Diaspora

Introduction / Definition: 

The shortest mainly Political Science definition in the literature about the exceedingly complicated and contested "diaspora" phenomenon, on which there might be a relatively wide consensus, is: Groups of persons of the same ethno-national origin who themselves, or their ancestors, voluntarily or under coercion migrated from one place to another, or to several other places, settled in these other places, and maintain their identity and various kinds of contacts with their place of origin.

However, because of the historic and current tremendous complexity of the phenomenon there is a need for a far more detailed profile that fits most ethno-national diasporas whose members have a common country of origin. The following is such a profile: Historical and modern ethno-national diasporas are cultural-social-political entities, created as a result of either voluntary or forced migration from a homeland, whose members are and regard themselves as of the same ethno-national origin and who permanently reside as minorities in one or several host-countries. Based on individual or group decisions to settle permanently in host-countries, but to maintain a common identity, most core members of diasporas identify as such, show solidarity with their group in their hostland and their entire nation, organize and are active in the cultural, social, economic, and political spheres. The various strategies that organized diasporas can follow include integration, acculturation, communalism, corporatism, autonomism, and isolation. Most established ethno-national diasporas select and implement a combined communalist and autonomist strategy. Members of such entities maintain regular or occasional contacts with their homelands and with individuals and groups of the same ethno-national origin residing in other hostlands. Among their various activities, core members of such diasporas establish local and trans-state networks that deal with the complex relations between diasporas, their host countries, homelands, and international actors. The establishment of diasporic local and trans-state organizations may cause dual loyalty vis-à-vis hostland and homeland. To avoid the consequences of such a situation, most diasporas accept the basic rules of the game in both their homelands and hostlands. Communal cohesion and solidarity, problems in their hostlands, the wish to support their homelands and their kin in other hostlands, and personal and organizational needs, all prompt diasporas to become engaged in a very wide range of cultural, social, political, and economic ideas and activities. (Sheffer 2003) At the beginning of this millennium, many millions of Greeks, Armenians, Gypsies, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Kurds, Irish, Polish, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Germans, and Scandinavians, who have been joined by Koreans, Palestinians, Russians, Pakistanis, Moroccans, Vietnamese, Slovaks, Mexicans, Colombians, and numerous other diasporic entities, fit this profile.

Historical Evolution: 

"Diaspora" is a Greek word meaning "to sow over, or to scatter". As applied to people, the term was probably first used by the Greek historian Thucydides to describe the Greeks’ dispersal. The term won greater attention after it appeared in the Greek translation of the book of Deuteronomy of the Hebrew Bible, and it referred to the Jewish dispersal in Babylon. Thus, initially the term was mainly applied to the two ancient diasporas – the Greek and the Jewish.

Until the 1960s the term was applied mainly to the historical Jewish diaspora and to an extent to the Greek one. The equation of the term “diaspora” with the dispersed Jewish people is not entirely surprising. It has been associated with the Jewish Diaspora’s extraordinary historical persistence and high visibility. However, in the 1960s and 1970s scholars of the African dispersal, caused mainly by slavery, began to use this term and apply it to these people.

The dramatically increasing migration since World War II, and the formation of numerous new diasporas, including as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of what is known as the “Moslem Diaspora”, resulted in much greater attention to the phenomenon, to its study, and to profound debates about its meaning and significance for homelands and hostlands. The main development of the academic interest and occupation with diasporas began in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. And it is still growing.

At the beginning of the 21st century, ancient, modern, and incipient diasporas demonstrate much greater ability to survive and to further develop as very active entities in their hostlands and connected to their homelands. This is happening as a result of the reemergence of ethno-nationalism and the revival of ethnicity in both homelands and hostlands. Consequently, the existence and activities of diasporas is accepted, especially in democratic hostlands and homelands. These processes are enhanced by the current easy trans-state transportation and very active super-modern multimedia that make it possible for migrants to reach their target hostlands, and for diasporas to maintain their intimate two-sided connections with the people at their homelands and other communities worldwide. It is quite natural that all these developments effected the study of diasporism.

Theoretical Implications: 

Because of the phenomenon's vast expansion and tremendous complexity, current scholarship, theories, analyses, and debates occur across various disciplines: law, political science, history, sociology, economics, philosophy, and anthropology.

