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When peoples of a culture are forced to leave their homeland for political, economic, social, or other reasons, some do not fit neatly into their new host countries. Many of these groups are classified as diasporas: communities not fully integrated into a settlement. Diasporas play an increasingly important role in politics, conflict, and trade as millions of people are detached from, yet emotionally linked to, distant homelands.
The labeling of a minority population as a diaspora points to its origins, its displacement, and its ongoing connections to a far-off homeland. It suggests that members of the group remain distinct from the people among whom they live. Popular and scholarly use of the term diaspora has changed substantially over the centuries. A recent scholarly debate over just how widely the term can be applied has not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion.
Early Use of the Term
Over two millennia ago, the Greek historian Thucydides used diaspora to describe those driven from their homes during the Peloponnesian War (431– 404 BCE). But for other Greek speakers, the term had a much broader meaning; it referred to the dispersion of Greeks around the Mediterranean and into western Asia between 800 and 600 BCE. These were not refugees but merchants and colonizers who formed distinctive Greek settlements amidst peoples of other cultures. The word diaspora suggested that like seeds, migrants could travel great distances, yet once they took root, they would grow into familiar forms: Greeks scattered outside Greece nonetheless remained culturally Greek and proud of their origins.
Perhaps because the term diaspora appeared in Greek translations of the Bible describing the exile of Jews, the meaning of the term has subsequently narrowed. Hebrew speakers initially preferred the term galut (exile) to describe Jews forced into exile after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But over the centuries, the term diaspora was applied so often, so consistently, and in so many European languages to Jews who had scattered while escaping from persecution that the earlier, broader Greek meaning of the term seemed almost completely forgotten.
Theorists have used other terms for minority groups formed by forced migrations, calling them involuntary migrants, exiles, or refugees. They have suggested that the social, psychological, and cultural dynamics of ethnic group formation among forced migrants differ significantly from the dynamics among those who leave home voluntarily. In particular, forced migrants are believed to nurture especially strong connections to their homelands and to hope for their eventual return there. Such characteristics were central to the concept of the Jewish Diaspora.
In the past two centuries, scholars have recognized a limited number of other forced migrations—notably enslaved Africans in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries; Armenians threatened with genocide in Turkey after World War I; and displaced Palestinians—which have also been called diasporas. Occasionally, too, reference has been made to an Irish diaspora, the result of poor Irish farmers being forced from home by the devastating potato blight and the threat of mass starvation in the 1840s and 1850s. Nevertheless, for the most part it was the Jewish experience of exile, homelessness or statelessness, and attachment to a lost home that defined diaspora.
The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the subsequent Babylonian exile became central to Jewish life, culture, and identity. Memories of this experience were passed from generation to generation, obscuring the fact that a significant contingent of early Jewish exiles restored the Temple in 515 BCE. At least since classical times, more Jews lived in scattered communities in Egypt and Anatolia (peninsular Turkey) than in the Jewish homeland around Jerusalem. The crushing of a Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 CE, the second destruction of the Temple and a second exile, and, somewhat later, Christian assertions about Jews’ supposed role in the killing of Christ helped to solidify images of Jews as wanderers, persecuted wherever they traveled and never permanently settled anywhere.
In later periods, however, there is little evidence that the large populations of Jews living in the Catholic or Orthodox Mediterranean or in Muslim North Africa or western Asia were substantially more mobile than majority populations: most Jews settled permanently in cities. Their reputation for tenacious commitments and for emotional attachment to their ancestral homeland was in part a product of social and economic discrimination that prevented them from ever belonging fully to host societies, whether those societies were Catholic, Orthodox Christian, or Muslim.
Persecution sparked important Jewish migrations, especially between 1000 and 1500. In Catholic Europe the Crusades heightened anti-Semitism; eventually, anti-Semitism led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Within the Muslim world, where Jews lived as constrained minorities in self-governing enclaves, trade may have motivated more Jewish mobility; certainly trade was one motivation for those Jewish merchants who first ventured into the Atlantic world and the Americas.
