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  • The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies
  • Khachig Tölölyan (bio)

My discussion of the current state of diaspora studies must note, without the luxury of further elaboration, that multidisciplinary1 area studies have proliferated for several reasons: the internal dynamics and theoretical urgencies generated by scholarly inquiry; the needs and demands of academic administrators; external sponsors such as the U.S. federal government and other institutions driven by policy; and political and identitarian constituencies both in the university and in American and other societies. As a result, area studies is frequently nagged by the possibility that it lacks intellectual coherence, both because of its many patrons and clients and because its methods have been created by the disaggregation of disciplinary enterprises and the (occasionally contingent) reaggregation of some portions thereof in entities labeled "studies."

Despite these factors, and although they tend to be characterized by a seemingly unwieldy diversity of personnel and research agendas, there are several reasons why the multidisciplinary area studies programs produced by bricolage are held together. First, the sponsors, consumers, and users of these new constellations of knowledge, ranging from governments to students motivated by issues gathered under the umbrella of "identity," have imposed a certain direction and "discipline" on these programs. Second, the emerging multidisciplinary studies programs have always been able to count on some scholars to remain uneasily aware of the makeshift emergence of their new fields and so to remain self-critical at a theoretical level. The debates they have repeatedly initiated by asking what are the discourse and object of knowledge proper to their fields have created a certain cohesion: areas of inquiry can be united not just by agreement but also by persistent disagreements and debates that produce intellectual community without the illusion of false unity.

Diaspora studies shares many of these characteristics. It emerged in fragmentary fashion, without fanfare or theoretical self-consciousness, as earlier disciplines dealing with nation, ethnicity, race, migration, and postcolonialism felt the need to adjust their methods and categories to the pressures of new transnational and global phenomena; ironically, they found a twenty-three-hundred-year-old concept, "diaspora," to be suitable to their needs. The publication of the first issue of Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies, in May 1991, provides a convenient marker for the consolidation of the field, whose conceptual vocabulary has been productively beset by several tensions I touch on here. The most important, and with which this [End Page 647] essay is concerned, are those between dispersion and diaspora; the emic "study of diasporas" and the etic field of diaspora studies; disciplinary appropriations and inflections of diaspora; and the emergence of a supradisciplinary discourse of diaspora. An analysis of these is best situated in a brief narrative of the field's emergence.

At a late stage of that emergence, in 1993, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza published The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Dispersion and Evolution.2 Their title takes the Greek word diaspora that Jews of Alexandria first used around 250 BCE to signify their own scattering away from the homeland into galut, or collective exile, and makes it very nearly indistinguishable from the "dispersion" of their subtitle. By identifying the waves of protohuman and human migrations out of Africa by these two terms in this way, the authors claim either and both as signifiers for any combination of mobility, scattering beyond a territory of origin, and resettlement elsewhere. Though conceptually untidy, this is one of the ways diaspora is commonly used today. For example, the dispersion of poor and often black people from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is now routinely called "the Katrina diaspora."3

This is problematic. Until recently, "dispersion" was a very large category of which diaspora was a specific subset, a part not identical with the whole. Its paradigmatic example was the Jewish diaspora; the other two "classical" or traditional diasporas were the Armenian and the Greek.4 In this discursive field, a diaspora was understood as a social formation engendered by catastrophic violence or, at the very least, by coerced expulsion from a homeland, followed by settlement in other countries and among alien host societies, and, crucially, capped by...


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