Loyalty and identity blossom in the global garden

Global Diasporas

March 6, 1998

Global Diasporas, as the full title suggests, aims to introduce readers interested in issues of race, ethnicity, nationalism and comparative politics to the complex world of international migration and transnational identities. It carries the flag for a series of interlinked volumes, also entitled Global Diasporas and also edited by Robin Cohen, which questions what the idea of "diaspora" has meant in practice in the past and what it may now signify in the context of the late 20th century and its not-so-secure nation-states. Given that "the old assumption that immigrants would identify with their adopted country in terms of political loyalty, culture and language can no longer be taken for granted", the book sets itself the task of investigating the implications of this shift for the international state system and the world as it now stands.

From the outset, Cohen highlights the extent to which the notion of a diaspora has transcended the rather narrow original Greek definition of a people scattered in search of land to colonise. He emphasises that the description should be taken to incorporate the collective traumas of dispersed minorities as well as more recent, perhaps more positive, examples of community migration. In order to compare and contrast the wide range of experiences that he feels can be credibly placed under the diaspora heading, he produces a number of classifications each illustrated with reference to one or more archetypal case studies: classical diasporas (Jews); victim diasporas (Africans and Armenians); labour and imperial diasporas (Indians and British); trade diasporas (Chinese and Lebanese); diasporas in search of a homeland (Sikhs and Zionists); and cultural diasporas (Caribbean peoples), and these form the basis of six of his chapters. The seventh chapter tackles how far diasporas have been affected by the rise of the age of globalisation, while the conclusion looks ahead to what the future of diasporas might be in the centuries to come. Drawing on the metaphor of a rope, in which distinct and separate fibres are bound together in mutual support, Cohen is able to explore what constitutes a diaspora community and why diasporas have come to be such an enduring feature of human experience.

There are a number of aspects of this succinct but satisfying book that need to be highlighted. First, while Cohen can touch only fleetingly on the examples cited above, in effect offering us the "tip of the iceberg", there is no doubt about the depth of the scholarship on which it is based. The book succeeds, within relatively compact parameters, in putting into comparative perspective some of the most momentous examples of human migration and in making sense of their differences as well as their similarities. This inevitably means that Global Diasporas is not something that has been written for readers in search of detailed discussion of particular stories. As Cohen points out, "the notion of diaspora is often used casually in an untheorised or under-theorised way" and so the brief he establishes for himself is chiefly to construct a framework that will enable comparative sense to be made of what could seem to the uninitiated markedly different developments.

Second, despite the theoretical imperative underpinning the book, this is definitely a user-friendly introduction to the subject, accessible in terms of approach and language. Cohen is not afraid to signal how much of Global Diasporas is a personal search. As an "international migrant" himself, he draws on his own immediate experiences to illustrate his arguments. As an academic engaged in a fast-developing discipline, he lets us in on his own struggle to make sense of the changes, confessing, for example, how he attempts to "swim" (perhaps flounder would be more accurate) "in the choppy seas of postmodernism". For readers new to these debates, he is able to ease them through the transition relatively painlessly, pulling new concepts and vocabularies into meaningful shape. Even his tongue-in-cheek application of gardening terms to types of diaspora, entitled "The good gardener's guide to diasporas: let five flowers bloom, let five schools of thought contend", shows how possible it is to think imaginatively about what can be complex processes and ideas.

Another key theme running through Global Diasporas is Cohen's concern to apply insights from the comparative study of diasporas to broader understandings of the contemporary nation-state. For him, diasporas help to bridge the gap between the local and the global, between the individual and society, and hence proper recognition of their existence could prompt and facilitate reassessments of the "needs" of all the citizens of a modern state. What, for example, does being part of a diasporic community offer that straightforward citizenship alone does not? Issues such as these raise all sorts of "knock-on" questions about assimilation, multiculturalism, and the place of minorities more generally. "Pick-and-mix" identities, it would seem from Cohen's process of almost "thinking aloud", represent the reality for large chunks of humanity - recognising this, however, means being prepared to rearrange our perceptions of and reactions to the diasporic experience.

Whether or not to view all this as a good or a bad thing is, of course, another matter. Cohen asks his readers to consider whether it is right to be optimistic or pessimistic about the challenge posed to the contemporary nation-state in the face of the growing number and strength of diasporas. Perhaps, as he points out, the nation-state has had its own way for too long; indeed it drew up the rules, including the kind of state-sponsored nationalism currently being challenged. Cohen does not really attempt to adjudicate but concludes that what is certain is that "the ultimate answer will turn on the capacity of nation-states to manage diversity while permitting free expression and the degree of social cohesion sufficient to ensure legitimacy for the state and its principal institutions". Diasporas, unless they themselves fall victim to "even more powerful forces like the juggernauts of internationalisation and globalisation", appear destined to "provide an enduring, additional or alternative focus of loyalty and identification to the fealty demanded by the nation-state". As Arnold Toynbee predicted back in the 1960s and as Cohen convincingly demonstrates here, the diaspora "wave" is well and truly upon us.

Sarah Ansari is lecturer in modern Middle Eastern and world history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Global Diasporas: An Introduction

Author - Robin Cohen
ISBN - 1 85728 207 8 and 208 6
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £38.00 and £12.95
Pages - 228

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