Home and Away: Social Configurations of Diaspora
I want to begin by asking how resistance is itself to be understood? (Gilroy 1991: 3)
It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide. (M.K. Gandhi, Navajivan, 28 June 1925)1
If words could change the world, then ‘diaspora’ is one of those terms that promised much but delivered little. Events have neutralized the purchase of many agreed conceptual staples and today it is transnational networks (often labelled ‘terrorist’) that have entered into the social science and broadsheet vocabulary. Such a change of terminology – not for the first time – marks a transition in the significance of diaspora for a whole range of cultural, social and political formations. Thus, our aim is to present theory and illustrations that allow us to gauge whether the conceptualization of diaspora has helped to enhance or has diverted attention from issues of social justice, and to ask if this has offered either hope or disappointment for those engaged in struggles for equality.
The contemporary significance of diaspora as an area of study that emerged alongside related intellectual movements in the academy such as post-colonial studies and the ubiquitous and poorly defined processes of globalization. There are many links between these areas and it is only possible to indicate briefly where the main moments of overlap occur. Phil Cohen (1999) itemizes academic interest in diaspora by quantifying articles and books that have a diasporic title or theme. Pre-1990, there was little academic interest in the term ‘diaspora’, and the few publications with diaspora as a theme were primarily concerned with the historical Jewish or African experience. Post-1990, there is a mass proliferation of written work as well as a huge diversification in terms of those groups who come under the diaspora rubric. The breadth and diversity of diaspora now stretches from queer theory, where sexuality is the site of difference from which settled notions of belonging are challenged, to economic network theory, where diasporas are examples of effective entrepreneurial networks.
Our perspective is opposed to the kind of study which advocates research and commentary that remains solely concerned with trends in the world of academic writing. The point, not made by Phil Cohen in his survey of diaspora use, is that the period of exponential increase in interest in the concept also
coincides with events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent new political terrain in which the foreign policy interests of the USA are unfettered by competition with the Soviet Union. Since the end of what was commonly called the Cold War, a credible global opposition to the US administration has not emerged in any renewal of communism, but rather with Islamism, which, it can be argued, has its own version of diaspora in the notion of the umma
(Sayyid 2000b). Teasing out the relationship between these events and trends in the conceptual and socio-political frameworks of diaspora is a theme that will be running through all the chapters of this book, though the particular issue of the Islamic diaspora will be taken up explicitly only in the final chapter.
This chapter outlines the conventional view of diaspora, beginning with the Jewish experience. We then address the question of diaspora as a social form by looking at some of the other terms that hover around it, such as ‘immigration’ and ‘ethnicity’. Notions of ethnicity, immigration, settlement and race are all found to intersect and dissect conceptualizations of the diaspora. Following this tour of terms, we will then return to two key themes. First, that of the relationship between home(s) and abroad(s), which will be examined in terms of economic, political and social ties. Secondly, our critical perspective on diaspora demands an assessment of how the term contributes to strategic thinking concerned with addressing the condition of the dispossessed and marginalized in our uneven world.
In a conventional mode, diaspora is related to the Greek gardening tradition (as is hybridity), referring simply to the scattering of seeds and implying some description of dispersal. While the etymology of seeds and sperm as carriers of both culture and reproductive capacity is central to this description of diaspora, these themes are taken up in Chapter 3
. Rather, we take the accepted site of the Jewish experience of forced exile as a starting point for discussing diaspora. In Jewish historiography, the source of diaspora experience begins in the sixth century BC with the destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem. The expulsion of Jews from the city and their subsequent exile to Babylon has become one of the central Jewish cultural and political narratives. This is despite the fact that there were already Jewish settlements in many parts of the region, notably in Egypt and Greece, at the time. By the fourth century BC
there were more Jews outside
