Nowadays, the term “diaspora” is used -I would say- arbitrarily. It has become a “catch-all” concept. Thus, this vague definition of “diaspora” makes it suitable for a wide range of phenomena. It has become a fashionable term en vogue in social sciences. As a consequence, because of this imprecise understanding of the concept, it is used as an equivalent of “community”, “minority”, or “immigrant community”. But what is the point of having all these different concepts if they all mean the same thing?
Diaspora finds its etymological origin in the Ancient Greek “diaspeirein” meaning “fruitful scattering away of seeds” or “dispersion”. It was originally used by Greeks to refer to the migration and colonization. Later, the term included a more brutal and sinister sense –expulsion from a territory– and was applied to Jews, Africans, Palestinians, and Armenians. But nowadays, other groups define themselves as diasporas –groups which did not experience any persecution–, implying that the term has once again evolved over time. Its meaning is still debated. Several social scientists specialized in the question come up with different categories on how to differentiate an ethnic community/a minority/a migrant group outside its homeland and a diaspora. Moreover, the character of contemporary migration, transformed by forces such as globalization or transnationalism, is forcing researchers to rethink their assumptions and ideas about migration.
What are the different elements involved when categorizing a group as a diaspora? How are ethnic diasporas siAmultaneously local and global forms of social organization? What roles do globalization and telecommunications play in the development of diasporas?
I will discuss the current debate on the theme of diaspora and will underline the term’s most important characteristics, while discussing its adaptability to the Basque case.
A) The debate
Although not the original significance of the word –in ancient Greek it meant “dispersion”-, the term diaspora has a deep-rooted catastrophic connotation to it, mainly due to the Jewish experience. Even though the Jewish experience is a key element in the understanding of the term, it is essential to go beyond it, for two main reasons: not all of the Jewish communities have been dispersed by force; nowadays the term is used in a more general sense including groups that did not experience such a catastrophic situation.
According to James Cifford, “we should be able to recognize the strong entailment of Jewish history on the language of diasporas without making that history a definitive model. Jewish (and Greek and Armenian) diasporas can be taken as non-normative starting points for a discourse that is traveling in new global conditions.”1 This “classic” catastrophic notion has to be enlarged by the realities experienced by the transnational communities. Thus, several of the world’s leading social scientists proposed a definition.
According to Robin Cohen, diasporas exhibit several of the following features :
“1) dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically ; 2) alternatively, the expansion from a homeland in search of work, in pursuit of trade or to further colonial ambitions ; 3) a collective memory and myth about the Ahomeland ; 4) an idealization of the supposed ancestral home ; 5) a return movement ; 6) a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time ; 7) a troubled relationship with host societies ; 8) a sense of solidarity with co-ethnic members in other countries ; 9) the possibility of a distinctive, creative, enriching life in tolerant host countries.”2
Safran develops another interesting definition. According to him, only the Jewish diaspora fully conforms to all characteristics of his “original homeland model.” This definition has the disadvantage of being “Jewish-centered”, in the sense that it does not take into consideration recent important transformations in the realities of current migrant communities, such as transnationalism.
“1) Dispersal from an original center to two or more peripheral places; 2) retention of a collective memory, vision or myth about their original homeland; 3) belief that they are not and perhaps cannot be accepted into their host society; 4) belief that they or their descendants would or should eventually return to their homeland; and 6) collective consciousness and solidarity importantly defined by this enduring relationship with the homeland.”3
There is a third definition that is worth mentioning as one of the references in diaspora studies: the one advanced by Sheffer as the “ideal type of diaspora”:
“1) A diaspora is a transtate political entity; 2) which results from voluntary or forced migration, 3) The members of a diaspora reside permanently in the host country, 4) They share an explicit ethnic identity, 5) In the host country they do not look for individual but for communal forms of integration, 6) Transtate networks play an imAportant role in the life of diasporas, 8) Diaspora members maintain contacts and exchange with their homeland, 9) The strategies open to a diaspora create potentials for both conflicts and cooperation with the host society.”4
Taking his definition as a reference, Sheffer considers that 400 million people are members of diasporic communities.
As Prévélakis recalled in one of his talks delivered in Larnaca (Cyprus) in 1993, “pour avoir une diaspora, le simple fait de la dissémination ne suffit pas.”5 The main characteristic that distinguishes a diaspora from a migrant community is the concept of network between the community and its homeland. Okamura brings an interesting alternative to a definitional model of diasporas that I personally find especially interesting: “First, and perhaps foremost, a diaspora is transnational in scope.”6 It involves displacement from a homeland and connects people with those at home and (or) those dispersed in other lands.
Although some social scientists still consider the forced dispersal experience as the key element of a community in order to be labeled as “diaspora” (Safran’s definition), in general, most go beyond this idea. I personally agree with the following approach: Diasporas transcend national, cultural, and spatial boundaries rather than being mere ethnic or immigrant minorities situated in a given nation-state.
