Working Groups

Our working groups are informal meetings of researchers who want to delve deeper into a specific topic.

Working Groups are bottom-up initiatives and can be set within a Research Area, or across Research Areas. Working Groups can be more short-lived than the Research Areas and thus provide a more flexible way of organizing joint research and discussions.  


Working Groups at the BCDSS

In this interdisciplinary working group, we study all facets of asymmetrical dependency in ancient Maya society in Mesoamerica. Our group is open to all people interested in Maya culture, especially to those who want to contribute with their own expertise to illuminate a still unexplored topic.

The problem of studying ancient Maya society

The Maya of the Classic period (ca. 250-900 A.D.) lived in the culture area of Mesoamerica in the territory of the present-day states of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and northwest Honduras. Like all premodern societies in Mesoamerica, they developed without any contact to cultures outside the Americas. As a consequence, many cultural aspects show a strong contrast to the "Old World" and do not allow for direct comparisons, making them difficult to reconstruct. Although the Maya had a complex writing system, little is known about their lives and social conditions. The hieroglyphic texts, which we can understand better nowadays, speak mostly of the nobility, the deeds of the divine rulers, their victories and defeats, diplomatic moves, important rituals, mythical tales, astronomical observations and calendar predictions. However, nothing is ever written about the lives of ordinary people, their rights and duties. Clues on topics such as gender, property, social roles and the social relationships between different status groups are best provided by iconographic representations, archaeological proxies and diachronic analogies.

What we want

Our working group aims to shed light on these issues with a special focus on dependency using various disciplines. We want to explore methods with which we can reconstruct dependencies in ancient Maya society. With settlement and environmental archaeology, we discuss social relations about resource management and the spatial distribution of people and objects. With bioarchaeology, the study of human remains, we look for the effects of violence, the different access to food and health care, etc. With linguistics we investigate terminology and use it to explore culturally internal concepts of dependency. With iconography, epigraphy, colonial ethnohistory and ethnoarchaeology we search for parallels and analogies. By combining these different perspectives, we want to investigate lived experiences of dependency. This includes the agency of dependent actors, which we can explore through archaeological research as well as through the analysis of emic terms from the written and spoken language of contemporary and ancient Maya groups.

The spectrum of our working group is not limited to the Maya and not only to the Classic period, but also requires the observation of neighboring cultures (e.g. Teotihuacan and the Aztec in Central Mexico) and other epochs (e.g. Postclassic and colonial) in order to work out spatial and temporal connections and to use them as references for comparison.

What we are doing

Our activities so far include mainly brainstorming sessions and discussion of literature. However, we are open to new formats and may want to write papers together later.

Who we are

Our working group is thematically located on the courtyard of the BCDSS, thus inviting not only interested members of the cluster to participate in our activities, but also Mayanists, Mesoamerican researchers and students from other institutions around the world.

Contact: Paul Graf,; Nikolai Grube,

The Working Group takes objects as its starting point and aims at registering human and non-human ‘bodies of dependency’. Since the ontological turn has made us aware of the historicity of nature, animals, technology, machines, resources and things (in short, of everything non-human), social history should redefine its position. We understand dependent bodies as “agents”, “mediators”, and “intermediaries” and analyze dependencies between human and non-human actors as “agencements” and forms of “interagency”. Relying on the “Material Turn” and on the new approaches offered by “Body Studies” as well as on recent debates on environmental history, biohistory, and sensory history, this working group discusses “embodied dependencies” from archaeological, art-historical and anthropological perspectives as well as from the viewpoint of a praxeologically and body-historically oriented history and social science. The dialogue between researchers working with objects and those working with texts and the interdisciplinary exchange between archaeology, ethnohistory, art history, museology, historical praxeology and body history in this working group aims at a methodological reflection on and an increased awareness of the relations between the material and the social spheres as a whole with regard to strong asymmetrical dependencies. In the end, we would like to write together a Concept Paper. 

Coordination: Prof. Dr. Stephan Conermann

Contact: Stephan Conermann,

In this working group, we explore the manifold possibilities of applying narratological approaches to the analysis of different texts, text types and genres related to strong asymmetrical forms of dependency, be it autobiographical "slave narratives", historiographic texts, normative sources, literary works, or archive material. We also seek to integrate colleagues working with artefacts, or even performative material, such as music.

We do not understand narratives as purely literary art forms, but as phenomena that are closely interconnected with the reality of life and thus with history. Narration provides cultural patterns of understanding which, in its diverse manifestations, can be found in every human society and which is central to practically every expression of human cultural action.

Narratology as a discipline dedicated to the study of the logic, principles, and practices of narrative representation also offers an approach that is not restricted to the study of texts as literary objects of art: "Narratology applies to virtually every cultural object"(Mieke Bal 1999, 19).

Narratology has developed, over the past decades, from being a structuralist approach to literary texts, to offering a methodology that considers the discursive strategies of texts as well as their socio-historical context of the origin and their reception. With its specific "toolkit", its analytical questions, narratology is an excellent basis for interdisciplinary and transcultural comparison, as other initiatives have already proven. With our working group, we build upon the work of the Bonn Center for Transcultural Narratology (Bonner Zentrum für Transkulturelle Narratologie – BZTN).

