Diaspora Research Paper

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This research paper considers the origin and changing use of the notion of diaspora, showing how, despite its specific reference to the history of the Jews, it has now come to be important in understanding many forms of international migration. How modern nation-states respond to the challenges of social and cultural pluralism is discussed. The different types of diaspora and diverse ways in which the concept is now used are also identified.

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1. Origins And Development

The word ‘diaspora’ is derived from the Greek word speiro (to sow) and the preposition dia (over). When applied to humans the ancient Greeks thought of the word as signifying expansion through outward migration and settlement. ‘Diaspora’ soon acquired a more brutal and catastrophic meaning. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament it was used to describe the forcible dispersion of the Jews. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC led to the enslavement and displacement of the key military, civil, and religious leaders of Judah and their exile in Babylon. This fate was held to be predicted in Deuteronomy (28: 58–68) where God had warned that anybody who disobeyed his law would be scattered to all ends of the earth. There they would ‘find no peace,’ while they would additionally suffer ‘an unquiet mind, dim eyes and a failing appetite.’ ‘Babylon,’ then the capital of the Mesopotamian empire, become the code word for Jews (and later for Africans in the New World) signifying a place of loneliness and estrangement, where they were held in captivity.

This catastrophic meaning of diaspora, which may be described as the ‘victim tradition,’ was one that informed the historical and popular use of the term for nearly two millennia. Gradually, other groups saw themselves as victims of forcible dispersion in a manner similar to the ancient Jews and used the expression ‘diaspora’ as a self-description of their fate. Armenians, for example, allude to the period 1894–6 when their national movement was violently opposed by the Ottoman Sultan Hamid and some 300,000

Armenians were killed in Turkish Armenia. In 1915– 16 ‘close to one million people’ (Melson 1992, p. 146), about half the Armenian nation, were either killed or died of starvation. Armenian scholars and activists have accused the Turkish authorities of genocidal intentions, an interpretation that is generally accepted, though still hotly disputed by the current Turkish government. The subsequent dispersal of the Armenians to the USA, Iran, France, Lebanon, and other countries is now commonly described as a diasporic experience. The brutal Atlantic slave trade for New World Africans, the potato famine for the Irish, and (ironically) the return to Palestine of the Zionist part of the Jewish diaspora for Palestinians are similarly considered the crucial traumatic events that triggered the creation of these other victim diasporas.

The above examples have an apparent theoretical and experiential coherence. A tragedy perpetrated by a hostile exogenous force generates movement to a number of countries. But because the displacement was forced and the traumatic event so encompassing, collective folk memories are developed, the populations remain psychologically unsettled, and a return movement gains some following. A number of conventional historians would wish to go no further with the idea of diaspora. However, from the 1980s, this relatively well-established meaning began to lose definition at its edges. Many ethnic groups of varying histories defined themselves as ‘diasporas,’ or were so recognized by scholars or journalists. The decisive intellectual movement for this new pluralism was marked by the launch of a journal called Diaspora, issued by the New York office of Oxford University Press in 1991 and edited by a US-based literary scholar of Armenian provenance. His opening manifesto was an impressive call for openness. The journal would be concerned with ‘the way in which nations, real but imagined communities, are fabulated, brought into being, made and unmade, in culture and politics, both on the land people call their own and in exile’ (Tololyan 1991, p. 3). By 1998, the journal had published articles centrally identifying 34 ethnic groups as diasporas. Considerably more ethnic groups were more casually referred to as ‘diasporas.’

2. Types Of Diaspora

Natural scholarly caution would invite rejection of this profligacy. Yet, in fact, the pluralists have a good case. The paradigmatic example of the Jews, for example, shows that the communities abroad often arose from voluntary, not forced, movement, while the Babylonian experience can be characterized far more positively—as a place where new creative energies were released and challenging cultural encounters arose over a long period in a largely peaceful setting. Moreover, as has been mentioned, the original Greek meaning of diaspora allowed voluntary movement or even aggressive colonial settlement. Drawing on this etymology it would, for example, be perfectly consistent to allude to the British colonies in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as comprising part of ‘the British diaspora’—of an imperial, rather than victim, type.

In addition to the victim and imperial types, scholars have identified labour, trade, business, professional, religious, cultural, ethno-national, and refugee diasporas, as well as intermediate forms such as incipient, asylum, and ‘new’ diasporas (Safran 1991, Sheffer 1995, McDowell 1996, Cohen 1997, Van Hear 1998). These subtypes describe the predominant characteristic or characteristics of each diaspora, but cannot represent adequately the full complexity of each group in terms of its history, mixed motivations for emigration, and class diversity. It is apparent, for example, that the 50 million ‘Chinese Overseas,’ who have only recently been described as a diaspora, include people whose origins lay in semi-free ‘coolie labor,’ as well as those who migrated as entrepreneurs, traders, and skilled professionals.

Beyond the new pluralism, the key difference between ‘diaspora’ and more popularly recognized forms of migration is that in the first case cultural, linguistic, religious, historical, and affective ties with the place of origin remain strong. In the second, at least in theory, immigration from ‘an old country’ involves a one-way ticket, assimilation to the ‘new country,’ the adoption of a local citizenship and language, and the public acceptance of local ways and customs. As many studies of ethnicity in the USA and elsewhere have shown, in culture and endogamous practices the old ways were more resilient than public ideology proclaimed. Despite this finding, the myth and goal of full integration remain at the heart of the nation-building project and inform the difference between immigration in general and the specific case of diasporic migrant groups.