This idea of constant connection between the homeland and its diaspora is present in all the definitions developed above, and could be considered as the cement of it. Van Hear7 himself, along with the dispersion of the diAaspora to two or more territories, mentions the movement between the host country and the homeland as well as the exchange between the spatially separated population as the three main features that characterize a diaspora. The mention of “dispersion to two or more territories” has to be underlined, as not all the specialists make this distinction. He argues that this mention permits him to distinguish “diasporas” and “transnational communities”. The latter is a broader concept than the former as it includes people that straddle just one border.
B) An ethnic group is not necessarily a diaspora
A sentiment of belongingness in ethnic terms is essential for a migrant community to be characterized as diaspora. But this statement does not work in the opposite direction. An ethnic group is not necessarily a diaspora. In effect, it is rare to find a nation-state composed by a homogenous ethnic community (of course, they are ethnic communities, not diasporas). But let’s direct our attention to the particular case of ethnic groups that are in a new host society.
Okamura distinguishes the two kinds of groups in these terms: “While diasporic peoples defy assimilation and acculturation, ethnic minorities have been integrated to varying degrees into their host societies”8. So, according to this quotation, diasporic people would be more likely to keep their ethnic roots than other ethnic groups. I personally don’t think that the difference between them is a question of assimilation.
As mentioned above, Prévélakis brings an interesting point when he says that the network concept “est la condition de la survie historique des diasporas”9: A network as the relation with the homeland and (or) with other scattered diasporic groups.
Okamura’s view differs a little bit from Prévélakis idea I just mentioned. Instead of a “relation with the homeland and (or) with other scattered diasporic groups”, Okamura would say it like that: a relation with the homeland and with other scattered diasporic groups. This makes a difference in terms of which group can be considered as diasporic and which cannot. Robin Cohen himself, in his definition of diaspora, mentions “a sense of community with co-ethnic members in other countries10”. If we take Prévélakis’ more inclusive definition of diaspora first, the Basque community abroad could be described as a diaspora since the early migrations (early sixteenth century). However, if one takes Okamura’s more exclusive definition, the Basque diaspora fits it since recently. The relations between the different Basque communities in the United States really started in the 1950s, and the relations between the communities scattered in different host countries are even more recent, and still on the making.
Okamura chooses this exclusive definition, in my view, for one reason: his work focuses on a recent massive population movement, the Filipinos in the United States. And the relations with other communities are made possible because of a new reality context: the speeding up of telecommunications and transportation. Consequently, I think that Prévélakis’ definition has the advantage of being more inclusive and of taking into consideration the evolution of the diasporas over time (due to external factors such as globalization).
Finally, another feature unique to diasporas concerns their consciousness that is global and loAcal at the same time.
Clifford, J. “Diasporas”, in The Ethnicity Reader: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Migration, ed Montserrat Guibernau et John Rex, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.
Cohen. R. 1997. Global Diasporas: An Introduction, UCL Press, Cornwall.
Held, David. 1999. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Okamura, Jonathan Y. 1998. Imagining the Filipino American Diaspora: Transnational Relations, Identities, and Communities, London: Garland Publishing, Inc.
PrévélakiS, Georges. 1996. The Network of Diasporas. Paris: Cyprus Research Center Kykem.
Safran, W. “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of homeland and return”, Diasporas: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol.1, 1991, pp. 83-98.
Totoricagüena, Gloria, “Shrinking World, Expanding Diaspora: Globalization and Basque Diasporic Identity” in The Basque Diaspora/La Diaspora Vasca, edited by William Douglass et al. Reno: University of Nevada Reno, Center for Basque Studies.
Totoricagüena, Gloria. 2000. “Downloading Identity in the Basque Diaspora: Utilizing Internet to Create and Maintain Identity”. Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 43 (summer): 140-54
Totoricagüena Gloria. 1999. “Los Vascos en la Argentina”, in La Inmigracion Espanola en la Argentina, ed by Alejandro Fernandez and José Moya, Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos.
Van Hear, Nicolas. 1998. New Diasporas: The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities. London: UCL Press.
1 J. CLIFFORD,”Diasporas”, in The Ethnicity Reader: Nationalism, MulticulturalisAm and Migration, ed Montserrat Guibernau et John Rex, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.
2 R. Cohen. 1997. Global Diasporas: An Introduction, UCL Press, Cornwall.
3 W. Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of homeland and return”, Diasporas: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol.1, 1991, pp. 83-98.
4 In PrévélakiS, Georges. 1996. The Network of Diasporas. Paris: Cyprus Research Center Kykem. pp.439-440.
5 Prévélakis, op.cit.
6 Okamura, Jonathan Y. 1998. Imagining the Filipino American Diaspora: Transnational Relations, Identities, and Communities, London: Garland Publishing, Inc. p.17
7 Van Hear, Nicolas. 1998. New Diasporas: The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities. London: UCL Press.
8 Okamura, op.cit.
9 Prévélakis, op.cit.
10 Cohen, Robin, op.cit.
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