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Introduction: Diasporic Return
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Diasporic Return

[Published Fall 2014]

In his article questioning the recent tendency to broaden and loosen the definition and conceptualization of diaspora, Brubaker (2005) argues for a return to three core features of diasporas, namely, that they involve a geographic dispersal process, often over a long period of time; that diasporic people retain a sense of their own ethnic/diasporic identity, distinct from the host societies within which they are located; and that they preserve a homeland orientation. It is with the last of these de-fining criteria that this special issue is concerned, stimulated by the fact that studies on the actualization of the homeland orientation through a physical return to the country of origin are rather rare.

The nostalgia of diasporic peoples for their country of origin or ancestral homeland often translates into a strong desire to relocate there, as demonstrated across a wide range of literature (e.g., Conway, Potter, and St Bernard 2009; King and Christou 2008; Markowitz and Stefansson 2004; Tsuda 2009). The appeal of the idea of return can be seen as an expression of the notion that human beings have “roots” and that these should conflate and spatially coincide with culture and territory. This coexistence of ethnic identity, culture, and territory seems to be deeply embedded in discourses of the modern world (cf. Malkki 1995) but, of course, is ruptured when population displacement, forced or otherwise, takes place. Seen as part of the grand narrative on the normality of human beings, this “roots discourse” mediates notions both among sedentary majority populations—of people as containers of roots, culture, and identity—and among migrants, concerning the normality of returning to the place of origin, to the place conceived of as the home. Among diasporic peoples (henceforth also referred to as diasporics), this aspired-for return is often seen simplistically as the [End Page 255] closure of the migratory cycle and the recouping thereby of social identity (Black and Koser 1999; Markowitz and Stefansson 2004).

From this perspective, it is not surprising that most accounts of diaspora have a geographically absent homeland or home region at the very core of the definition of a diaspora.1 The image of a homeland seems to be an essential building block of diaspora formation, whether this latter expresses itself as a community or not. The magnitude and significance of this homeland can vary from an ideological core of ancestry and roots—of great symbolic value but little known or visited, as, for instance, in the case of most Afro-American communities—to a “real” entity in terms of a place and a society to which people travel and which they visit, as in most of the diasporas based on historically recent labor migration. Hence most diasporic people in the world have developed some kind of “return” or “counter-diasporic” (King and Christou 2008) movement in terms of intentions of returning to a homeland— a return which, in most cases, results only in unfulfilled return projects and/or seasonal movements. Return thus is often portrayed as a dream, sometimes characterized as a nightmare (Christou 2006), or at best as a pilgrimage (Baldassar 2001), for people living in diasporic situations.

At the same time, it is obvious that many diasporics do in fact, return. A danger is that use of the word return triggers associations and images of an “event” (Olsson 2004), a permanent settlement which concludes the migratory cycle started by the returnees or their ancestors (Black and Koser 1999). Recent research on return migration challenges this fixed image of closure (for reviews, see Cassarino 2004; King and Chris-tou 2011; Markowitz and Stefansson 2004; Tsuda 2009). By no means does return always imply a happy reunion with family and friends and the end of the migratory cycle. The expanding literature in this field demonstrates that return migration is a complex affair in which returning individuals face many practical problems and frustrating processes of “reintegration,” including stressful encounters with a strange and sometimes hostile homeland society. Oftentimes, such a relocation constitutes an “unsettling path of return” (Markowitz and Stefansson 2004) and leads subsequently to a resettlement back in the host society from whence...