What we do

We meet on a monthly basis to explore the methodological framework of narratology, its application and, possibly, adaptation required by our source material. We also seek to strengthen the collaboration with external partners of the BZTN and to forge new partnerships inside the University of Bonn and beyond. Most importantly, the group will provide an open space for testing what may be gained by applying narratological approaches to different forms of narratives and discussing methods and results among colleagues.

The first signpost activity on the working group's schedule is the conference Narratives of Dependency, to be held in June or July 2021, during which members of the working group will present case studies. A preparatory workshop has been held in July 2020.


There is a large body of theoretical and methodological literature on (transcultural) narratology. A reading list will be discussed during the first meeting. Please note that most texts on transcultural and cultural-historical approaches in narratology are in German.

Coordination: Prof. Dr. Stephan Conermann (Speaker), Prof. Dr. Marion Gymnich (Principal Investigator, Board Member of the Cluster of Excellence "Beyond Slavery and Freedom"), Dr. Anna Kollatz (Affiliated researcher)

Who: BCDSS members and M.A. students, researchers affiliated with the BZTN, everybody interested in narratology and its application to sources related to strong asymmetrical forms of dependency.

Contact: Miriam Quiering,

The Working Group “Ottoman Slavery” was initiated to bring together scholars who are dedicated to a common field of research. The aim of this working group is to provide scholars with the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas on the topic of slavery and other forms of asymmetrical dependencies in the Ottoman Empire. Members of the working group are doing research on slavery and asymmetrical dependencies in different periods and regions of the Ottoman Empire using various sources such as archival materials, travelogues, correspondences, and manuscripts. The research area of the group members ranges from non-elite household slaves to elite female slaves, child slaves as well as slave agency and mobility in the Black Sea region, Istanbul and other cities in the Ottoman Empire during the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The participants aim at incorporating their research on Ottoman Empire with recent scholarship and theoretical debates on slavery and asymmetrical dependencies.

The Working Group also plays a role as a platform where scholars can network and exchange knowledge. At regular meetings, participants talk about their ongoing projects, exchange questions, share source materials and focus on current discussions and debates concerning this topic. The Working Group is dedicated to contribute to the scholarship with future research papers of the members. Joint future activities and collaborations towards workshops, research and book projects are envisaged as long-term goals.

Who we are

Current members with their specific research focus:

  • Veruschka Wagner (Istanbul household slaves 17th c., social and spatial mobility of slaves) BCDSS, University of Bonn, Germany (
  • Fırat Yaşa (Crimean slavery and dependencies, Slavery in Istanbul and Bursa 17th c.) – University of Duzce, Turkey (
  • -Zeynep Gökçe (Visibility and representations of female slavery in Istanbul19th c., gender and slavery in Ottoman Empire) – BCDSS, University of Bonn, Germany (
  • Turkana Allahverdi (Crimean Slavery early 18th c.) – BCDSS, University of Bonn, Germany (
  • -Nida Nebahat Nalçacı (State slavery in Istanbul, diplomatic encounters between Ottomans and Venetians in case of captivity, mainly 16th and 17th c.) – University of Bilkent, Turkey ( Bahar Bayraktaroğlu (Child slavery in Istanbul 19th c., Circassian and African enslaved children in the elite households of Istanbul) – University of Sabanci, Turkey (


The working group reaches out:

  • to address an issue which cuts across all research areas of the cluster
  • to flag out a perspective which sheds light on various epochs from early and ancient history to the 20th century and our times (and thus to help support current research of the cluster while at the same time reflecting upon the future strategic development of the cluster)
  • to explore frames and contexts of social dependencies
  • to study how power informs both dependencies in small social units (which are at the core of the cluster’s research) and big histories of empires and colonialism
  • to navigate the differences between empire and colonialism in terms of Weberian ideal types while at the same time paying due attention to empirical overlaps throughout history
  • to discuss the thesis – formulated by some of the authors of the recent world history series published by Harvard University Press and C.H. Beck – that empires made colonialism and the modern globalized world (roughly from early modern history onward)
  • to relate that discussion to scholarship as postcolonial studies, dependency theory, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system theory and publications which say that in our politically decolonized world global flows of commodities and thus economies are still informed by dependencies reminiscent of colonialism (which also means to reflect upon the relation between dependency and inequality)
  • to put heritages of imperialism and colonialism and their current critiques on display as a link between past and present: in taking down monuments of colonial actors or at least debating their status western societies are becoming aware of how colonialism and its heritage still inform western ways of thinking and theorizing the world and notions of culture, society and economy. Can we differentiate decolonization into three phases – political, economic and cultural – with the latter two still on the agenda of the world we live in?

Contact: Martin Aust9 and Taynã Tagliati Souza, and

Under Contemporary Asymmetrical Dependencies (CAD's), we understand all those contemporary forms of exploitation, undesired dependency and/or structural inequalities, that are either direct historical legacies of slavery or resemble asymmetrical power relations coming close to conditions under slavery in terms of deprivation of rights to chosen mobility and decent compensation for work.