By the early nineteenth century, Jewish migrants resembled other central and western Europeans in traveling to the Americas in search of work, commercial advantage, or educational opportunity. Even later in the century, Jewish migrants to the United States were almost as likely to leave those countries that had begun to open opportunities for full citizenship to them as they were to leave places such as the Russian Empire, where the threat of violent peasant attacks (or pogroms) and levels of discriminatory practices in military service, schooling, and landownership remained very high.
Over the centuries, Jewish communities reached long-term and relatively peaceful accommodations with the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Muslim majority populations in the lands where they settled. When opportunities to return to their homeland opened with the creation of Israel in 1947, most Jewish North Americans did not choose to relocate. And thus, the vast majority of Jews still live in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, memories of persecution and the possible necessity of renewed flight have been elements of Jewish life for millennia, elements that were reinforced by the horrific genocide—now termed the Holocaust—that occurred in Europe during World War II.
Armenian and African Diasporas
Like those of the Jewish faith, Armenians trace their exile to an early date. Armenians regard their homeland as Mount Ararat, a mountain in the east of present-day Turkey, near the border with Iran. There, according to the Bible, Noah’s Ark landed and repopulated the Earth with people and animals. Armenians, whose Christian beliefs differed from those of their Orthodox rulers and neighbors, were first deported in large numbers in 578 CE to Macedonia, Cyprus, and other locations in the eastern Mediterranean, and subsequently most lived as minorities under the rule of Muslims. Armenians resisted conversion and, as traders, traveled far afield.
A revolutionary movement in pursuit of an independent Armenian state led to the murder of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and the deportation of some 1.75 million Armenians in 1915. Perhaps half of the Armenian population either starved or were killed during the course of the deportation. Of those who survived, many sought refuge in the Americas and Europe. Today about 2 million Armenians live in Europe, western Asia, and the Americas; roughly another 2 million live in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, and approximately 3 million live in an independent Armenian republic in their regional homeland.
If many Armenians stayed relatively close to their ancestral home, even when dispersed forcibly, an African diaspora formed far from the African continent— but primarily in the Americas. At least since the time of the Roman Empire, slave trading had scattered Africans across the Sahara and the Mediterranean and into the Muslim world of western Asia. After 1500, the numbers of slaves sent across the Atlantic to serve as laborers on plantations came to outnumber those sent elsewhere along older Old World slave routes. The culture and identities of Africans in the New World was a product of the complex intermingling of the customs of many African ethnic groups and of animist African, Muslim, and Christian religious beliefs. Separate African languages disappeared but contributed to the creation of hybrid pidgin dialects that blended African, English, Spanish, and Portuguese elements.
As African slaves in the Americas gradually acquired their freedom between 1830 and 1889, small numbers did return to Africa, notably to Liberia. But the much larger group remained in the New World, where they identified with biblical stories of Jewish captivity, exile, and longing for home. Many regarded Africa—and especially the independent nation of Ethiopia (not colonized by Europeans in the nineteenth century)—as the symbol of a lost homeland.
In the early twentieth century, the development of Pan-African movements among New World residents of African descent focused on ending European colonialism in Africa and racial oppression in the Americas. These movements linked activists in the Caribbean, the United States, and Africa. Even after the collapse of Europe’s empires in Africa after World War II and the abandonment of legal and institutionalized forms of racial discrimination in the United States and South Africa, experiences of racial prejudice continue to nurture an attachment to Africa among persons of African descent. Few have any intention of returning to Africa, however, even though the formation of independent African nations after 1950 made that option more plausible than ever before.
Recent Changes in Meaning
In a controversial development, scholars in recent years have begun to consider the possibility that other migrations, too, can create diasporas. In part, this change reflects scholarly appreciation of the difficulties of distinguishing definitively between forced and free migrations even in the African, Armenian, Jewish, Palestinian, or Irish diasporas. Scholars have acknowledged that elements of coercion and choice figure in the lives of most mobile persons. The willingness to use diaspora for analysis of a broader range of migrations also reflects the recognition that attachment to a distant homeland is not limited to exiles and refugees. The fact that many in the Jewish and African diasporas have shown little interest in returning to their ancestral homelands also suggests how problematic it is to distinguish vigorously among descendants of forced and voluntary migrants.
