Monday, July 22, 2013

Diaspora: A Useful Idea

Kevin Kenny*

The word “diaspora” is remarkably popular. But what does it mean? 


The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines diaspora as “The dispersion of Jews among the Gentile nations,” giving as a secondary definition “all those Jews who lived

outside the biblical land of Israel.”
A Harlem "Back to Africa" announcement,
Negro Club, New York (1929). Courtesy of
the New York Public Library.
By this definition, diaspora is both a process (the scattering of Jewish populations) and a thing (their communities abroad). This double meaning is the source of much confusion.

Until recently, diaspora referred almost exclusively to Jewish history. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many other groups—including people of African, Armenian, and Irish descent—adopted the term and molded it to their own purposes. As its illustrative example, the OED cites “[t]he famine, the diaspora and the long hatred of Irish Americans for Britain.” Today, diaspora is applied to virtually every group that moves from one place to another.

The key period of expansion in the usage of diaspora was the half-century after World War II. The reasons are not hard to find. During the era of decolonization, globally scattered populations of African origin forged new transnational bonds of solidarity. Migrant and ethnic communities of Asian origin (e.g., ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and Vietnam or South Asians in East Africa) were expelled from their adopted countries. Global migration assumed a massive new scale. And the international recognition of refugees brought new attention to involuntary migration in particular.


With the proliferation of usage, inevitably, came a decline in coherence. Diaspora is now virtually a synonym for “migration” and “ethnic group”—two related but distinct terms that duplicate the basic bifurcation in the dictionary definition. And because diaspora is now used so broadly, it has lost its analytical bite.

Over the last generation, sociologists and political scientists have responded to this conceptual confusion by constructing elaborate typologies concerning the origins, scale, nature, and character of diasporas. Their goal is clarify, once and for all, which kinds of migration and ethnic group count as diasporic, and which do not.

But typologies have some obvious drawbacks.They can be arbitrary: Who gets to decide on the criteria? Conversely, they can be over-inclusive, with all forms of population movement lumped together under the ecumenical umbrella of diaspora. Between the two extremes lies the checklist approach: Tick off seven out of ten requirements and your group qualifies as diasporic. But if these requirements belong to different orders of experience—some concerning the process of migration and others the lives of migrants abroad—comparison between diasporas becomes impossible. The result is incoherence.

In the end, trying to pin the term diaspora down under a single, fixed definition is futile. Yet leaving its meaning entirely open-ended drains the term of analytical value. Is there a way out of this dilemma?

For historians, the solution is to reframe the question. Instead of seeking a definitive answer to the timeless and static question “What is a diaspora?” we can examine evidence to determine how and why people use the idea in specific times and places.

Approached in this way, diaspora is neither a process nor a thing, but an idea that people use to make sense of the world created by migration. But what kinds of people? Scholars like us? Policy makers and governments? Or migrants in their everyday lives? In other words, is diaspora a category of analysis or a category of practice? The answer is that it is both.

Diaspora is not simply a construct that scholars use to analyze the social, cultural, or political world. It is also an idea that migrants use to make sense of their everyday experience and that governments deploy for political and economic purposes.

As an idea, diaspora has three overlapping elements that vary in relevance depending on the historical circumstances. These can be labeled as follows: relocation, connection, and return. It should be added that people do not necessarily need to use the word “diaspora” to think about migration issues within this framework.

The first element is relocation. If diaspora meant the same thing as migration, both words would not be necessary. The idea of diaspora allows us to distinguish between migration in general and particular forms of migration. Diaspora has its greatest explanatory power when applied to involuntary migration—involving, for example, slavery, famine, or genocide.

The second element is connection. When the members of a migrant community in a given country of settlement involve themselves in the affairs of their homeland, they may or may not begin to see themselves as a diaspora. This form of interaction, after all, is commonplace. But when the connections in question involve not only the homeland, but also a web of globally scattered communities, they assume a multipolar rather than a unilinear form. The interrelated communities can then be seen as nodes within a diasporic network or web.

The third and final element of diaspora is return. Every conception of diaspora features a homeland, whether real or imagined. Return to this homeland can be literal, as in the Zionist movement, but it is more often metaphorical or spiritual. The great majority of African-descended people in the Americas, for example, could never hope to move literally to Africa. But this very fact helps explains the cultural and political potency of their desire to do so.

Relocation, connection, return: These are the three elementary aspects that make up the idea of diaspora. Together they constitute a powerful framework for thinking about migration.

Kevin Kenny is Professor History at Boston College. He is author of Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

2 comments:

Gabriel Loiacono said...

Dear Kevin, I remember discussing this concept in your Irish Migrations graduate course some ten years ago! I am very pleased to see you on this blog I read regularly, and I think this is a really useful short-ish definition.
I'm just finishing up a Fulbright semester in Hungary, and I have met so many Hungarian-Americans in Hungary, that I have often been tempted to use the word diaspora. Every time, though, I have remembered that conversation in Irish Migrations.
After reading this, though, it would seem that diaspora would apply quite well to people who left after the rebellion of 1956, stayed connected in the USA or elsewhere, and then returned. I've met quite a few of these. This definition might rule out those whose ancestors were economic migrants in the early 20th century, though?

Kevin Kenny said...

Gabriel -- It's good to hear from you. My approach to diaspora has grown more generous and elastic since the seminar!