rather than inside the region of Jerusalem (Ages 1973). Nevertheless, the association of the term ‘diaspora’ with loss or exile or some sort of suffering has meant that the Jewish experience has come to be seen as the prototype diasporic experience. This description of a group is seductive as it allows people living all over the globe to articulate a connection with each other and to think themselves connected, to a greater or lesser extent, with a piece of land (whether this be mythical or actual). Of course, we are aware that in the
Jewish case this has also precipitated tragic consequences and injustice for the peoples of Palestine. Ironically, given the intimate connections between the exile of Jewish peoples and the concept of diaspora as trauma, this has not prevented the creation of another victim diaspora in the Palestinian people.2
This may have something to do with the Jewish diaspora occupying an ambivalent place in racial hierarchies, an aspect explored in greater detail in Chapter 6
The classical form of diaspora, then, relates to forced movement, exile and a consequent sense of loss derived from an inability to return. This is also conventionally applied to the mass movement of Africans via slavery to the Americas. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) notes that it is only through the work of African studies scholars in the 1960s that the term ‘diaspora’ comes into academic use and this is specifically in relation to the Jewish and African experiences. Indeed, the use of Babylon as a signifier of the oppressor is often found in invocations of the experiences of slavery from diasporic black communities (Gilroy 1987). A vast literature traces the history of slavery, but the cultural outcome of the Atlantic trade is best explored in Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993a) and Ronald Segal’s The Black Diaspora (1996). This association of movement and migration with trauma, and containing within it a constant loss and yearning for an obtainable home, is one of the main foci of critiques of the classical model of diaspora. For instance, this model is unable to deal with highly qualified Chinese migrants to the engineering sector in the USA, migrants who have no bars on their return, yet organize themselves in many ways which we would call diasporic. Despite these difficulties, the association of victimhood with diaspora does lead to the inclusion of other groups, such as the Armenians who suffered forced displacement at the beginning of the twentieth century at the hands of Turkish expansionism (Cohen 1997).
In all of these cases, a defining characteristic is a blockage to ‘return’ – that there is a difficulty, if not an absolute bar, in returning to the place of migration. Forced exile becomes essential to the heightened sense of longing for home and is central to this understanding of diaspora. Even in those cases where the bar to return is dissolved, such as the movement of African-Americans to Liberia at the behest of Marcus Garvey in 1920, this return journey is not usual. The sense of attachment or, in some way, connection to the land from which exile was forced operates, at the very least, as a powerful metaphor. The idea of forced exile also applies to contemporary migrations and movements. The events in the Balkans in the 1990s witnessed forced movement and resettlements of people to almost all parts of Europe and North America. The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia into Bosnia, Kosova, Serbia and Slovenia means that many peoples are living close to their former homes, yet are not able to return. The displacement of people as asylum-seekers and refugees also brings with it the difficulty of returning home. South African political activists often found their way to Britain and were banned from returning to South Africa during the apartheid era. It is only recently that the concept of diaspora has been
deployed in the context of refugee studies (see Wahlbeck 2002). Significantly, the status of refugee ties in with the notion of an exiled diasporic, as the only country a UN-recognized refugee passport does not allow the bearer to travel to is the homeland.
It is useful to abstract the idea of force as a motivation for migration and thus the potential creation of a diaspora in the contemporary world. There are numerous examples in the late twentieth century of ethnic and nationalist politics creating groups of displaced peoples. In 1994, the internal strife in the African state of Rwanda led to the creation of over a million refugees.3
Indeed, the more general point that the action of nation-states can lead to population upheaval and disengagement from a locality is important to note. However, it can be argued that, other than in some trading communities, migration of all sorts carries with it varying degrees of compulsion. These may not be directly traced to the actions of a nation-state, but do relate to the inequalities created by capitalism, such as the demand for labour, the rise of poverty or famine and the basic demand for better social and economic conditions. Unlike exile, migration, as such, does not necessarily mean that returning home is barred, even though not being able to return may act as a powerful source of nostalgia for home. As we will see later, home, or what Avtar Brah (1996) calls ‘homing’, is fundamentally connected to the deployment of the term ‘diaspora’.