In the mid-1990s, the sociologist Robin Cohen sought to summarize changing use of the term by suggesting a typology of diasporas. Cohen distinguished between victim diasporas—such as the Jewish and Armenian diasporas—and those formed as people voluntarily left their homeland to look for work (labor diasporas), establish colonies (imperial diasporas), or engage in commerce (trade diasporas). Cohen encouraged scholars to debate the characteristics shared by all diasporas and to identify those characteristics that differentiated diasporas from other ethnic groups formed through long-distance migrations.
At least since 2000 BCE, the desire for trade has encouraged merchants to form communities abroad without abandoning their loyalties or connections to their homelands and without abandoning their native cultures. The ancient Minoans scattered throughout the Aegean, and the Phoenicians spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Greek merchants established colonies even more widely, especially in Sicily and western Asia.
In the years between 500 and 1500, Arab, Jewish, Armenian, and Genoese and Venetian merchants formed self-governing commercial enclaves in western Asia, around the Black Sea, in caravan towns through Central Asia, and along the coasts of Africa.
Similarly, Chinese merchants who lived in large numbers in many parts of Southeast Asia and the Philippines showed few signs of abandoning their Chinese culture or identity, and generally they intended to return home eventually. Most considered themselves sojourners in foreign lands, even if their communities persisted for centuries. After 1500, as European empire builders arrived in Asia, they often encouraged the expansion of Chinese trading communities because Chinese merchants served as effective cultural and economic mediators between the impossibly foreign-seeming Europeans and local populations and institutions.
In the modern world, trade diasporas continued to form. Lebanese traders from Syria scattered around the Mediterranean and to North and South America during the nineteenth century. Many worked as peddlers before opening shops; in much of Latin America, Lebanese merchants played an important role in the creation of modern industries as well. Rates of return to Lebanon have been high, although as many as two-fifths of all the people who consider themselves Lebanese today live outside Lebanon. Although rarely analyzed as diasporas, the far-flung communities that U.S. multinational corporations create are self-consciously American and English-speaking. They often maintain considerable social and cultural distance from host societies and are viewed as unwelcome expressions of U.S. imperial power by local populations.
As in the case of the Greek Mediterranean two millennia earlier, mobile merchants often functioned as the vanguard of empire building in the European empires formed after 1500. Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, and British colonists created settlements around the world that reproduced their own cultures rather than adapting the customs and languages of the natives among whom they lived.
Diasporas formed through empire building often had significant state support, with the government organizing, directing, and financing migrations of their citizens to strengthen some of their colonies demographically. From the seventeenth century onward, actions taken by the British state—land policies that forced poor Scots or Irish from their fields and crofts, the export of prisoners and children, sponsored migration of female spinsters—encouraged migration to its colonies, especially in Canada and Australia. Its military and government bureaucracies also organized the migration of soldiers, civil servants, and teachers to work in Africa, India, and other parts of Asia. While many so employed expected to return home again, and cultivated a pride in their Britishness that held them aloof from colonized populations, imperial migrants did sometimes also acquire an attachment to their new homelands and settle more permanently. This was true for colonialists from other European countries as well. In both French Algeria and British Rhodesia, settlers who had come as empire builders stayed on and violently opposed independence under native African rule after World War II, a fact that suggests the complex relationship between imperial culture, home, and host societies in imperial diasporas.
The emancipation of slaves and the industrialization of cities in Europe and the Americas in the nineteenth century provoked vast new migrations that continued into the twentieth century. As many as 65 million Europeans migrated to the Americas, and as many as 40 million Chinese and Indians left their home countries between 1815 and 1930. Most of the Indian migrants and a substantial minority of the European and Chinese migrants traveled under some form of indenture, labor contract, or debt peonage. The so-called proletarian mass migrations are nevertheless considered voluntary. Workers followed the money in a global labor market that as often offered temporary and seasonal employment as opportunities for permanent settlement, especially by the latter years of the twentieth century.
