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Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican

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, conflict, social inequality 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.

Conflict-Induced Displacement and Socio-Economic Resilience: Learning From Neglected Conflicts in Cameroon and Myanmar

Conflict-Induced Displacement and Socio-Economic Resilience: Learning From Neglected Conflicts in Cameroon and Myanmar

International Research Cluster 2023/24

Support: Cologne International Forum, Universität zu Köln
Cooperation Partners: University of Bamenda, Chulalongkorn University Bangkok

Project management: Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican

Website: https://cif.uni-koeln.de/projects/international-research-cluster-2023-24-michaela-pelican

2023-2024 / Budget 70.000 EUR

There are an estimated 281 million migrants worldwide, with 89.5 million being forcibly displaced. Political and humanitarian measures to address forced migration often neglect the socio-economic aspects of displacement. Understanding migrants’ socio-economic situations is essential to managing forced migration and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. At the heart of this project are two violent conflicts – the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon and the military coup in Myanmar – which have resulted in significant displacement but have received limited attention in international public debates.

FOR 5183 | Migration, Intersectionality and Institutional Interaction: Experiences of African Migrants in the United Arab Emirates

FOR 5183 | Migration, Intersectionality and Institutional Interaction: Experiences of African Migrants in the United Arab Emirates

Subproject 3 within FOR 5183 Transborder Mobility and Institutional Dynamics

Support: German Research Foundation (DFG)
Cooperation Partners: Univ. Siegen

Project management: Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican
Staff: Saleh Seid Adem
Website: https://for5183.uni-siegen.de/sub-projects-overview/sub-project-3/?lang=en

Funding Phase: 2022- 2026 | Budget Subproject: 375.404 Euro

This project examines the interplay between international mobility and institutional dynamics in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It pursues an intersectional approach and aims to understand how migrants and institutional actors are positioned differently, how their interaction is shaped by different vectors of inequality, and how they make use of their positionalities. The project focuses on institutions of migrant self-organisation and considers the kafala/sponsorship system - widespread in the Arab Gulf region - not only in terms of its restrictive dimensions but also in terms of how migrants productively incorporate it into their strategies. The project focuses on migrants from Africa (specifically from Ethiopia and Cameroon), a group that has received little attention in previous research on the Arab Gulf states. Methodologically, it integrates anthropological and sociological approaches and uses a mixed methods design, which includes, among other things, auto-ethnography as a central method for researching intersectionality.


VW - Research Unit

VW - Research Unit "The Production and Reproduction of Social Inequalities"

Global contexts and concepts of labour exploitation

Support: Volkswagen Foundation

Website: https://socialinequalities.uni-koeln.de/

Project partners: Michaela Pelican (University of Cologne, project lead), Tu Huynh (Jinan University, Guangzhou), Meron Eresso (Addis Ababa University), Ulrike Lindner (University of Cologne)

Funding Phase: 2020-2024 (48 month) | Budget 1.258.900 €

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”.

VW - Research Unit

VW - Research Unit "Special Project on COVID-19"

Communication during and after COVID-19: (re)producing social inequalities and/or opportunities among African migrants in the United Arab Emirates and China

Support: Volkswagen Foundation

Project management: Dr. Jonathan Ngeh, Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican, Prof. Dr. Tu Huynh

Website: https://socialinequalities.uni-koeln.de/covid-19-project

Funding Phase: 2020-2023  | Budget: 117.600 €

The key questions in this proposed research are: How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect the production and reproduction of social inequalities as well as the emergence of opportunities for especially vulnerable migrants? And which role does communication play in this context? These questions will be studied in relation to the experiences of African migrants in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and in China. In addition to showing the pandemic’s differential socio-economic impact on different populations in society, the findings will reveal how solidarity at the grassroots level underlies the successful mitigation of this crisis in at-risk communities. The main impact of the study will lie in translating the findings into practical suggestions on how to improve communication with and within vulnerable migrant communities so as to strengthen their resilience in view of the ongoing pandemic and future crises.