3. Responses By Nation-States To Diasporas

During the period of intense nation-building in the core European, South, and North American states a diasporic consciousness was either not sanctioned or firmly suppressed. The US state’s motto ‘Ex Pluribus Unum’ provided an example of the prevailing preference for assimilation or the creation of a new national culture. However, under the impact of diverse and accelerating immigration a number of important nation states (Canada, the USA, the Netherlands, Australia, and the UK might be cited) have lost their appetite and perhaps the capacity to assimilate immigrants to a single dominant political culture. By recognizing ideas of multicultural, multifaith, and multiracial societies, their political leaderships have reversed their previous disapprobation of the retention of pre-immigration ethnic identities.

Many social commentators are relaxed about this development and see no incompatibility between a national and an ethnic affiliation. Others, including those from the traditional liberal side of the political spectrum are anxious that the painfully achieved democratic and secular order in societies such as the USA will be undermined by the recognition of diasporas (Dickstein 1993). Even more alarming is the expressed fear that diasporas will become the means to foster religious zealotry, the international drugs trade, political instability, and cross-border terrorism. The involvement of exile groups, like the Tamils, Kurds, Sikhs, or Afghans, in the political life of their homelands or in movements to create nation states, has often created violent conflicts or embarrassing and difficult diplomatic and legal conflicts (Sheffer 1986). By contrast, Shain (1999) argues that the democratic and liberal ways learnt in a the place of settlement are more likely to spread back into the countries of origin, with benign political effects for all parties.

The attitude of the countries of origin to their diasporic communities abroad has not gained much systematic discussion, though these states are increasingly important players in retaining and amplifying the links between ‘home’ and ‘away.’ Historically, countries like China and India have been hostile to their overseas communities, seeing them as painful reminders of colonial days when their labor forces could be captured by labor recruiters or, in the contemporary period, as ‘brain-drain’ migration. India, China and many other migrant-exporting countries now recognize that their diasporas can provide an important political lobby for advancing their countries’ interests (American Jews seeking to influence US attitudes to Israel are cited as a positive example), a bridgehead for economic marketing of the home countries’ goods, a means for acquiring transferable skills (for example in information technology) and, above all, a rich source for remittance and investment income. The Philippines has an expertly-run, statesupported set of agencies that promote labor export on a vast scale, help to channel return income, and seek to protect their workers from exploitative employers abroad. A diasporic consciousness is thus often preferred by a particular migrant group, tolerated by many host nation-states, and strongly supported by the country of origin. This is a significant change of policy and practice compared with the situation facing immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century.

4. Forms Of Diaspora

In addition to typologizing diasporas by examining their general characteristics, scholars have sought to classify the different ‘forms’ in which the term has been used, particularly by the different academic disciplines. A generally successful fourfold scheme has been proposed by Vertovec (1997) and modified in Vertovec and Cohen (1999).

The first form, advanced by sociologists and business studies specialists, is ‘diaspora as social form,’ alluding to the maintenance and development of transnational social organizations and networks, a collective identity, orientations to homeland and particular kinds of economic strategy (Safran 1991, Kotkin 1992, Cohen 1997). The second form is ‘diaspora as consciousness.’ Cultural studies theorists as well as those working in the fields of ethnic and race relations found in the notion of diaspora a means of breaking free from the ‘essentialist’ discourse that previously informed the subject matter. Notions of what constituted ethnicity became more fluid, hybrid, and negotiated, and ‘diaspora’ was a way of mapping how complexity and difference arouse as cultures travelled, interacted, and mutated (Clifford 1992, Brah 1996). The third is ‘diaspora as mode of cultural production.’ Though closely related to the second, this form is used by anthropologists to show how social and cultural formations, as well as cultural objects, images, and meanings have leaped from their old locales and crossed national lines (Hannerz 1996, Basch et al. 1994). Finally, ‘diaspora as political orientation’ has been considered by political scientists and international relations theorists. As noted earlier, such specialists concentrate on how the attachment to the politics of homeland can negatively and positively impact on the countries at both ends of the migration chain.

5. Future Of The Concept

The concept of diaspora has firmly escaped its historical confines in the Jewish experience and at the beginning of the twenty-first century is used in a variety or settings and for a variety of purposes. The enduring logic is that the term conceptually connects home and abroad. The conflicting claims on group loyalties have been given an added emphasis in an age of global networks and the changing role, some would argue the relative decline, of the nation-state as a focus for group identification. ‘Diaspora’ will remain as an important means of interrogating and exemplifying this tension. It will also provide a useful means of describing the enhanced role for cyclical, transversal, and intermittent international migration.

Beyond this, the future of the term may be imperilled by having been commandeered to serve too many discrepant purposes and its use to describe cognate, yet different, phenomena. The use of ‘diaspora’ to describe transnational religious communities (as in ‘Muslim diaspora’) provides one example. In some cases, such as the Jews, Parsis, and Sikhs, religion, ethnicity, minority status, and peoplehood are so closely interpenetrated that the description ‘diaspora’ is apposite. ‘Hindu diaspora’ is acceptable, but undervalues the ethnic diversity under the expression ‘Hindu.’ However, ‘Indian diaspora,’ which expression is now in common use, misleadingly elides the differences between the three principal faith communities (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh) and ignores well-organized national minorities (like the Kashmiris), with potentially confusing effects. The idea of a ‘Turkish diaspora’ presents similar issues. In addressing such problems, there may be some virtue in using the expression ‘transnational communities’ to characterize a number of different postnational and nonnational forms of sociality and association. Examples so categorized can be virtual Internet communities, Christianity, Islam, transnational social movements, and international professional associations. Within the rubric of transnational communities can shelter ‘diaspora’ as a particular form of ethnically defined community. Some degree of self-restraint may, in other words, prove necessary if the term is to retain its conceptual purchase.


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