Monday, May 25, 2015

Discerning Diaspora: Roots and Routes

The following is my editorial for SEM Students News Volume 10 (pp. 9–10), on the topic of music and diaspora.

Discerning Diaspora: Roots and Routes 

“Diaspora” is, as a concept, and diasporas are, as communities, quicksilver—mutable in character and prone to variable interpretation. Likewise, diaspora is complicated by its multivalency as an entity, collectivity, experience, practice, category of analysis, metaphor, and process; and by a preponderance of suffixes: -a, -ic, -an, -ama, -icity, -ism, -ization, -ology, -ist, -istics. Sukanya Banerjee’s (2012, 4) reiteration of James Clifford’s (1994) use of roots and routes in relation to diasporas emphasizes experiences of dispersion and displacement inherent to diasporic processes and are thus helpful concepts in approaching a definition. Kim Butler, in similar fashion, posits diaspora as a framework of study that focuses on diasporization processes and facilitates comparative diasporan study (2001, 194). Investigating roots and routes enables a polythetic diaspora discourse that Clifford suggests is “conducive to tracking (rather than policing) . . . [a] range of diasporic forms” (1994, 307). Of course, there are perils in overgeneralizing and reifying an abstract schema, but if a definition of diaspora is recognized as a dynamic device that is flexible yet distinctive, and understood as a processual nexus of roots and routes, it reveals opportunity for tracing/tracking such experiences to discover their origins and where they lead. And, as Banerjee reflects, “even if the ensuing conversation sounds dissonant at times, such dissonance testifies to the robustness and the heterogeneity of diasporic practice” (2012, 6).

          Diaspora is derived from the Greek diaspeirein (διασπείρειν “disperse”; from dia “across” and speirein “scatter”), meaning a “scattering of seeds,” and, in its original prototypical sense, connoted the dispersion/forced exile of Jewish peoples from their homeland. In the Jewish and subsequent diasporic experiences, a collective homeland memory and myth (remembered and re-imagined), dispersion (to multiple hostlands), and ongoing displacement (from a homeland, and fellow diasporas), are fundamental and contiguous diasporic phenomena. However, the majority of additional criteria commonly identified in the literature (e.g., in Safran 1991 and Cohen 2008) are epiphenomena reflective of some diasporic experiences but not ubiquitous processes that distinguish diasporic from other migrant and transnational groups. Dispersion is experienced as an uprooting—compelled (forced) or voluntary—from a homeland that is continually remembered and (re)imagined as diasporas route and reroot themselves in a hostland. Displacement is both spatial and temporal; the latter increasingly so with ensuing generations and descendants. The resulting networks of communities—forming multi-directional interrelationships, or routes, between the home and diasporas—share a sense of solidarity based on common experiences and a homeland orientation, which reveals multi-locale cultures—what Clifford styles as transnational networks of “contrapuntal modernity” that actively include a homeland and fellow diaspora sites as continual places of attachment (1994, 311).
          A teleology of origin and eventual return is often attributed to the homeland myth, serving as a fundamental point of group solidarity; yet Clifford suggests that “decentered, lateral connections may be [just] as important . . . and a shared, ongoing history of displacement, suffering, adaptation, or resistance may be as important as the projections of a specific origin” (1994, 306). Similarly, Turino notes that “home” is potentially more a symbolic than practical point of return, but a homeland origin story remains “part of a unifying discourse” (2004, 5). It is important to remember that return may not be a possibility for some diasporic groups since homelands change, cease to or never exist (i.e., are conceptual or metaphorical). Butler posits that a homeland connection and “issues of return,” as opposed to the idea of a physical return, are essential elements to diasporan experiences (2001, 205); and Cohen’s concept of a “deterritorialized diaspora” emphasizes contexts in which transnational bonds exist despite untenably articulated territorial claims, particularly in a digital global age where “a diaspora can, to some degree, be cemented or recreated through the mind, through artefacts [sic] and popular culture, and through a shared imagination” (2008, 7–8). Despite various guises, a seminal root and uprooting, subsequent routes of migration and mobilization, and rerooting represent multiple points for diasporic solidarity formation.
          Rerooting embodies the socially recurrent adaptation and (re)creation of cultural practices and identity in a hostland as a homeland is remembered and (re)imagined. Here, root refutes temporariness and implies a prolonged rerooting and maintenance of “collective homes away from home” (Clifford 1994, 308), where a hostland serves as “grounds for contesting and consolidating notions of identity and difference” over an extended, even interminable, period of time (Banerjee 2012, 11)—what Brubaker describes as “boundary-maintenance” (2005, 5). Butler discusses the notion of latent diasporas, which reveal a different route and root experience in that they become operative (sometimes long) after moving to a hostland, where group identity and self-awareness is established post-migration and a sense of solidarity is delayed (2001, 207). As such, rooting processes illuminate the contextual displacement of communities that distinguish themselves locally as they maintain identifications with, and routes and connections to, places and times that are elsewhere (Clifford 1994, 308) but also the routes navigated within the diaspora-hostland relationship.
          In the end, a functioning definition of diaspora calls attention to processes and experiences, roots and routes that enable diasporic consciousness, without formulating and holding to any particular paradigm that potentially alienates groups and experiences that do not align with a single metaphysical formula. The roots and routes of each community are inescapably idiosyncratic and increasingly complicated and obscured by modern technologies; yet diasporic discourses that consider their affinity with experiences of dispersion and displacement can be fruitful, whether or not “diaspora” is always recognizable.


Banerjee, Sukanya. 2012. “Introduction: Routing Diasporas.” In New Routes for Diaspora Studies, edited by Sukanya Banerjee, Aims McGuinness, and Steven C. McKay, 1–22. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2005. “The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28 (1): 1–19.

Butler, Kim D. 2001. “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse.” Diaspora 10 (2): 189–219.

Clifford, James. 1994. “Diasporas.” Cultural Anthropology 9 (3): 302–38.

Cohen, Robin R. 2008. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Safran, William. 1991. “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return.” Diaspora 1 (1): 83–99.

Turino, Thomas, and James Lea, eds. 2004. Identity and the Arts in Diaspora Communities. Warren, MI: Harmonie Park Press.