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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Defining Diaspora

Having proudly claimed membership in the American diaspora, I'd like to backtrack and talk about what a diaspora is and give you the arguments for and against the existence of an American one.

There is no lack of research about diasporas on the Internet and in our local libraries but much of it seems to concern very specific ones.  Many trees have been felled for academics who write eloquently about the Mexican, Armenian, Jewish, Japanese, Chinese and other peoples who wander to distant shores.  It is much harder to find an academic with a macro view.  What do all diasporas, whatever their origin, have in common?  Is it possible to say something general about their experiences?  And, finally, what are the boundaries of the term - do we know what is not a diaspora?  Only by answering these questions can we make a determination if the term "American Diaspora" is an oxymoron or a useful and true description of the American overseas experience.

So, what is a diaspora and what are a few of its characteristics?

A social-political formation created by migration:  Gabriel Sheffer, in his book, Diaspora Politics: at Home Abroad, offers this definition:  "a social-political formation, created as a result of either voluntary or forced migration, whose members regard themselves as of the same ethno-national origin and who permanently reside as minorities in one or several host countries.  Members of such entities maintain regular or occasional contacts with what they regard as their homelands and with individuals and groups of the same background residing in other host countries. "  I like this definition because it clearly links diaspora to a place (real or imagined)  and avoids stretching the term to include things like "global managers." It also includes voluntary migrants and not just those who are forced out. Here are some other characteristics that I think can fairly be applied to all diasporas whatever their origin:

A public identity:  Members of a diaspora openly identify themselves in their host countries as Portuguese, Americans, Spanish, Brazilian or Algerians.  Think about that for a minute - this is something that has a real cost in the host countries and yet members of a diaspora do it anyway even when it exacerbates tensions in their countries of residence.

A collective memory:  "They retain a collective memory, vision or myth about their original homeland including its location, history and achievements," says Robin Cohen in Global Diasporas: an Introduction.

A show of solidarity:  They show solidarity with their home nations by working to maintain a common identity and being active in the lives of their nation however far away they may be.  They build schools and churches/mosques/temples, teach the homeland language, and create organizations around issues that tie them to their place of origin.

A sense of vulnerability:  They don't feel entirely safe in their host countries.  Since members of a diaspora are almost always in the minority, they are aware that their well-being depends on acceptance and legal protections in the host country and yet they can't know for how long the tolerance will last since the pendulum swings from approval to hostility and back again.  Even countries of immigration like Canada or the U.S. have periods where migrants are barely tolerated if not actively discriminated against.  Under those circumstances it makes sense to organize and face this situation as a group and not as a lonely powerless individual.

An ambiguous relationship with the homeland government:  Nation-states do not necessarily love their diasporas.  On one hand they are a source of remittances and they are potentially useful for political, economic or military ends.  On the other hand their existence can create tension between nations when they ask for help.  I'm pretty sure that in both the French and American governments right now there are folks who are a bit perturbed at having to manage the cases of Florence Cassez in Mexico and the two American hikers in Iran.   They are certainly doing what they can but these are still international incidents that take time, effort, and energy to resolve and can lead to the worsening of relations between states.

While the overall attitude of governments is mostly one of indifference, or assistance in strictly limited circumstances, this can tip over into active hostility with members of the diaspora being perceived as troublesome defectors, tax cheats, and citizens of questionable loyalty who might actually vote.  The dance between the diaspora proclaiming loyalty and the homeland government being rather coy about the whole business is rather interesting to watch.

Now that we have defined our term we can ask:  does the American community abroad fit the definition of a diaspora?  Tomorrow we'll take up that question in more detail and I will explain why I think that it's a close but imperfect fit.

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