Chinese Immigration Law and Policy (2014-2019)

Chinese Immigration Law and Policy (2014-2019)

Perspectives of lawmakers, administrators and immigrants

Support: German Research Foundation (DFG)

Project management: Prof. Dr. Michaela Pelican, Prof. Dr. Björn Ahl

Funding phase: 2014-2019; Budget: 333.500 €

Further information:

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)

Postdoc-Projekt mit Feldforschung in Kamerun, Gabun, Südafrika und den Vereinigten Arabischen Emiraten

Support: durchgeführt mit Unterstützung der Universität Zürich und des Global South Studies Center Cologne (GSSC)

Dauer: 2007 - 2014

Das Forschungsprojekt befasste sich mit Süd-Süd Migration innerhalb Afrikas sowie von Kamerun in die Golfstaaten. Im Zentrum standen die unternehmerischen Erfahrungen und Strategien von Migrant*innen, Kommunikation und den Austauschbeziehungen mit Familie und Freund*innen im Herkunftsland, sowie der Einfluss der Migrant*innen auf lokale Vorstellungen zu Identität, Moderne und Bürgerrechte in Kamerun.

Interethnische Beziehungen und Identitätspolitik in Kamerun (2000-2006)

Dissertationsprojekt mit Feldforschung in Kamerun

Support: durchgeführt mit Unterstützung des Max-Planck-Instituts für ethnologische Forschung, Halle/Saale

Dauer: 2000-2006

In meiner Dissertationsforschung beschäftigte ich mich mit der Frage nach Strukturen und Mechanismen, die ein Zusammenleben verschiedener Bevölkerungsgruppen in einem kulturell und ethnisch heterogenen Umfeld positiv oder negativ beeinflussen. Dieser Fragestellung ging ich während vierzehn Monaten Feldforschung (2000-2002) in der Kleinstadt Misaje im anglophonen Nordwesten Kameruns nach.

Wandel der sozioökonomischen Situation seminomadischer Fulbe-Frauen in Kamerun (1996-1999)

Magisterprojekt mit Feldforschung in Kamerun

Dauer: 1996-1999

Meine Magisterforschung untersuchte die pastorale Wirtschaftsweise der Mbororo-Fulbe in Nordwestkamerun. Im Zentrum der Untersuchung standen die geschlechtliche Arbeitsteilung, sowie soziale Veränderungen als Folge der Sesshaftwerdung im Laufe des 20. Jahrhunderts. Besonderes Augenmerk wurde der wirtschaftlichen und sozialen Stellung der Mbororo-Frauen geschenkt.


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.

Some Recent Publications

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 and book chapters (selection)

Barabantseva, E., C. Grillot M. Pelican. 2023. Embodied by state borders: citizenship negotiations of children in Chinese–foreign families in the People’s Republic of China. JEMS, https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2023.2206000 (open access)

Pelican, Michaela. 2022. Studying conflict and ethnicity through performative and audio-visual research methods. In: M. Höhne, E. Gabbert, J. Eidson (eds.). Dynamics of Identification and Conflict: Anthropological Encounters. New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 105-133. https://doi.org/10.3167/9781800736757

Pelican, M., K. Schumann, S. Plücken, D. Drew. 2022. Mbororo under Attack: Extreme Speech and Violence in the Anglophone Conflict in Cameroon. Freiburg: ABI Working Paper 21. https://www.arnold-bergstraesser.de/abi-working-papers

Pelican, M. 2022. The Anglophone conflict in Cameroon – historical and political background. Freiburg: ABI Working Paper 20. https://www.arnold-bergstraesser.de/abi-working-papers

Ngeh, J. and M. Pelican. 2022. Innovation, Music and Future Making by Young Africans in a Challenging Environment: Examples from Cameroon and Nigeria. In: C. Greiner, S. van Wolputten and M. Bollig (eds). African Futures. Leiden: Brill, 285-295.

Barabantseva, E., C. Grillot and M. Pelican. 2021. Uncertain Choices of Chinese-Foreign Children’s Citizenship in the People’s Republic of China. In: F. Pieke (ed.). Global East Asia: Into the Twenty-First Century. University of California Press, 209-218.

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.