Models of Diaspora

In the varied and growing field of interdisciplinary diaspora studies, one of the most contentious points of critical discussion is the consideration of the validity of specific models of diaspora. In Enseng Ho’s article, two distinct models are articulated: the ‘Jewish model’ and the ‘British model’. The former model, perhaps representing the classical perspective of diaspora, reflects “the notion of a people who were originally homogenous, then moved” (214). The latter, in a contrast that requires a direct reversal of terms, is constituted by “peoples who moved, and as they did so became homogenized politically” (ibid).  The Jewish model can be useful when attempting to map or put into perspective particular diasporic group trajectories in the context of alternative historical Diasporas. However, this dualistic modelling system may not be entirely productive due to the interaction or slippage between the models, in relation, for example, to the Chinese or African Diasporas.  Both models also represent a troubling and problematic conception of points of dispersal and group orientation: it can be argued, in a sense, that the idea of ‘homogeneity’ at any juncture is a myth. It also perhaps obscures an important focus on the multiple moments of construction which constitute any diasporic formation, placing too heavy an emphasis on a singular point of dispersal or an articulation of group identity following migration.

It does, however, raise interesting questions about what is left out in the consideration of emblematic or distinctively recognisable models of diaspora. Certainly, the debate around diaspora has shifted between critics who believe the dilution of the term has been detrimental to an understanding of diasporic identity, and others who would argue that if seen as a category of practice, for example, it is not important to retain a hierarchical classification in which only groups fitting a limited framework (homeland, connection to a point of origin, diasporic practices) can be categorised as significantly ‘diasporic’. It is worth considering how Ho’s models relate to the categories proposed by Robin Cohen, who identifies the following:

•Victim diaspora, e.g. Jews, Africans, Armenians

 •Labour diaspora, e.g. indentured Indians

 •Imperial diaspora, e.g. British

 •Trade diaspora, e.g. Lebanese, Chinese

 •Deterritorialised diaspora, e.g. Caribbean peoples, Sindhis, Parsis

Of course, again, there is always significant slippage between these categories, leading to the issue of whether it is ever productive to focus first on classification, and then on comparison between distinctive categories. It also risks privileging a particular element of diasporic dispersal, and limits that group identity by only recognising its construction along a singular route.  Yet again, it does not necessarily suit each diaspora (it would, for example, be problematic to place the Roma or the Queer Diasporas in any of these categories – even the suggestion either could be a ‘deterritorialised’ diaspora is problematic as it arguably emphasises a perpetually marginalised and excluded identity, always external to any national identity and indicative of an eternally destabilised experience). William Safran also established a list of criteria for diaspora groups, in which he emphasises the following features:

1.       Dispersal from “original ‘centre’ to two or more foreign regions”

2.       Retention of a “collective memory” of the homeland

3.       Partial or full exclusion or marginalisation from hostland society

4.       Desire to return to homeland

5.       Maintenance of homeland

6.       Collective consciousness/solidarity (83-4)

There are, of course, many critical arguments about a definitive diaspora model (or whether it is, indeed, a necessary classification), but  the emphasis on dispersal is problematic, as it returns to this idea of homogeneity at some level, either pre- or post- dispersal, and grants precedence to the trajectory of movement rather than multiple and fluid moments of diasporic practices or categories of identification.Indeed, perhaps in contemporary diaspora studies - where the paradigm has shifted towards a recognition of constructions of home rather than on the process of migration - the recognition of models is not entirely productive.

 One additional  element to consider in this regard is the role of the diaspora studies scholar  in the production of knowledge. Becoming academically engaged in recognising specific and distinctive models of diaspora inevitably contributes to, if not, in fact, lays foundations for, a paradigm or a tradition of argument which potentially sets limits for fields of study and categories of recognition.  In this sense, to be a credible and constructive area of studies with some correlating and expanding development in argument, it is useful to establish models of diaspora and consider alternative diasporic groups in relation to these. On the other hand, there is the risk of reproducing colonialist hierarchies of exclusion and privileged knowledges.  It is also worth considering how productive such an endeavour would ultimately be. It could be argued that their is no prescriptive need to locate and define the boundaries of the diasporic group :  rather than attempting to build a model  (or set of models) according to strict criteria of emergence based on a linear narrative of ‘homeland – migration – re-construction’, a more valid focus would be how to interpret multiple ‘scenes of constitution’, in conjunction with the recognition that diaspora, as a term, does different things in different historical contexts.  To return to the deconstruction of this idea of ‘homogeneity’, moreover, it is important to negotiate this  on-going and effective construction of an ‘imagined community’ both for the diasporic group as well as for the ‘homeland’ and ‘hostland’. If these projects are recognised as mutually constitutive and continual, then there is an important focus not on how to define the edges of models of diaspora, but indeed the more interesting consideration of what is not being told, what is being left out through this process of construction.

It can perhaps be said that the idea of models of diaspora provides a useful starting point for discussion on critical paradigms of diaspora studies, yet is a starting point to be wary of, for fear of reproducing a prescriptive and hierarchical perspective on diasporic configuration.


Further reading:

  • Rogers Brubaker. 2005. The ‘diaspora’ diaspora. Ethnic and Racial Studies 28 (1)1: 1-19.
  • Robin Cohen. 2008. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.
  • James Clifford. 1994. Diasporas. Cultural Anthropology 9 (3): 302–338.
  • Enseng Ho. 2004. Empire Through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat. Comparative Studies in Society and History 46(2): 210 – 246.
  • William Safran. 1991. Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1 (1): 83-99.
  • Khachig Tölölyan. 2007. The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27  (3): 647-655.

 This commentary derives from Session 2 : Diasporas: traditions of argument, ethical orientations, critical perspectives. Northampton, CoHaB Summer School .  22nd March 2013

The recommended readings for this session were:

  • Enseng Ho (see above)
  • Judith Butler. 2012. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Columbia University Press.
  • Brian Keith Axel. 2002. The Diasporic Imaginary. Public Culture 14 (2) : 411-428.
  • Kachig Tölölyan. 1996. Rethinking Diasporas: Stateless Power in a Transnational Moment. Diaspora 5: 3-36.