Although the term Diaspora applies to diverse transnational formations, there have been contentions regarding to its exact meaning. Sociologists, journalists, public, political scientists and anthropologists have applied the term differently depending on the circumstances of their perception and application. One view of the term diaspora means transnational groups that share a common ideology such as communism, the Muslims, Latinos, Arab-Americans, Asian Americans and universal churches. All these transnational groups have a common ideology, which puts them together.
Another view of Diaspora means that ethno-national groups who live in foreign countries. Sheffer defines Diaspora as “…dispersed groups of ethno-nationals whose members regard themselves as being participants in the nations that have common ethnic and national traits, identities, and affinities” (11). Thus, Diaspora can mean groups of other nationalities who live in foreign countries and still share common values or beliefs that have political and social implications to the host country. This essay explores what constitutes Diaspora by relating ancient and contemporary meanings and applications.
Constituents of Diaspora
Diaspora constitutes people of different countries who reside in foreign countries and have common political, cultural, economic, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. Sheffer explains that diaspora are “groups whose historical origins are in different territories, nations, and historical periods, who reside in various host countries controlled by different nations and regimes and who command a range of varying resources as part of the same general social and political phenomenon” (13).
This means that Diaspora groups are forms of social and political organizations that originate from other countries due to common cultural, social, political, ethnicity or economical values and beliefs that group them together in order to effectively advocate for their rights in the host country. The Diaspora phenomenon implies that shared interests in terms of origin and destiny define these groupings to have the same characteristics of organization and behavior. Since they have common origin, their objectives depict social, psychological, and political orientations.
Although Diaspora people have left their native countries and become settlers in foreign countries, they still clink to their identities. Identities such as culture, ethnicity, political, economic, or religious sentiments are evident among Diasporas. Sheffer argues that diaspora identity portrays their solidarity with their native countries and participation in various activities such as “…establishing trans-state networks that reflect complex relationships among the diasporas, their host countries, their homelands and international actors” (10). Due to varied interests and objectives of the diaspora, they establish trans-networks that enhance their mission in the host countries.
The comprehensive trans-networks provide links that can effectively aid them in pursuit of economic, social, and political interests among other quests. Therefore, Diaspora constitutes groups that have missions and interests to pursue and have established complex trans-networks, which provide communication with host countries, native countries, and international relations. The complex trans-network is a basis of their identity so that they can champion their interests at international arena.
On political level, the diasporas indentifies themselves as ethno-nationals dispersed all over the world but still loyal to their native countries by holding on the political, ethnical, and national identities. They believe that their common ideologies, beliefs, and values regarding politics and culture are paramount for them to define their destiny. These common traits and external pressures from the host country compel them to come together as ethno-national Diasporas in determination to revive their identities. “The most important of those traits that help in shaping the common identities of members of those entities, cementing their affinities and increasing their solidarity, is their sense of belonging to the same ethnic nation” (Sheffer 11).
The ethno-national Diasporas dispersed in various host countries have an urge of becoming part of trans-national family for they share many things that attract them to unite for a common purpose of family hood. The need to acquire sense of belonging to the ethno-national family originates from the shared elements such as ancestry, historical, cultural, political, and social norms that form integral part of any society.
The definition of Diaspora therefore, does not originate from physical or geographical boundaries, but emanates from virtual boundaries such as political, cultural, psychological, and social values. “Those virtual boundaries, which define intra-state and trans-state social and political spaces, also determine the range of those entities’ spheres of activity … they do not physically isolate those groups nor do they prevent cross-fertilization or mutual influences” (Sheffer 11). The virtual boundaries of the Diaspora exist for the purpose of identity and leadership that provides means of interests and achievement of destiny.
Geographical boundaries outline territory of exercising the sovereign power of ethno-nations but virtual boundaries form the basis of identity no matter the conditions in the host country. The origin and history of Diasporas reflect their values and beliefs championed through transnational networks. The transnational networks have become central influence of diaspora in pushing for their policies and interests in the host nation to the extent that they have gained enormous autonomy.
Ancient and Contemporary Diaspora
The Diaspora people have two classifications in terms of their time of migration to their respective host countries. The ancient Diasporas are people who migrated long time ago and have become settlers and citizens of those countries but still regard their original homeland. Examples of the ancient diaspora are Asian-Americans, African-Americans, American-Indians, and the Latinos who migrated into America hundreds of years ago yet they still regard their native countries.
These groups of ethno-national Diasporas advocated for their interests by forming coalition in 1969 called, Third World Liberation Front “…demanding an autonomous ethnic studies program and community control over curricula and hiring” (Fujikane 73). Although they are Americans by citizenship, these Diaspora groups are still pursuing their ethnic studies of their native countries. If they were just immigrants or citizens of America, they would not have advocated for the ethnic studies in the universities of America. As nationals of America, they should be loyal to the native America’s ethnic studies rather than their own.
The establishment of the Asian studies in the curricula signals their national identity with their native country despite the fact that they are residing in the United States of America. “Emerging in the late 1960s the United States, emboldened by the students protests and growing dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War as well as the Asian targets of such a war” (Ono 2). The protests against attacks of Asian people in other nationals by the American Asians show that they are in solidarity to champion for their interests. Asian Americans still recognize their common history and they are utilizing all means whether political, social, or cultural to chart their common destiny for their ethno-nationals in the Diaspora.
Contemporary Diasporas on the other hand are current immigrants who have obtained citizenship of the host countries and they are still loyal to their native country by holding to the values and beliefs of their nations. The quest for American Asian studies in the early 1960s was due to the pressure of the ancient diaspora students who did numerous demonstrations. Now the contemporary Diasporas are seeking to link American Asian studies with the Asian studies as a way of further defining their identity in America.
“The foundations of Asian studies stem from an oriental’s desire and is precisely a response to that desire and the media projects that helped produce such as a desire” (Ono 6). Contemporary Asian scholarship focuses on substituting the American Asian studies with the Asian studies to enhance the social and political identity of the Asians in the Diaspora. All contemporary Diaspora ethno-nationals have established transnational networks that they utilize in connecting with other Diasporas, native countries, and the international community. The transnational networks provide a platform for the contemporary Diasporas to communicate and advocate for their political, social, and economic issues.
Not all immigrants or ethno-nationals are Diaspora. To qualify as a Diaspora, one must be in a foreign country and must have connections with his/her native land. Connections such as cultural, political, and social values enable people in foreign countries to develop sense of identity and belonging to their native countries. The ethno-nationals who still have connections with their native countries are thus ethno-national Diasporas. However, other ethno-nationals migrate to other countries and become permanent citizens to host countries, but they cut their ties with the native countries; consequently, these ethno-nationals no longer identify with their native land but rather they identify with the host country, hence they are not ethno-national diaspora.
Fujikane, Candace. Foregrounding Native Nationalism: A Critique of Antinationalist Sentiment in Asian American Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Press, 2005.
Ono, Kent. Asian American Studies in its Second Phase. Malden, MA: Blackwell Press, 2005.
Sheffer, Gabriel. Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.