Chinese, Indian, and southern and eastern European migrants were especially likely to consider themselves sojourners who intended to return home again. Perhaps as many as 90 percent of Chinese and Indian laborers returned from New World, Asian, or Africa plantations or mines. Among Italian laborers in agriculture and industry, rates of return were typically over 50 percent. Male laborers in all these groups left home, returned, and then departed again, often several times over the course of their lives. Recent research suggests that the constant circulation of mobile men, along with the often violently hostile reactions of native workers and host societies, reinforced sojourners’ attachment to their homelands. Between 1880 and 1930, laws passed in Canada, the United States, and Australia to exclude or limit the migration of all contract laborers, to prevent the settlement of Chinese and Indians, and to limit the number of workers entering from Italy, Greece, and the Balkans had the same effect. The result was heightened ethnic and racial consciousness among even the descendants of workers who settled permanently abroad. Many have maintained distinctive ethnic identities and a continued awareness of their foreign origins over several generations. Some scholars now refer to these groups, too, as diasporas, although that labeling is controversial.
Migration, Ethnicity, and Diaspora
Few scholars would argue that every migration generates a diaspora. Many, however, accept a wider and more general application of the term than was common a half-century ago, when only forced migrations of victims were considered to create diasporas.
Scholars’ extension of diaspora to cover merchants, laborers, and even empire builders may be the result of general scholarly unease with theories of assimilation and of ethnic group formation among the mobile. Since the 1930s, discussions of assimilation and the creation of ethnic groups have taken place mainly within the context of the history of immigration into countries such as the United States. In the past, it was widely assumed that all migrants were immigrants who abandoned ties to their homelands, along with their ethnic identities, as they found full incorporation into host societies.
Discussions of multiculturalism in popular discourse, like scholarly broadening of the term diaspora, may have helped to point out positive elements of cultural pluralism and the persistence of ethnic identities among the descendants of migrants. Earlier assumptions about assimilation and its relation to human identity now strike many as too simple. Not only are individual identities understood to be more complex than was the case a century ago, but cultural diversity is now viewed more positively. In addition, recent theorists of transnationalism have suggested that the ease of travel and of communication in the contemporary world will likely facilitate the formation of diasporas among the 150 million migrants in today’s world.
Nevertheless, recent studies of diasporas do suggest the usefulness of insisting on a number of shared characteristics that differentiate diasporas from ethnic groups generally. Most studies of diasporas, for example, focus on migrations that scatter in multiple directions, creating far-flung and rather extensive transnational social networks. As a result we find few references to a Mexican diaspora. However important and undeniable their ties to Mexico and the strength of their many transnational social and cultural activities, the vast majority of Mexicans over the past two centuries have migrated to only one country—the United States.
While ethnic groups may be temporary social formations among the migratory, diasporas maintain memories and sustain powerful myths about their homelands, which they typically idealize. These memories in turn generate dreams of a return to that homeland. Diasporas are thus characterized by strong group consciousness that is sustained over many years, generations, or even centuries. Diasporas typically have somewhat difficult relationships with the societies in which they make their homes, and their members typically maintain at least a minimal sense of solidarity with their co-ethnics or coreligionists in other parts of the world. Diasporic consciousness also seems to be positively associated with cultural creativity; the distinctive music, art, or literature of a diaspora may be regarded positively by majority populations and at the same time may reinforce the sense of distinctiveness of those creating it.
In short, diasporas seem to be characterized not so much by the experience of forced migration as by a will to survive and to resist full assimilation into host societies, even when that option is open. A strong sense of shared history—often reinforced by experiences such as exile, persecution, or local hostility—can be reproduced over time within families, ethnic institutions, and through cultural production. This sense of shared history allows people in North America to feel a sense of solidarity with people of similar origins who may live in South America, Australia, Europe or Asia. Ultimately, then, diasporas are products of history. It is the passage of time that determines which mobile populations and which ethnic groups will become and remain diasporas.
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