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  • Gabriel Sheffer and the Diaspora Experience
  • Hans van Amersfoort (bio)
Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad. Gabriel Sheffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

That which is commonly called a long-sight perceives in a prospect innumerable features and bearings non-existent to a short-sighted person.

—Charles Dickens, preface of the 1867 edition of Martin Chuzzlewit

Diaspora and Diasporism

Over the years, Gabriel Sheffer has written frequently on the significance of diasporas as political agents in the modern world ("New Field"; "Ethnic"; "Whither"; "Nation"). His 1986 article "A New Field of Study: Modern Diasporas in International Politics" describes the triadic network involving homeland, diaspora, and host country as the core of a new field of study; he adds that he is especially interested in analyzing this triad in the modern world (10). In his earlier contributions, he often makes explicit use of the term "modern diaspora" to mark the difference with "classical diaspora." But, as befits a typical "long-sighted" person, his studies have broadened to include a great variety of diasporic situations in different historical settings. In his latest book, he follows the roots of 'diasporism' even to prehistoric times (Diaspora Politics 32–6). The feeling of being "at home abroad," to use a typical Sheffer phrase, can seemingly be found everywhere and anywhere. To use "diaspora" as a descriptive term for such a wide variety of situations leads inevitably to a loss of content; it makes the term spongy. Sheffer is so much [End Page 359] engaged in descriptive studies that he finds it difficult to arrive at a strict definition. For instance, he describes diasporas as follows:

Diasporas are distinct trans-state social and political entities; they result from voluntary or imposed migration to one or more host countries; the members of these entities permanently reside in host countries; they constitute minorities in their respective host country (thus, for example Canadians of English descent are not regarded as [a] diaspora community); they evince an explicit ethnic identity; they create and maintain relatively well-developed communal organisations; they demonstrate solidarity with other members of the community, and consequently, cultural and social coherence; they launch cultural, social, political and economic activities through their communal organisations; they maintain discernible cultural, social political and economic exchanges with the homeland, whether this is a state or a community in a territory within what they regard as their homeland; for this as well as for other purposes (such as establishing and maintaining connections with communities in other host countries), they create trans-state networks that enable exchanges of significant resources; and have the capacity for either conflict of cooperation with both the home-land and host country, possibilities that are in turn connected to highly complex patterns of divided and dual authority and loyalty within the diasporas.

("Whither" 39; see also Sheffer, Diaspora Politics 83).

Such a list of properties that are often, or mostly, present gives the reader some idea what diasporas are or may be, but it does not, of course, present a clear conceptualization. This is a weakness in the diaspora literature that is not specific to Sheffer. The lack of clarity in defining the term has contributed to its popularity but has at the same time impeded its use as an analytical concept. In the introduction to their voluminous reader, Steven Vertovec and Robin Cohen distinguish three meanings of diaspora: as social form, as type of consciousness, and as mode of cultural production (Vertovec; Vertovec and Cohen xvi–xx). When studying this collection of articles, the reader gets the impression that the term "diaspora" is used to describe a bewildering variety of experiences and situations and is led to wonder whether we are not all, in some sense, diasporic.

One difficulty faced by authors who use the term "diaspora" is that they are using a term with an established historical meaning that emerged in an earlier historical situation in totally different historical settings. It is assumed that later settings have some resemblance to these earlier historical situations. This assumption is not specific or limited to authors writing in English. In the publications of French political geographers, who were among the first to popularize the term, we find already this ambivalent...


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