Anthropology Diaspora
by
Jemima Pierre
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0091

Introduction

Diaspora is a term used to describe the mass, often involuntary, dispersal of a population from a center (or homeland) to multiple areas, and the creation of communities and identities based on the histories and consequences of dispersal. The term is not new; it is a Greek word once solely used to describe Jewish, Greek, and Armenian dispersions—what some scholars often describe as the “classic” diasporas. However, diaspora has gained currency recently as both a conceptual and analytical tool to explain various practices of global movement and community formation. The use of diaspora emerged in various academic disciplines in the second half of the 20th century both in conjunction with and as an alternative to other terms expressing global shifts in movement and identity formation, sharing meaning with a broader semantic field that includes such terms as transnationalism and globalization. Diaspora entered the anthropological lexicon through the early ethnographic and theoretical work on the communities of African descent in the New World and has since attained new epistemological and political resonances. The term has been deployed within the discipline to cover a wide range of collectivities and experiences—a catchall to represent diverse movements and dislocations, and myriad forms of difference, heterogeneity, and, in particular, hybridity. Indeed, as exposed in Yelvington 2001 (cited under General Overviews), new anthropological concerns with concepts of cultural hybridity, syncretism, and cultural politics owe a great deal to this early African diaspora anthropology scholarship. Diaspora provided a counterpoint to established disciplinary paradigms regarding the formation—and stability—of cultural groupings, unhinging groups from determinate locales and stressing geographical and sociocultural heterogeneity. Thus, a whole new genre of ethnographic studies has been informed by conceptualizations of diaspora, though the term has also been used across the various subdisciplines—in archaeology, linguistic anthropology, sociocultural anthropology, and folklore. But even as anthropology grapples with the term’s constantly shifting deployments and varying critiques, diaspora continues to be marked by the standard theoretical concerns of the dialectic of homeland to diaspora; the relationship of the nation-state to diaspora; and the contemporary politics of global population movement—particularly of exiles, refugees, and immigrants.

General Overviews

While there is not one major text that can easily serve as an overview of diaspora studies within anthropology, a number of essays and books together delineate its unwieldy parameters. Harrison 1988, the introductory essay to a special “diaspora” issue of Urban Anthropology, and Yelvington 2001, an essay for Annual Review of Anthropology, provide overviews of the concept that are specific to anthropology. Clifford 1994, an exposition and analysis of the term, is probably the most cited across disciplines, while Vertovec 1997 delineates its three key complementary meanings. The review essay Axel 1996 is significant in that it links diaspora studies to cultural studies and area studies. The other texts that provide a general overview are two broad historical and conceptual studies of diaspora (Cohen 1997, Dufoix 2008). Brubaker 2005 traces the incredible dispersion of the term itself. It is important to note that criticism of the diaspora concept is usually built into its analysis.

  • Axel, Brian Keith. 1996. Time and threat: Questioning the production of the diaspora as an object of study. History and Anthropology 9.4: 415–443.

    DOI: 10.1080/02757206.1996.9960888E-mail Citation »

    Explores the difference in the production of the concept of diaspora in cultural studies and area studies. Demonstrates that area studies is concerned more with the diaspora-homeland relationship while cultural studies focuses on identity politics in the metropole or place of settlement. Argues that this difference challenges the basic premise of the concept. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Brubaker, Rogers. 2005. The “diaspora” diaspora. Ethnic and Racial Studies 28.1: 1–19.

    DOI: 10.1080/0141987042000289997E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on the dispersion of the semantic, conceptual, and disciplinary meanings of diaspora. Identifies three core elements that remain constitutive of diaspora despite the concept’s expansive reach: the idea of dispersion; the orientation to a real or imagined homeland; and the preservation of a distinctive diaspora identity. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Clifford, James. 1994. Diasporas. Current Anthropology 9.3: 302–338.

    E-mail Citation »

    Popular essay that examines the concept of diaspora as a “traveling” term that defies the any exclusivist paradigms used to denote the complexities of transnational identity formations. It traces and reviews the currency of diaspora theory and discourse through the popular invocations of diaspora in black British and anti-Zionist Jewish scholarship.

  • Cohen, Robin. 1997. Global diasporas: An introduction. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203228920E-mail Citation »

    Identifies the following types of diasporas: classical, victim, labor and imperial, trade, homeland, and cultural. The author also acknowledges that through these varied meanings, diasporas have some common elements—communities who live outside their native land and actively acknowledge and have some loyalty to such homelands.

  • Dufoix, Stéphane. 2008. Diasporas. Translated by William Rodarmor. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520253599.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive review of the historical and current use of the concept of diaspora. Author considers two extremes of the concept’s definition—diaspora as catchall for displacement and connection to a homeland, or diaspora as reserved for specific populations—demonstrating continuities and modern differences in the of diaspora experience.

  • Harrison, Faye V. 1988. Introduction: An African diaspora perspective for urban anthropology. Urban Anthropology 7.2–3: 111–141.

    E-mail Citation »

    A critical review of the diaspora concept in anthropology focusing on how urban anthropology can continue to benefit from the “diaspora framework.” Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Vertovec, Steven. 1997. Three meanings of “diaspora,” exemplified among South Asian religions. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 6.3: 277–299.

    DOI: 10.1353/dsp.1997.0010E-mail Citation »

    A theoretical discussion of diaspora, exploring the three complimentary meanings of the concept—diaspora as social form, diaspora as consciousness, diaspora as mode of cultural production—that have emerged in the recent literature. Available online by subscription.

  • Yelvington, Kevin. 2001. The anthropology of Afro-Latin America and the Caribbean: Diasporic dimensions. Annual Review of Anthropology 30:227–260.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.30.1.227E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the anthropology of the African diaspora is foundational to current anthropological theory—even as its practitioners have been elided from the core of the discipline. The essay resituates these early figures and early scholarship in its review of contemporary trends in the study of the African diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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