These debates concern almost every aspect of modern diasporism – are diasporas an ancient or a modern phenomenon? The nature of diasporans' identity – is it imagined or real? The roles of culture and religion in their existence and perseverance, processes of socialization and politicization, their main strategy – assimilationist, integrative, communalist, separatist – and ability to implement it, their connections to homeland and other entities of the same origin, their loyalty to homeland and hostland, their types of organizations, their legal and illegal political and economic activities, their financial support to various groups and organizations in their homelands, their involvement in criminal activities, and so on.

Basically, now there are two theoretical approaches to current diasporism. One approach – which is called “Transnational Communities” - views diasporas as imagined transnational communities, espousing deterritorialized identities and robustly influenced by post-modern, globalized, hybridizing processes, and economic developments. The main argument of this school is that diaspora entities lose their ties to their homelands and exist as independent communities in the new global environment. The second approach argues that because of their inherent ethno-national identities and deeply rooted connections to a real or imagined homeland, which is reflected in the profile presented above, most diasporas cannot be viewed as pure transnational entities.

Currently there is a growing awareness and understanding that diasporas are neither purely “imagined” nor utterly “constructed” communities. This is due to the fact that diasporas’ identities are intricate combinations of non-essentialist primordial, psychological/mythical, and instrumental elements. Over time the cultural and social identities of these entities may undergo certain adaptations to changing circumstances in both their hostlands and homelands, but basic elements in their ethno-national identity remain intact.

Practical Applications: 

Based on the above mentioned observations concerning transnationalism and diasporism, then from a number of cultural, social, and political perspectives, a distinction must be made between the "Moslem", "African", "Latino", and "Arab" transnational communities, which are heterogeneous entities from the ethno-national perspective, and the more homogeneous ethno-national diasporas from the point of view of their basic identity.

Hence, while during the late 1980s and 1990s the “transnational approach” was very popular among academics and politicians, at the beginning of the 21st century the second approach, which might be termed the "trans-border" or "trans-state" approach, is gaining greater popularity and acceptance among academics and politicians.

This is coupled by new perspectives on certain interrelated issues that substantially affect diasporas. These include the effects of the simultaneous processes of globalization, glocalization, regionalization, localization, dissipation of nationalism, the weakening of both the “nation-state” and the “state”, increasing international migration and migration cycles, and the role of religion and religious fundamentalism in the survival and revival of ethnic minorities and diasporas.

The most important facts are that ethno-national trans-state diasporas are not going to disappear in the foreseeable future, that their impacts on almost all homeland and hostland societies and states is increasing, and that these developments occur despite hostility toward them and despite the fact that they are not dangerous entities. On the contrary, diasporas positively contribute to their hostlands and homelands.

References / Further Reading: 

Armstrong, J. 1976. Mobilized and Proletarian Diasporas. American Political Science Review 70(2): 393-408.

Braziel, J. and A. Mannur 2003. eds. Theorizing Diasporas. A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Brubaker, R. 2005. The Diaspora’ Diaspora. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28:1-9.

Cohen, R. 1997. Global Diasporas. London: UCL Press.

Miles, W. and G. Sheffer. 1998. Francophone and Zionism: A Comparative Study of Transnationalism and Trans-statism. Diaspora 7(2): 119-48.

Safran, W. 1999. Comparing Diasporas: A Review Essay. Diaspora 8(3): 255-92.

Shain, Y. 2007. Kinship and Diasporas in International Affairs, The University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Sheffer, G. 1986. A New Field of Study: Modern Diasporas in International Politics. In Sheffer, G. ed. Modern Diasporas in International Politics, London: Croom Helm. Pp. 1-15.

Sheffer, G. 2003. Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, A. 1999. Ethnic Elections and National Destiny: Some Religious Origins of Nationalist Ideals. Nations and Nationalism 5(3): 331-56.

Tololyan, K. 2007. The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 27: 647-55.

Vertovec, S. Three meanings of Diaspora. Diaspora 6(3): 277-97.

Yossi Shain, Marketing the American Creed Abroad: Diasporas in the U.S. and their Homelands (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).