oriented area studies in the field of labor.

The traditional image of the worker must be challenged by the figure of the unskilled ancilla in late medieval Europe just as much as by today’s textile worker in Bangladesh or the outsourced worker in a call center in Western Europe. Only through such a transculturally and diachronically comparative perspective on servitude relations is it possible to examine conjunctures of slavery beyond the modern/Western conception of history. While existing pre-modern studies on the history of labor have remained largely separate from the debates of Global Labor History, the research area aims to establish a connection between the two and thus to act as a productive spur to current discussions.

The research area also targets the spatial dimension of asymmetrical dependencies. The history of labor cannot be told without taking into consideration the history of migration. It is not by chance that migration, coercion and labor precariousness have become keywords for a new research agenda of Global Labor History. Most forms of dependent labor are closely entangled with the history of forced migration.

Goals II

At the same time, processes of immobilization (i.e., the serf bound to the soil, or a convict tied to a prison, a camp or a remote plantation) are equally crucial for understanding the "logic of deployment" of the workforce by an employer. Spatial mobility therefore must include short-, medium- and long-distance migration as well as voluntary and coerced forms of mobility. What needs to be studied here, therefore, is the dialectics between the spatial mobilization and immobilization of the workforce. In order to study both processes simultaneously, we will above all address the question of how mobilization and immobilization are entangled in specific sites and institutions of dependency (e.g. the plantation, the household, the military, etc.).

With the exploration of workers’ experiences for coping with dependency this research area will make it possible to map dependency on an alternative scale, between autonomy and coercion, and to increase the awareness of the dependents’ scope of action and their options for social mobility.

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