Thomas Widlok

Cultural Anthropology and African Studies, Köln
Fellowship: 01.10.2016–31.03.2017



Thomas Widlok earned his degrees (MSc, PhD) in Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London). Over the past three decades, he has conducted ethnographic field work in Southern Africa and Australia and, increasingly, in Europe. He taught at the universities of London, Heidelberg, Durham, Nijmegen, and Zurich before becoming Professor of Cultural Anthropology of Africa at the University of Cologne in 2013. For many years, he participated in interdisciplinary research groups at the Max Planck Institutes in Nijmengen (Psycholinguistics) and Halle/Saale (anthropological research). In Cologne, he serves as Speaker of the Competence Area »Cultures and Societies in Transition« and cooperates with the Global South Studies Center. He is a founding member of the International Society for Hunter-Gatherer Research.


Fields of Research

  • Key Questions of Social Order
  • Economic Anthropology
  • Anthropology of Rituals
  • Theory of Practice and Ethics
  • Cultural Diversity and Universality Concerning Space, Time, and Causality
  • Cross-Cultural Hunter-Gatherer Research


Project outline

The End of Life in African Trickster Stories and Early Modern Picaresque Novels


From a cross-cultural perspective, among the various forms of life-writing and life-imaging, those stand out which do not simply describe a typical or ideal way of life but present protagonists who are extreme examples of such a life. The so-called ›trickster‹ in African stories and in European picaresque novels, which this project deals with, are masters of transformation. The tricksters in Khoisan stories continuously change their shape, especially by switching between human and animal appearances and thus ›tricking‹ others and gaining control over important cultural assets, such as fire or marital laws. Picaros are narrators found in early modern novels, such as Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus, but also in current African diaspora novels. They impress us as they are able to change continuously and even better than their environment, which challenges and threatens them. Their transformations open up a discursive space for possibilities of social change.

This project gives a cross-cultural perspective on these ›transformation artists.‹ In addition to showing their differences—which are to be expected in such a broad comparison across time and space—it aims to emphasize their similarities, in particular. In doing so, this project especially addresses the question of how representations of continuous transformation deal with the limits of transformation. How are shape-shifters and their way of life represented if looked at from the perspective of their endings, from the perspective of death, social breakdown, and civilizational collapse?


Publications (Selection)

  • 2016. »Alternative moralische Welten. Eine kulturvergleichende Sicht auf Grimmelshausen.« Vortrag auf der Jahrestagung der Grimmelshausengesellschaft. Erscheint in Simpliciana XXXVIII.
  • 2016. Anthropology and the economy of sharing. Oxford: Routledge
  • 2014. »Agency, Time and Causality.« Frontiers in Psychology 5:1264. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01264
  • 2013. »The Cultural Evolution of Religion.« In: P. Richerson and M. Christiansen (eds.), Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 381-404.  [together with J.Bulbulia, A. Geertz, Q. Atkinson, E. Cohen, N. Evans, P. Francois, H. Gintis, R. Gray, J. Henrich, F. Jordan, A. Noenzayan, P. Richerson, E. Slingerland, P. Turchin, H. Whitehouse, D. Wilson]
  • 2012. »Virtue.« In: D. Fassin (ed.), A Companion to Moral Anthropology, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 186-203
  • 2009. »Norm and spontaneity: Elicitation with Moral Dilemma Scenarios.« In: M. Heintz (ed.), The Anthropology of Moralities, Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 20-45.
  • 2007. »From individual act to social agency in San trance rituals.« In: R. van Dijk, M. deBruin, J.-B. Gewald (eds.), Strength beyond Structure: Social and Historical Trajectories of Agency in Africa. Leiden: Brill.
  • 2007. »Time, death and property in Australia.« Journal de la Société des Océanistes 124/1:157-165
  • 2001. Symbolic Categories and Ritual Practices in Hunter-Gatherer Experiences. African Studies Monographs. Kyoto: Center for African Area Studies [with K. Sugawara].
  • 1999. Living on Mangetti. ›Bushman‹ Autonomy and Namibian Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.