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Diaspora 6:3 1997 Three Meanings of "Diaspora," Exemplified among South Asian Religions Steven Vertovec University of Oxford "Diaspora" is the term often used today to describe practically any population that is considered "deterritorialized" or "transnational "—that is, which has originated in a land other than that in which it currently resides, and whose social, economic, and political networks cross the borders ofnation-states or, indeed, span the globe. To be sure, such populations are growing in prevalence, number, and self-awareness. Several are emerging as (or have historically long been) significant players in the construction of national narratives, regional alliances, or global political economies. In recent years, intellectuals and activists from within these populations have increasingly begun to use the term "diaspora" to describe themselves: we have witnessed the emergence, James Clifford notes, of "diasporic language [which] appears to be replacing, or at least supplementing, minority discourse" (311). However, the current over-use and under-theorization ofthe notion of "diaspora" among academics, transnational intellectuals, and "community leaders" alike—which sees the term become a loose reference conflating such categories as immigrants, guest-workers, ethnic and "racial" minorities, refugees, expatriates and travelers— threatens the term's descriptive usefulness (cf. Safran; Tatla; Cohen, "Rethinking"). The following article outlines three general meanings of "diaspora " which have emerged in recent literature. I propose that these meanings have particular resonance for describing developments among members of South Asian religions outside the subcontinent, and give examples, drawing largely upon recent literature. The article concludes by calling for a recognition of the combined workings of structural, conscious, and non-conscious factors in reconstructing and reproducing identities and socio-cultural institutions among groups outside some place of origin. Current Meanings of "Diaspora" Within a variety of academic disciplines, recent writing on the subject conveys at least three discernible meanings of the concept ____ "diaspora." These meanings refer to what we might call "diaspora" Diaspora 6:3 1997 as social form, "diaspora" as type of consciousness, and "diaspora" as mode ofculturalproduction. I suggest, by way ofa few representative examples, that each of these rather different meanings has a certain utility for conceptualizing, interpreting, and theorizing processes and developments that affect South Asian religions outside of South Asia. I. "Diaspora" as Social Form The first meaning that can be derived from contemporary literature is the most common; hence this section rehearses many well-known connotations. "The Diaspora" was at one time, ofcourse, a concept referring almost exclusively to the experiences of Jews, invoking their traumatic exile from a historical homeland and their dispersal throughout many lands. With this experience as reference, connotations of a "diaspora" situation tended to be negative, as they were associated with forced displacement, victimization, alienation, loss. Along with this archetype went a dream of return. These traits eventually led by association to the term's application to such populations as Armenians and Africans. Martin Baumann indicates three quite different referential points with respect to the historical Jewish experience "in the diaspora": these are (a) the process of becoming scattered, (b) the community living in foreign parts, and (c) the place or geographic space in which the dispersed groups live. Useful as it is to realize, at any time, to which of these reference points a discourse refers, for the purposes of this article I nevertheless suggest that these distinctions all ultimately concern "diaspora" as a social form, in that the emphasis remains on an identified group characterized by their relationship-despite-dispersal. Other common points attributed to a general social category of diaspora, drawing upon yet going beyond the classic Jewish model, can be compiled from a range ofdescriptive and theoretical works.1 These traits include 1) specific kinds of social relationships cemented by special ties to history and geography. These see diasporas broadly as created as a result ofvoluntary or forced migration from one home location to at least two other countries; a)consciously maintaining collective identity, which is often importantly sustained by reference to an "ethnic myth" of common origin, common historical experience, and some kind of tie to a geographic place; b)institutionalizing networks of exchange and communication that transcend territorial states and creating new communal organizations in places of settlement; "Diaspora...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-1568
Print ISSN
1044-2057
Pages
pp. 277-299
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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