Why Contemporary Asymmetrical Dependencies (CAD)?

We, Dr. Lotte Pelckmans (BCDSS fellow 2019–2020) and Sarah Dusend (BCDSS research and study coordinator) decided to set up this working group, which started in January 2020, to give more visibility and underline the importance of asymmetrical dependencies in the contemporary world. Currently, the majority of researchers at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies cluster of excellence at the University of Bonn, focuses on past forms of asymmetrical dependencies, but the minority of their PhD students works on contemporary aspects. Hence the demand for a forum to exchange ideas about contemporary asymmetrical dependencies, which are often connected in many different ways to the past, is evident. Finally, we want to contribute to the cluster's promise to generate a debate and public outreach on the topic of asymmetrical dependencies and we will certainly find ways to do so when addressing ongoing societal issues.

Contemporary Asymmetrical Dependencies (CAD)

Under Contemporary Asymmetrical Dependencies (CAD's), we understand all those contemporary forms of exploitation, undesired dependency and/or structural inequalities, that are either direct historical legacies of slavery or resemble asymmetrical power relations coming close to conditions under slavery in terms of deprivation of rights to chosen mobility and decent compensation for work. We can hereby think of a range of dependencies, from sweatshops and call-centers over migrant exploitation and human trafficking to aspects of the carceral system in the US.

In contrary to "known" asymmetrical dependencies in history, f.e. between a patron and a client, contemporary asymmetrical dependencies are characterized by "unknown" relationships between individuals and institutions based on structural violence, which results in the shift of responsibilities to other actors (overseers, managers, other workers, etc.). Disciplining, intermediaries and the effect of dependency on the body (physically and mentally) are obviously key aspects in structural arisen dependencies.

In short, both small and large-scale institutionalized forms of (undesired) exclusion based on specific features, ranging from inherited status (caste, slave descent), as well as gender, race, ethnicity, religious background, will be considered as contemporary asymmetrical dependencies.


Everyone interested in contemporary relations of (asymmetrical) dependencies. Our working group consists of researchers with very different fields of topics. For example, modern slavery, (return) migration, forced labor, exploitation, global labor relations, but also spatial dependencies and theoretical discussions have been topics of previous meetings.

We are academics, practitioners, development organizations, journalists and welcome anyone with a special interest in contemporary asymmetrical dependencies.


The current goals and aims of the CAD group are to constitute a network and a study group with regular meetings (at least once every two weeks), aimed at intellectual exchange among the members, with a level of administrative/institutional administration as low as possible for the time being.

The focus is on:

    • networking
    • exchange of literature and readings
    • platform for discussion of both work and central readings
    • platform for knowledge exchange

We work as an informal platform where everyone feels free to express and argue, be open about intellectual struggles and embrace the idea to learn by doing and by sharing creative approaches.

Longer Term Future Goals and Aims

  • joint collaboration towards conferences and/or e.g. mini seminar series within the cluster sharing information about relevant activities, websites and publications in the field
  • public outreach: docs and talks, filmed lectures


We have started ordering important books and works in the field with the library. The list is available here.
All the cluster books, including those related to the topics of CAD, can be found in the central library.

Contact: Alexander Rothenberg,; Francesca Della Ventura,


How do we handle terminologies of asymmetrical dependencies that appear in our sources? We propose that we need to be careful when adopting the terms used for certain practices and social relations in the textual sources we work with (like “slave,” “servant,” etc). Consequently, we first need to disentangle the meanings of our source’s terms within their own time and context. In a second step, we need to look for analytical vocabulary that moves us beyond the language of our sources and allows for comparisons. To this end, we explore a broad range of theories and methods from various disciplines.

What we do

We meet every 4-6 weeks to exchange ideas about different interdisciplinary approaches and learn about each other’s research. While we circulate readings beforehand that form the basis of our discussion, we follow a very hands-on practical approach to these texts: we seek to test the applicability of theories and methods to our own research. We do this through “writing exercises:” participants are asked to upload 2-3 pages ahead of the meeting, where they ponder if and how the proposed approach(es) are applicable to their own research. By doing this, we also learn about each other’s research and test out the value of theoretical and methodological models in an interdisciplinary setting.

Each session focuses on a specific methodological and/or theoretical problem or approach and is organized by one or several of the participants. Everyone can make suggestions for future sessions at any point. The session organizers select a maximum of 60 pages of text (= c. 1-3 texts). The participants agree to read these pages and write a short reflection on the contents and how they relate to their own research (2-3 pages). These “writing exercises” are uploaded to the corresponding sciebo folder in advance.

Coordination: Jeannine Bischoff12, Jutta Wimmler13, Pia Holste

When: Upcoming sessions:
October 21st 2021 (13:00 - 15:00): "Shifting meanings: citizenship, property and slavery"
December 2nd 2021 (16:00 - 18:00): "Politics of language: “Slave” or “Enslaved”?"
January 20th 2022 (13:00 - 15:00): "Exploring asymmetrical dependencies through the concept of 'disability'"

Who: All interested BCDSS members and MA students are welcome. BCDSS Fellows are especially invited to join. 

Contact: Pia Holste,

Nikolai Grube

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