Brokers under scrutiny: investigating practices of intermediation in a globalising world

Brokers play important roles as intermediaries and facilitators in a wide range of settings. Their work of intermediation involves processes of translation, mediation and interpretation between distinct social worlds. This project, in a unique and innovative way, takes a comparative look at the work of brokers and at processes of intermediation in and between different socio-political and cultural settings and different world regions.

Brokers are highly mobile figures, in a physical and an ideational sense. Situated between different social worlds they channel scarce information in order to translate and negotiate between them. Brokers connect the local with the global – be it the transnational world of trade, development, peacebuilding, activism, unauthorised migration or other manifestations of the global. They dwell in intermediate settings where frictional relations evolve in predictable and unpredictable ways. Whereas the local is where anthropologists usually conduct their fieldwork, this project seeks to shed light on individuals that create connections and intersections between known and unknown spaces and parties. Why do brokers inhabit these in-between spaces? What factors/conditions/interests enabled them to occupy such a strategic position? What means and languages do they use? How are they perceived by others?

Most studies on brokers have been concerned with the figure of the broker as such and their mediating capacity, within structural relationships, proclaiming universal validity of their findings. They focus on a specific type of brokerage in one (regional) setting. By taking an in-depth ethnographic look at the actual work of brokers and their particular life stories in diverse settings and regions this project aims to go beyond existing typologies and idealised notions of brokers that often dis-embed them from their specific sociocultural contexts.

The transregional project brings together researchers focusing on different spheres of intermediation in different world regions, innovatively juxtaposing African and Asian-Pacific case studies. It not only questions existing typologies of brokerage but also cuts across established discourses of area studies that tend to focus on examples of one region only.

Guinean broker in his warehouse in Guangzhou, Photo: Ute Röschenthaler