In this article I examine the relationship between diaspora space and national (re)formations. By national formation I am referring to the creation and articulation of shifting and contingent borders, the constitution of specific social relations, and the generation of processes of inclusion, exclusion, and subordinated inclusion that characterize nation states. I intend to illustrate my argument with reference to two moments in the history of Irish immigration in the United States of America and Britain and their impact on “national becoming” in each place. In the first section of the article I define what I mean by diaspora and diaspora space and explain the usefulness of using the lens of diaspora space to examine national (re)formation. Following this I examine the resuscitated debate about assimilation in the United States in order to sketch out the generally accepted framework of national becoming in the United States; then I consider the significance of the reconfiguration of the boundaries of the nation in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s in order to illustrate a context in which the historical impact of immigrations on national becoming is denied. In the final section I suggest the potential of the lens of diaspora space for illuminating national (re)formations by refocusing the study of Irish migration, away from ethnic historiography and toward the comparative study of Irish encounters in the diasporic spaces of nineteenth-century United States and late twentieth-century Britain. These two snapshots in time have been selected because both represent periods when the two nation states in question were receiving large numbers of immigrants and they constitute examples of moments [End Page 19] of (re)formation that, in part, shaped contemporary diaspora spaces in both societies.
One reason to examine the relationship between national (re)formations and diaspora space is that reflecting on past instances of national formation or reconfiguration contributes to understanding contemporary societies because the discourses, practices, hierarchies, and identities of present-day societies are layered on those of previous immigrations, prior encounters, and the new social relations they inaugurated. A further reason to revisit national formations and reconfigurations through the lens of diaspora space is that national formation is not solely about the making of difference compared with other nations. The processes of national becoming that can be traced in specific contexts also involve the making of difference within the national. In much social analysis we are trying to understand, in a grounded fashion, the intersections of a range of social divisions. These are the practices around which social relations are organized. Forms of race, ethnic, gender, religious, and class thinking were central to the making of political subjects, the establishment of social hierarchies, the development of the political and economic institutions, and of the public policies that characterize the formation of national spaces and their reconfigurations. I will argue here that the lens of diaspora space produces a fuller reading of the generation and intersection of social divisions across time and space and therefore of national formations and reconfigurations.
National histories often represent transnational and global developments as national processes, and these representations should be critically addressed.1 One way to approach a reexamination of national (re)formations is to scrutinize the impact of the presence of particular diasporas on formative moments or processes in the reconfiguration of specific nation states through the lens of diaspora space. In order to elucidate the specificities of different national (re)formations it is useful to combine this with “genealogical study that would both situate “difference” within the modern apparatus of comparison and attempt to retrieve the fragments of mixture and convergence [End Page 20] that are ‘lost’ through modern comparative procedures.”2 In other words, a multitude of “entanglements” or “imbrications” of diaspora space may be classified and suppressed by the modern apparatus of comparison. What we seek is the manifold ways in which new social relations, institutional practices, social hierarchies, and identities are created in the encounter of those who we might refer to as long-term settled populations (both to focus on long forgotten immigrations and circumnavigate the use of the contested term “indigenous”) and populations...