International Relations Diasporas
Simon Payaslian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0107


The term diaspora is derived from the Greek dia (through) and speirein (to sow, to disperse) and originally referred to the forced dispersion of the Greeks, Jews, and Armenians in ancient times. Traditionally, the word diaspora has meant displacement of a people from their homeland because of forced expulsion (e.g., slavery), war, political and religious persecution, economic difficulties, and mandatory military service. Migration, however, may also be voluntary as “opportunity migrants” for engagement in international trade or as foreign labor. The historically unprecedented rapid growth in migration has become one of the most fundamental characteristics of the global political economy. In 2010, there were an estimated 214 million migrants worldwide, a substantial increase from 170 million in 2000. Immigration and diaspora studies have examined “push” and “pull” factors, but they have increasingly emphasized the need for greater conceptual clarification (e.g., distinguishing between immigrant communities and diasporan communities) and methodological rigor to advance the field. Migration leads to sedentariness, which in turn leads to diasporization (i.e., permanence). As migrants settle down in sedentary communities, they develop hybridities of old and new habits and institutions, which ineluctably become predisposed to diasporic permanence. Such groups develop organizational resources for the mobilization of their diasporan community in the arenas of both commerce and politics. The diasporic experience is fraught with paradoxical relations. In its traditional sense, diaspora signifies profound emotional, symbolic, and institutional attachments to the homeland, yet, as a result of the ever-present challenge of assimilation, young generations lose homeland culture, traditions, and language. Moreover, for many, especially for women from conservative, patriarchal societies, diaspora may also represent an opportunity for greater freedoms from the traditional culturally oppressive norms in the homeland. Furthermore, diasporas lobby host land policymakers, and they can act as a third force in political and even military conflicts in the homeland, either facilitating peaceful resolution or exacerbating existing conflicts. Diaspora-homeland relations may prove mutually advantageous, as the former contributes to the economic and political development of the homeland, while the latter bolsters, revalidates, and reauthenticates homeland values and culture in the diasporan community.

Introductory Works

Diasporan communities traditionally have been seen as neighborhoods of immigrants who have migrated to the hostland primarily for their physical security. Such communities maintained their ties with the homeland and sought to preserve their ethnic culture and identity. Over the years, however, particularly in the past two decades, increasingly more sophisticated theories and studies have emerged that have questioned the validity of the traditional understanding of diasporas as principally victimized groups. Scholars have advanced their theories of diasporas from different perspectives and methodologies. One point of conceptual clarification has involved the evolution of diasporan communities. Tölölyan 1996 (see also Tölölyan 1991, cited under General Overviews) and Baumann 2004 have identified the trajectory of the diasporic existence, whereby exilic communities, perhaps even with the expectation of returning home, experience a certain degree of sedentariness for a generation or two, followed by entrenchment in the host land and, hence, diasporization. Brah 1996 states that as immigrant communities develop roots in the hostland and become sedentary, they also reconstruct their old institutions by integrating the new values and habits acquired in the hostland through intersections of ethnic and native identities, in the spheres of economy and culture. These hybridities of values and habits, rather than the mere preservation of ethnic identity and homeland values as stressed by the traditional images of the diasporan community, serve as the foundations for diasporization and diasporic permanence. Armstrong 1976 maintains that diasporan communities cultivate various organizational capabilities for purposes of community mobilization in activities in different arenas, including politics. Further, Constas and Platias 1993 and Shain 2002 demonstrate that diasporas mobilize their communities to influence foreign policy decisions in the hostland. Their lobbying activities may aim to foster diplomatic and economic support for the homeland; however, their activities may exacerbate tensions and conflicts in the homeland and in the homeland’s relations with other countries. Finally, Tsuda 1999 notes that, unlike the “victim” paradigm of diasporas, many migrants travel to foreign lands in search of economic opportunities. Tsuda refers to them as “opportunity migrants.” The globalization of rapid communication and transportation networks have made migrations to foreign lands—whether for economic opportunities or to escape bloodshed—much easier. Globalization has also exponentially increased the frequency of contact between individuals and communities in hostland and homeland for mutual advantages.

  • Armstrong, John A. “Mobilized and Proletarian Diasporas.” American Political Science Review 70.2 (1976): 393–408.

    DOI: 10.2307/1959646

    A seminal work on various dimensions of diaspora as mobilized communities. The diasporic elite plays a central role in boundary maintenance and mobilization of diasporic communities. Language, religion, and national myths impede assimilation while serving as bases for cultural identity relative to the dominant ethnic group.

  • Baumann, Martin. “A Diachronic View of Diaspora: The Significance of Religion and Hindu Trinidadians.” In Diaspora, Identity, and Religion: New Directions in Theory and Research. Edited by Waltraud Kokot, Khachig Tölölyan, and Carolin Alfonso, 170–188. London: Routledge, 2004.

    Baumann identifies specific phases of evolution of diasporan communities, beginning with the emergence of the new immigrant community and concluding with its decline by way of re-emigration or total assimilation into the local dominant culture.

  • Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London: Routledge, 1996.

    This study analyzes the construction and reconstruction of “subjectivity” as manifested in nationalism and class and race relations in Asian diasporic communities in Britain in the late 20th century. It emphasizes the significance of the “diaspora space” inhabited both by ethnic groups and by natives in intersectional identities, gender, unemployment, and transnationality.

  • Constas, Dimitri C., and Athanassios G. Platias, eds. Diasporas in World Politics: The Greeks in Comparative Perspective. London: Macmillan, 1993.

    A collection of papers examining the impact of diasporan communities (e.g., Greek, Armenian, Jewish) on the foreign policies of the United States, Canada, and Australia. Increasing international flows of migrants necessitate greater attention to the role of ethnicity in domestic politics and foreign policy.

  • Shain, Yossi. “The Role of Diasporas in Conflict Perpetuation or Resolution.” SAIS Review 22.2 (2002): 115–144.

    DOI: 10.1353/sais.2002.0052

    Examines the role of the Armenian and Jewish diasporas in conflict resolution, respectively, in the Nagorno-Karabakh and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Underscores the need to integrate ethnic identity and diaspora-homeland ties in international relations and foreign policy analyses, as diasporas represent influences and interests beyond the physical zones of conflict.

  • Tölölyan, Khachig. “Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transitional Moment.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 5.1 (1996): 3–36.

    DOI: 10.1353/dsp.1996.0000

    This article surveys the history of the term diaspora and enumerates several key constitutive elements of diaspora (e.g., collective memory). It urges a reassessment of the traditional conceptualizations of diaspora to consider fundamental changes in the evolution of the nation-state and the dynamics of the formation of diasporic communities.

  • Tsuda, Takeyuki. “The Permanence of ‘Temporary’ Migration: The ‘Structural Embeddedness’ of Japanese-Brazilian Immigrant Workers in Japan.” Journal of Asian Studies 58.3 (1999): 687–722.

    DOI: 10.2307/2659116

    Examines the benefits and challenges of Japanese-Brazilian immigrants in Japan seeking better employment opportunities than found in Brazil. The Japanese government permitted their immigration to address labor shortages. While many Japanese-Brazilians returned to Brazil, many more became permanent residents despite the initial difficulties.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.