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Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican

Speaker and Coordinator of the international research unit 'The production and reproduction of social inequalities: Global contexts and concepts of labour exploitation'; Principal Investigator of the Global South Studies Center Cologne (GSSC); elected senator for the Faculty of Humanities

Hauptgebäude, Albertus-Magnus Platz 1
Room 6.003

Currently Taught Courses

In the summer semester of 2022, Prof. Dr. Michaela is taking a research sabbatical.

Short Biography

I am Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Cologne. Previously, I was a guest professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies (ASAFAS) der Universität Kyoto (2011), a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Zurich (2006-2012), a researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale (2000-2006), and a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Kent (2003). I received my PhD from the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and my MA from the University of Bayreuth. 

My current focus is on South-South mobility and migrant transnationalism, and involves research in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular Cameroon, Gabon, and South Africa, as well as in the United Arab Emirates and China. I have also worked and published on indigeneity in Africa, a topic that emerged from my previous research on interethnic relations and identity politics in Cameroon. Moreover, I have a strong interest in visual and media anthropology, and have been using methods of visual and theatre anthropology throughout my research.

In my teaching I concentrate on research methodology, political and social anthropology, anthropology of religion, and the anthropology of Africa. I supervise final year students on BA, MA and PhD level whose work overlaps with my research and teaching interests.

Thematic Interests and Regional Focus

Transnational migration, South-South mobility, social inequality, ethnicity, indigeneity, conflict, pastoral economy, visual and media anthropology.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Cameroon, Gabon, South Africa; United Arab Emirates; China.

Department focus: Methods, Globalization.

Research Projects

The major themes addressed in my research so far are migration, ethnicity and pastoral economy. In addition, I have realised several film and media projects as well as international collaborations. Selected projects are listed below. For more information, please visit my personal website.

The production and reproduction of social inequalities: Global contexts and concepts of labour exploitation (since 2020)

Project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. Project partners: Michaela Pelican (University of Cologne, project lead), Tu Huynh (Jinan University, Guangzhou), Meron Eresso (Addis Ababa University), Ulrike Lindner (University of Cologne)

The starting point for this project is a very specific conundrum: Why have attempts at increasing equality often contributed to generating more durable inequalities? To shed some light on this question, this research focuses on concepts and actors and their roles in producing and reproducing social inequalities in the context of colonial and postcolonial labour systems and regimes of mobility in the "Global South". In this study, inequalities are understood as relational and historically embedded and as comprising several dimensions, including social, economic, and epistemic inequality. More specifically, the project team focuses on selected concepts that are locally grounded and describe forms of social inequalities linked to different types of labour exploitation, namely "native labour", "new slavery", "human trafficking", and "cheap/abundant labour". The team members investigate - both from a historical and contemporary perspective - how these concepts circulated on a global scale, and were negotiated, translated, and adapted by institutional and individual actors with the aim of challenging social inequalities, while eventually contributing to the production of those same, or new, inequalities. The project intends to reconcile debates on conceptual history, labour history, and inequality and combines perspectives from both South and North. Ultimately, it aims to interpret global labour regimes and to draw lessons from experiences for societies in both the “Global South” as well as the “Global North”.

Chinese immigration law and policy: Perspectives of law makers, administrators and immigrants (2014-2019)

DFG funded project, in collaboration with Prof. Björn Ahl (Department of Chinese Studies, University of Cologne).

The project studies changes in China's migration policies since 2012 and their impact on the situation of African businesspeople and students in southern China. The following PhD projects are/were conntected to the project:  Zhou Yang 'Intercultural Marriage, Legal Status and Social Belonging in China: Chinese-African Couples and Families in Guangzhou' (completed 2017); Séverin Kaji 'Student Migration from Cameroon to China: Government Rhetoric and Student Experiences'; Lai Pik Chan 'Foreign English Teachers in China – Opportunities and Challenges'.

Global African Entrepreneurs (2007-2014)

Postdoctoral project, research in Cameroon, Gabon, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, supported by the University of Zurich and the Global South Studies Center Cologne (GSSC).

The project studied South-South migration within Africa as well as from Cameroon to the Gulf States. It focused on entrepreneurial activities and experiences of Cameroonian migrants, their communication and exchange relations with relatives and friends back home, as well as their influence on local ideas of identity, modernity, and citizenship in Cameroon.

