The phenomenon of “diaspora”

DsporA to DiasporA – part 2

The word «diaspora» (noun) is derived from the Greek word «diaspeirein» (verb) that means “disperse”. The word is compound with two parts. The first part, “dia” means over, through or across. The second part, “speirein” means scatter or sow the seeds. According to some scholars (Pierre, 2021), the “classic” dispersions of people are the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian diasporas.

The Oxford References states that the term “diaspora” originally refers to “mass, often involuntary, dispersal of a population from a centre (or homeland) to multiple areas, and the creation of communities and identities based on the histories and consequences of dispersal”. Thus, a diaspora is an ethnic group of people who come from one original country or nation, or whose ancestors came from it. They will have a common native language, art, culture, history, and civilization. A diasporic people will, however, continue practising and preserving their native heritage still after dispersion across all parts of the world.

The first occurrence of the term ‘diaspora’ is found in the “Septuagint”. It is the Greek translation of the Hebraic Bible, in the third century BCE. At that time the term describes the “divine punishment – the dispersal throughout the world – that would befall the Jews if they did not respect the commandments of God” (Dufoix, 2015). At that time the dispersion was a matter of divine and not human will. Later, the curse for Jews sins was another meaning for their dispersion. Accordingly, in Jew’s history, the concept of diaspora and diasporic experiences of the Jewish people have had distinctive “meaning for different periods in the millennial existence of the Jewish people” (Ages, 1973, p. 3):

  • 6th Century BC:  Jews during the Babylonian captivity
  • Shortly before the rise of Christianity: a flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria in Egypt.
  • 1st Century: Position of the Jews that resulted from the abortive revolt against the Roman occupation of Palestine.
  • 70 A.D: The subsequent destruction of the temple at Jerusalem occasioned a mass exodus of Palestine’s Jewish population.

The last diasporic experience of Jews led to the creation of a dispersed Jewish community that eventually scattered all over the globe.

It is important to differentiate the topic of “characteristics of Jews people” and “characteristics of Jews dispersal”. These two topics can be used in various contexts. For instance, in an etymological context or describing characteristics in the identity of a diasporic community. Even if all diasporic communities can have common characteristics, every diasporic community will have a distinctive identity compound with unique values, ethics, origin; and the history of their dispersal, fall, uprising and flourishing.

Characteristics of a diasporic community

According to Safran (1991), the main characteristics of identifying a group of people as a diaspora is “1) they, or their ancestors have been dispersed from a specific original ‘center’ to two or more ‘peripheral,’ or foreign, regions; 2) they retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland – its physical location, history, and achievements; 3) they believe that they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted  by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it; 4) they regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return – when conditions are appropriate; 5) they believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration of their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity; and 6) they contribute to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship.”

Use and meaning of the term “diaspora”

The usage of the term “diaspora”, in present days, includes various practices of global movement and community formation. According to scholars (Amarasingam, 2015) the definition of the term was extended in the 1980s to “‘as metaphoric designations for several categories of people – expatriates, expellees, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants, and ethnic and racial minorities tout court” (Safran, 1991). Thus, it refers to those who have migrated from their homeland for economic, educational or employment purposes and who are in various kinds of emigrant status. However, the difference in geographical displacement and the diasporic process is that the «…diasporic processes in the strict sense, that is, the maintenance of group consciousness defined by a continued relationship with an original homeland within a population displaced between several different locations (Safran 1991)».

Further, in the 1990s and continuing today, a term like «homeland» and «ethnicity» began to be understood as socially constructed concepts, but ones that remain discursively powerful (Amarasingam, 2015). Thus, the meaning and use of this term has evolved over time and it has become difficult to pin down what diaspora stands for. However, despite the complexity, Brubaker (Amarasingam, 2015), states the three core characteristics of ‘diaspora’, which are 1) dispersion, 2) homeland orientation, and 3) boundary maintenance.

“Dispersion” is, as mentioned, the process of being scattered across globe from a centre. Secondly, the “homeland orientation”. According to Amarasingam (2015) the understanding of the second- and third-generation immigrants of “homeland orientation” is «a community’s continued orientation to a real or imagined homeland that they hope to preserve and protect and with which they have a sense of solidarity». The understanding of the second- and third generation of the diasporic communities redefines the previous definition of Safran (1991) that was “the place to which one would (or should) eventually return”. Hence, this is not to be a key characteristic of «diaspora».

In the modern days, globalisation and transnationalism are included in the characteristics of diaspora. Hence, the inter-relationship of a diasporic community between different states and countries makes them into a «single ‘transnational community’» (Amarasingam, 2015; Oxford Reference, n.a.).

Homeland orientation and boundary maintenance of a diasporic community with active solidarity activities are the means to maintain the history of their dispersion. These elements enable a group of dispersed people into a distinctive ‘diasporic community’ and leads them to preserve their unique diasporic identity.

Next part: Tamil Diaspora



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