Global Diasporas
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Global Diasporas

An Introduction

Robin Cohen

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eBook - ePub

Global Diasporas

An Introduction

Robin Cohen

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About This Book

Following its initial publication in 1997, Global Diasporas: An Introduction was central to the emergence of diaspora studies and quickly established itself as the leading textbook in the field. This expanded and fully-revised 25 th anniversary edition adds two new chapters on incipient diasporas and diaspora engagement while carefully clarifying the changing meanings of the concept of diaspora and incorporating updated statistics and new interpretations seamlessly into the original text. The book has also been made more student-friendly with illustrations, thought-provoking questions, and guides to further reading.

The book features insightful case studies and compares a wide range of diasporas, including Jewish, Armenian, African, Sikh, Chinese, British, Indian, Lebanese, Afghan and Caribbean peoples. This edition also retains Cohen's rich historical and sociological descriptions and clear yet elegant writing, as well as his modified concept of 'diasporic rope' linking different features of diasporas.

This updated edition of the definitive textbook in the field will be an indispensable guide for students and instructors seeking to explore the complex issues of diaspora, migration and identity.

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1 The study of diasporas A guide

In studying diasporas I need to make clear that we are not studying migration in general. Many people migrate and for a large variety of reasons. Millions move each year from rural to urban areas to escape poverty or famine and to seek enhanced opportunities for income, education and a fulfilling social life. Students and professionals are increasingly international in their study or work horizons, while junior employees are often posted a long way from home. Truckers cart their wares to many places, temporary migrant workers pick crops in foreign fields, while sex workers are often smuggled across borders. None of these, and many other kinds of migrants, necessarily form part of a diaspora.

Simple definitions of diaspora

We can understand the difference between migration in general and diasporas in particular by focusing on four basic features of a diaspora – members of a defined group have been dispersed to many destinations; they construct a shared identity; they still somewhat orient themselves to an original ‘home’; and they demonstrate an affinity with other members of the group dispersed to other places.
There are many examples of definitions of a diaspora based on one, two, three or all four of these basic features. For example:
  • The definition in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica (2021) is ‘populations, such as members of an ethnic or religious group, that originated from the same place but dispersed to different locations’.
  • This is echoed in one of the descriptions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2021), namely ‘the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland’.
  • Although acknowledging that each element needs explication, Brubaker (2005: 5) declares that
    one can identify three core elements that remain widely understood to be constitutive of diaspora. Some subset or combination of these, variously weighted, underlies most definitions and discussions of the phenomenon. The first is dispersion in space; the second, orientation to a “homeland”; and the third, boundary-maintenance.
  • Finally, Bakewell (2009: 3) provides a short definition using all four key features. For him, the four criteria are (a) movement from an original homeland (to more than one country, either through forced dispersal or voluntary expansion in search of improved livelihoods); (b) a collective myth of an ideal ancestral home; (c) a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long period of time (based on shared history, culture and religion); and (d) a sustained network of social relationships with members of the group (living in different countries or settlements).

A complex idea of diaspora: nine strands of a diasporic rope

Suppose you are a student undertaking a course studying diasporas and you are trying to explain the idea to a curious parent, partner or friend. Using any of the definitions provided above would suffice, while Bakewell’s would probably more than suffice. However, in studying a complex theme – the history, formation, rebirth, development, construction, proliferation and activities of diasporas – one needs to build a more complex picture (See Figure 1.1).
Thick coils of rope showing multiple strands. One strand will break but they are twisted together to enhance strength.
Figure 1.1 Wittgenstein’s rope simile provides one way of understanding how different strands of rope make up a more complex idea of diaspora.
I hope it is not too obscure a source of enlightenment to start with the insights of an analytical philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was trying to explore the common elements of games. Was it, he asked, entertainment, competitiveness, rules, or skill that formed the core feature of a game? None of the above, he decided. Instead, we have to understand a game as a complicated latticework of similarities and relationships that crisscross and overlap, spinning fibre on fibre.
What ties the ship to the wharf is a rope, and the rope consists of fibres, but it does not get its strength from any fibre which runs through it from one end to another, but from the fact that there is a vast number of fibres overlapping
Similarly, the idea of diaspora does not attain its potency and efficacy by identifying one or even four basic elements but by understanding how commonly-found features in most diasporas are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Sometimes one or other of the nine features I identify below is residual, sometimes one is dominant. Put another way, all the relevant features form strands of the diasporic rope, but not in equal measure. Nor are all features always continuous parts of any one diaspora, which evolves and changes. Even if a diasporic rope is visible and strong, some strands may snap or fray and are discarded, while powerful strands are thickened or stretched and are added.
What are these nine features, or strands, of a diasporic rope? Scholars of diasporas are deeply indebted to Safran (1991), who kicked off the debate in a highly influential article on the key components of a diaspora in the first issue of Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies. I have previously expressed my reservations and provided additions to his initial list (Cohen 1997: 21–6, 2008: 16–17), while Safran (2005: 36–7) has auto-corrected and expanded his own views. Rather than take readers tediously though this ping-pong exchange of ideas and rephrasing, I provide below (Table 1.1) my consolidated list of ‘strands’ that go into the diasporic rope, while fully acknowledging the huge step in the right direction taken by Safran’s contributions.
Table 1.1 The nine strands of a diasporic rope
1 Dispersal. Flight from an original home, often under traumatic circumstances, to two or more foreign regions.
2 Expansion. Alternatively or additionally, the movement from a homeland in search of work or a better life, in pursuit of trade, or to further colonial ambitions.
3 Retention. The preservation of a collective memory about an original homeland, including its location, history, suffering and achievements.
4 Idealization. The construction of a myth of the real or imagined ancestral home and a collective commitment to its maintenance, restoration, safety and prosperity, even to its creation.
5 Return. The frequent development of a return movement to the homeland that gains collective approbation, even if many in the group are satisfied with only a vicarious relationship with or intermittent visits to the homeland.
6 Distinctiveness. A strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time and based on a sense of particularity, a common history, the transmission of a common cultural and religious heritage and the belief in a common fate.
7 Apprehension. An uneasy relationship with host societies, suggesting a lack of complete acceptance, a degree of segregation (including self-segregation) and a fear of the possibility that another calamity might befall the group.
8 Creativity. The prospect of an enriching life in host countries with a tolerance for pluralism involving entrepreneurship, creative imagination, scientific achievement and professional success.
9 Solidarity. A sense of identification, empathy with and co-responsibility for co-ethnic members in other countries of settlement, particularly when they experience discrimination or hardship.
This consolidated list of the strands of a diasporic rope draws on old understandings of the meaning of diaspora, on Safran’s desiderata, his revised list and my own elaborations and views. Now come some warnings. This list should be a reference point, not a mechanical formula. Not every diaspora will exhibit every feature listed, nor will the various features be present to the same degree over time and in all settings. These are the main strands that go into making a diasporic rope, the main ways in which a diaspora is formed, reaches back to a home (however idealized) and extends out to other members of a diaspora beyond the immediate community. As you will observe throughout this book, the number of strands present and the more tightly twisted they are, will provide the descriptive tools needed to delineate any one diaspora. Finally, no diaspora exhibits exactly the same mix over time. These warnings noted, I need to go into more detail on each strand for the purposes of clarification.