Interethnic relations and identity politics in Cameroon (2000-2006)

PhD project, research in Cameroon, supported by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale.

In my PhD research I examined the structures and mechanisms that either positively or negatively influence the co-existence of different population groups within a culturally and ethnically heterogeneous environment. In order to answer this question, I conducted fourteen months of fieldwork between 2000 and 2002 in the small town of Misaje in the Anglophone northwest of Cameroon, also known as the Cameroon Grassfields.

Transformation of the socio-economic situation of agro-pastoral Fulbe women in northwest Cameroon (1996-1999)

MA project, research in Cameroon.

My MA project focused on the social organisation and pastoral economy of the Mbororo-Fulbe of northwest Cameroon. It examined the gendered division of labour, and paid attention to transformations in the socio-economic position of Mbororo women that were initiated by the pastoralists’ sedentarisation in the first half of the 20th century.


Another focus of my work has been on the application of media-related methods in anthropological research. This includes among other things the analysis of role-plays on farmer-herder conflict and milk-marketing as part of my PhD research as well as the exchange of video-letters between Cameroonian migrants and their relatives back home.

Publications (Selection)


Pelican, Michaela. 2015. Masks and Staffs. Identity Politics in the Cameroon Grassfields. Oxford, New York: Berghahn. 

Edited Volumes/Thematic Issues

Pelican, Michaela, Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf, and Karim Zafer (eds.). 2020. Flucht - Familie - soziale Netzwerke: Forschungen mit Geflüchteten in und um Köln. Kölner Arbeitspapiere für Ethnologie (KAE) No. 08.

Pelican, Michaela and Sofie Steinberger (eds.). 2017. Melilla. Perspectives on a Border Town. Kölner Arbeitspapiere zur Ethnologie 6. Institut für Ethnologie, Universität zu Köln. 

University of Cologne Forum ‘Ethnicity as a Political Resource’ (ed.). 2015. Ethnicity as a Political Resource – Conceptualizations across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Maruyama, Junko and Michaela Pelican (eds.). 2015. Indigenous Identities and Ethnic Coexistence in Africa. Special issue of African Study Monographs 36(1). 

Damir-Geilsdorf, Sabine, Mira Menzfeld und Michaela Pelican (eds.). 2014. Islam und Sport: Einblicke in das interdisziplinäre Forschungs- und Lehrprojekt "Ethnographie vor der Haustür" der Universität zu Köln. Kölner Arbeitspapiere zur Ethnologie 5. Institut für Ethnologie, Universität zu Köln.

Pelican, Michaela and Mahir Saul (eds.). 2014. Global African Entrepreneurs. Special issue of Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, UAS 43(1-3).

Heiss, Jan Patrick and Michaela Pelican (eds.). 2014. "Making a future" in contemporary Africa. Special issue of Journal des Africanistes 84(1).

Pelican, Michaela (ed.). 2014. BAOHAN Street: An African Community in Guangzhou. Documentary photographs by Li Dong. Kölner Arbeitspapiere zur Ethnologie 4. Institut für Ethnologie, Universität zu Köln.

Peer-reviewed articles (selection)

Damir-Geilsdorf, Sabine and Michaela Pelican. 2019. Between regular and irregular employment: subverting the kafalasystem in the GCC countries, Migration and Development 8(2): 155-175.

Ngeh, Jonathan und Michaela Pelican. 2018. Intersectionality and the Labour Market in the United Arab Emirates: the Experiences of African Migrants. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 143(2): 171-194.

Pelican, Michaela and Li Dong. 2017. PHOTO ESSAY: Baohan Street: An African Community in Guangzhou. In: Hodgson, D.L. & J. Byfield (eds.) Global Africa. University of California Press, Oakland.

Pelican, Michaela. 2013. Insights from Cameroon: Five years after the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Anthropology Today 29(3): 13-16.

Pelican, Michaela. 2013. International Migration: Virtue or Vice? Perspectives from Cameroon. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39(2): 237-258.

Pelican, Michaela. 2009. Complexities of indigeneity and autochthony: an African example. American Ethnologist 36(1): 149-162.