Research Area E: Gender (and Intersectionality)

Research Area E focuses specifically on asymmetrical power relationships as reflected in gender relations and gender orders. The "gendering of the history of asymmetrical dependencies" makes it possible to discern differences and complementary structures in the experience of bonded and oppressed men and women, as well as of gender-conforming and -nonconforming individuals.

As Joan Wallach Scott wrote in her groundbreaking 1988 article, "Gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power" (Scott 1988: 167). The question of gender asymmetries (in an open or latent form) ultimately arises in connection with any kind of social dependency or power asymmetry. Even more importantly, we are convinced that the gender perspective has the potential of challenging a whole series of mainstream assumptions.

The empirical collection of linguistic and material findings on social dependency (Research Areas A and B) and the reconstructions of the institutional framework of social dependency and labor-related mobilization/immobilization processes (Research Areas C and D) are thus supplemented by a further research field that draws upon the four other focus areas and promises to yield important insights for social history as a whole.


To quote Natalie Z. Davis, our goal is therefore "to explain why sex roles were […] sometimes markedly asymmetrical and sometimes more even" (Davis 1976: 90). In this sense, this research area can provide new insights for women’s, gender and masculinity studies as well as for dependency studies and social history.

In order to achieve that goal, the research area also needs to delve into recent debates on intersectionality. Intersectionality has been productively applied to various forms of social hierarchization, discrimination, discreditation and stigmatization. The approach focuses on intersections between structure and agency to analyze the combination of various markers of social difference, including gender as well as age, class, origin, ethnicity, religion, skin color, etc., all of which determine the web of asymmetrical dependencies that inform people’s lives.

Intersectionality states that factors such as gender, sexual orientation and race do not exist in isolation, but are linked by complex and interconnected relationships. Intersectional approaches are aware that paying attention to these relationships is essential for understanding the human condition. When systems of justice or other entities attempt to separate and isolate one of these factors, misconceptions are bound to occur and essential aspects of the human condition may be lost. Intersectionality argues in favor of thinking about all factors informing the identity and the social position of a person as inextricably linked with all other factors. This framework allows us to understand systemic injustice and social inequality in new ways: Forms of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia typically interact, creating a system of asymmetrical dependencies that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.

There is a particularly large gap in the field of unfree labor in terms of gender aspects as the gender perspective has rarely been combined with a focus on coerced labor relations. While the new history of labor, for example, has turned gender asymmetries into a central category of analysis by examining productive and reproductive work, gainful and unpaid work, and work outside as well as within the household, this question is still a rather marginal issue in debates on coerced labor.

The research area takes this gap as its starting point and argues for a combination of "feminist labor history" research with slavery and dependency studies. In terms of its methodology, it builds upon a core idea of gender history put forward by Immanuel Wallerstein, who suggested that the household (rather than a single individual) should be the smallest analytical unit in the study of labor and dependency relations. In addition, we claim that the dependent slaves, serfs, bonded laborers, peasants and servants must be examined not only with regard to their position within the economy of their family of origin, but also as part of the household, family, business or manor in which they served and worked. They must be regarded as mediators and agents between two economic units and two economic spaces.


We will collect accounts of life cycles, life histories and (if available) ego-narratives of oppressed persons with a special focus on gender-specific "real-life" particularities. In reflecting on personal dependency structures based on individual cases, we will pay special attention to the fact that almost all extant textual remains from "pre-modern" periods were written by men. The dominance of the male perspective must therefore be taken into account when we try to reconstruct the biographies of the dominated.

Building on these micro-historical case studies, this research area also aims to record gender orders and their socio-economic dynamics in the various societies and cultures of earlier periods. The examination of "pre-modern" and non-European gender asymmetries is particularly well-suited for a historization of the hetero-normative, patrilinear gender system of Western modernity, thus contributing to the cluster’s overall endeavor from yet another perspective.

The so-called "pre-modern" era is revealed to have been a far more pluralistic and heterogeneous time period than modernity, which has been dominated by the modern/Western matrix, and thus offers opportunities for an empirical extension of the current field of gender studies . The social site of the hermaphrodite, the eunuch, the nun, the female saint or the virgin female body is as much of interest here as that of the devşirme military slave or the underage temple prostitute.

Gender orders are also especially well-suited for testing the possibilities of a transcultural, diachronic comparison that are opened up by the interdisciplinary cooperation within the cluster. While theoretical and conceptual presuppositions on how to compare empirical findings across time and space will be discussed within the cluster, the question of gender asymmetries will serve as a tertium comparationis, a basis for developing and systematically demonstrating good practice of transcultural, diachronic.

Mapping Project "Voices of the Voiceless"

The aim of the fifth research area is a mapping project “Voices of the Voiceless” visualizing social differences and tracing migration movements of the "voiceless".

Individuals from non-modern societies in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas will be registered within their household positions and at the intersections of several categories of social discrimination and oppression. Besides the recording of biographical data and transmission history, these people will be registered with the kinship network, their labor relations, with their sex, age, status, origin, ethnic background, skin color, religious affiliation, etc.

While other large-scale digitalization projects such as "Gender and Work" in Upsala University ( or "Producing Change" at the University of Glasgow ( focus on specific time periods or regions, the transcultural, long-term perspective of the Bonn cluster makes it possible to bring these different projects together.

Overlaying historical maps on a modern map enable the user to zoom in and out and to navigate through regional specificities and time changes. The mapping project thus goes beyond traditional databases. It will make a major, innovative contribution to the digitalization strategy of the University of Bonn and will help to reflect on the theoretical and methodological implications of digital history in general.

Research Area E - Structures

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.



Avatar Venters

Laurie Venters

PhD, Member of Research Area E Gender (and Intersectionality)

+49 228 / 73

Wird geladen