Imagine a giant unseen hammer crushing a huge pane of glass with the shards flying off in many directions. Transfer that image to a society shattered by a military occupation, civil war, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, religious zealotry, wildfires, famine, earthquakes or hurricanes. Mass displacements are normally occasioned by such events, which are largely or wholly outside the individual’s control. Many people would run for cover in such circumstances and, unsurprisingly, diasporas are often born from such conditions. In these cases, a collective trauma has afflicted a particular population, while the suddenness, scale and intensity of exogenous pressures have unambiguously compelled flight rather than voluntary migration.
However, dispersal can be more gradual and understood as arising from a mixture of underlying causes (such as poverty, erratic rainfall, insecure land tenure or overpopulation), which are combined with a variety of more immediate precipitating factors that serve to accelerate the basic movement or give to it a particular character and direction. Such complex, multi-causal pictures can be replicated for other modern diasporic movements. It should also be remembered that, though migration losses are often heavy in absolute terms, with hundreds of thousands of people leaving, in some cases (e.g. China and India) this did not constitute a serious drain on the capacity for internal reproduction. In other examples, the dispersal was proportionately so large that the diasporic population massively outnumbered those left in the original homeland population. Jews in Judea (the heart of modern-day Israel) virtually disappeared under the Mamluks (1260–91) and again in the seventeenth century. The small settlements that persisted were considerably outstripped by those in the diaspora. Again, the bulk of the Palestinians were dispersed. At the time of the establishment of the Israeli state, some 780,000 were expelled from the territory controlled by the Israeli army; while a further 120,000 Palestinians were later classified as refugees because they had lost their land and livelihoods, although not their homes.
Although not the majority, the cases of the Irish and Lebanese are similarly dramatic in terms of the numbers of people affected. It is part of Irish folklore, for example, bitterly to recall both the brutality of English occupation and the ordeal of the famine. The Irish lost 25 per cent of their homeland population between 1845 and 1851, the years of the potato famine. Lebanon also experienced very heavy population losses – again about 25 per cent of the population before 1914 and a similarly large tranche consequent on the civil war of the 1970s. Like blows from an unseen hammer, interventions by Syria and Israel, the conflicts between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government and a massive explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, have triggered further large outflows.


Migration for the purposes of work, trade or colonization is the second fibre in the diasporic rope. Consider the case of diasporas formed by those recruited into specific jobs or who are independently seeking work. The massive transfer of slaves from Africa from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century involved about 12 million people transported across the Atlantic Ocean and seven million across the Indian Ocean. Following the end of Atlantic slavery, indentured labourers were recruited in India, China and Japan to work in tropical plantations in many countries. These compelled forms of labour gave way to flows of free labour, the most notable of which comprised the 30 million European workers who made the journey to the newly industrializing USA between 1836 and 1914 (Cohen 2019: 70).
Expansion also followed in the wake of trade diasporas, a phenomenon noticed as early as 2000 bce with merchants from Assyria selling goods in Anatolia. Likewise, Phoenician traders set up all over the Mediterranean, and created embryonic city-states to protect their commerce. Often trade networks arose without the approval of the authorities in the traders’ home countries. Chinese traders, for example, had to tolerate dismissive official attitudes for a long time. In the Confucian system of thought, the merchant was at the bottom of a four-tier hierarchy, beneath the literati, the artisan and even the peasant. Wang (1991) points out that this low status was unique to China. Indian merchants historically occupied a low status in Hindu culture, but they were never at the bottom of the heap, while in Christian and Muslim settings traders often attained positions close to the seats of power.
Whereas the trade diasporas just discussed were not state-directed, but depended rather on the initiative of families and individuals, the European explorer-traders – Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Bartholomew Diaz and others – opened up trade routes on behalf of monarchs. Venture capital and the big European tr...

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Citation styles for Global Diasporas
APA 6 Citation
Cohen, R. (2022). Global Diasporas (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2022)
Chicago Citation
Cohen, Robin. (2022) 2022. Global Diasporas. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Cohen, R. (2022) Global Diasporas. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2022. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.