In the relationship between ‘home and away’ that marks out diasporic understandings, ‘away’ signifies some sort of loss, and can be generalized into a representative typology or definition of what a diaspora might be. Robin Cohen (1997) builds upon the framework developed by William Safran (1991) to provide a list of conditions which, when satisfied, allow for the application of the diaspora label. In viewing diaspora as a mode of categorization, we find a number of problems. As the following criteria illustrate, there is an inherent bias towards certain types of experience:
|1 ||dispersal and scattering (from a homeland); |
|2 ||collective trauma (while in the homeland); |
|3 ||cultural flowering (while away); |
|4 ||a troubled relationship with the majority (while away); |
|5 ||a sense of community transcending national frontiers (home and away); and |
|6 ||promoting a return movement (away to home). |
The application of this method is akin to a game of ‘name those people’: what such lists allow commentators to do is take a group divided by class, gender, age, etc. and lump them together in a flexible, but vague, self-confirming category. Robin Cohen’s Global Diasporas
(1997), spends a lot of time describing groups of people, their movement, their subsequent settlement and social engagements in exactly this way. The volume contains
extensive detail about various migratory groups which Cohen then tries to encapsulate in a neat framework. As a challenge to this, in the parenthesis attached to the categories in the above list, we have characterized Cohen’s criteria in each case as a relationship between the homeland and the place of dispersal. Our reason for doing this is to illustrate one of the fundamental flaws in the exercise he attempts. Crucially, the dynamic presented by Cohen oscillates around the idea of a homeland. There is little space left to talk about those groups who, for whatever reasons, are compelled to leave one place for another, subsequently settle and then have no formal relationship with their place of ‘origin’. Nor does the recourse to origins make room for those ‘displaced’ people who may not even have a homeland (perhaps they are not a diaspora after all?).
Cohen’s hermetic theoretical framework suffers from over-ambition. In addition to the above criteria, he further classifies diasporas in terms of a set of core features. There are, accordingly, five different forms of diasporic community:
|1 ||victim (African and Armenian); |
|2 ||labour (Indian); |
|3 ||trade (Chinese and Lebanese); |
|4 ||imperial (British); and |
|5 ||cultural (Caribbean). |
Even though Cohen is not simplistic in the application of these divisions, acknowledging as he does that there are overlaps and that things can change with time, the nature of this project is to develop a metanarrative which accounts for a world of movement and settlement in an orderly way. It is our argument that Cohen’s typology demands too much from the term ‘diaspora’ and delivers too little of the analytical usefulness of the category. For example, to reduce an Indian diaspora to labour migration immediately anticipates that this is the key factor in shaping the contours, cultures and settlement of the entirety of that diaspora. This is, of course, not true, as there are a myriad of other factors that go into such processes of creation. To talk of an Indian diaspora in these terms loses sight of those other aspects of Indian migration and settlement which constitute the diasporic form (even when applying Cohen’s rules of what a diaspora is). The structural incoherence at the heart of Cohen’s conceptual scheme renders diaspora subject to criticism from both those who question the ethnography (such as Anthias 1998) and those who question the theory (such as Clifford 1994; Brah 1996).
If there is a useful aspect to this kind of grand narrative, it is to provide detailed historical material and to point out issues that are worth exploring and that can be taken up in other contexts. For example, the historical longevity of the diasporic construct is one that predates the modern formation of the nation. In this sense, diaspora could be utilized to indicate transnational forms, formations and processes that take into account larger geo-political shifts and historical patterns of struggle (civilizational clashes,
changes of mode of production, etc.). Diaspora is not limited to any particular historical period in that we have examples of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial diasporas (even while privileging this as a historicizing framework). Cohen’s work is a useful starting point because he offers many examples and case studies which provide at least a base from which to think about diaspora. This approach is also strongly people-centred in that links created by capital and commodities and, more recently, through media channels such as television and newspapers are not made a priority, though obviously this has both advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, however, such a definitive schema is unable to even partially answer the question of whether diaspora as a term helps us in thinking about movement and change with any clarity, let alone providing the intellectual tools needed to transform society along lines that enable the pursuit of social justice.
Another framework is offered by Steven Vertovec (1999), who approaches the subject of diaspora not so much through the categorization of peoples, but with attention to the ways that multiple meanings of diaspora are generated through ethnographic work. From his work in Trinidad and Britain, Vertovec offers three definitions as types:
|1 ||diaspora as social form; |
|2 ||diaspora as a type of consciousness; and |
|3 ||diaspora as a mode of cultural production. |
Our focus in this chapter will be on diaspora as social form; the next chapter will concentrate on cultural issues. A concern with diaspora as consciousness will straddle both chapters. For Vertovec, diaspora as a social form has three aspects. First, it consists of specific social relationships related to common origins and migration routes. Secondly, there is a tension of political orientation between loyalty to homeland and to that of the host country. Thirdly, there are particular economic strategies that mark certain diasporic groups in terms of mobilizing collective resources. The context in which these aspects are played out are also threefold: (i) the global stage upon which transnational ethnic ties are maintained; (ii) the local state in which settlement has taken place; and (iii) the homeland states, or where forebears come from.
It may be that the distinction between social and cultural forms offered by Vertovec provides a useful set of categories for organiz...