Until only a few decades ago, “diaspora” was a relatively esoteric word restricted in meaning to the historical dispersion of particular communities around the Mediterranean basin. Since then, it has become a privileged term of reference in scholarship, journalism, and popular discourse, used broadly and at times indiscriminately to denote a number of different kinds of movement and situations of mobility among human populations. “Diaspora” is a Greek word, a combination of the prefix dia- (meaning “through”) and the verb sperein (meaning “to sow” or “to scatter”). It was used in the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Torah prepared for the ruler of Alexandria in Egypt around 250 BCE by a specially appointed group of Jewish scholars. Subsequently, the word came to be employed as a self-designation among the Jewish populations that spread throughout the Mediterranean during the Hellenic period.
In recent deployments of the term, it is sometimes assumed that “diaspora” was used to translate a relatively wide number of Hebrew words in the Septuagint, including words relating both to scattering and to exile. However, as scholars of the Hellenic period have long pointed out, the Greek word never translates the important Hebrew words for exile (such as galut and golah; Davies 1982). Instead, “diaspora” is limited to the translation of terms describing literal or figurative processes of scattering, separation, branching off, departure, banishment, and winnowing. Most of these terms, such as tephutzot (or “dispersal”), are derived from the Hebrew root pvtz (“scatter”). In the Septuagint, many such terms are found in passages dealing with the divine expulsion of the Jewish people, particularly in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as in Leviticus 26:33, which reads, “And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste.”
In fact, there is a deeply significant distinction in the Jewish intellectual tradition between “diaspora” and “exile.” Often “diaspora” is used to indicate a state of dispersal resulting from voluntary migration, as with the far-flung Jewish communities of the Hellenic period. In this context, the term is not necessarily laced with a sense of violence, suffering, and punishment, in part because Jewish populations maintained a rich sense of an original “homeland,” physically symbolized by the Temple in Jerusalem. (Strikingly, Jewish settlements around the Mediterranean were commonly called apoikiai, or “colonies.”) Very differently, the term “exile” (galut) connotes “anguish, forced homelessness, and the sense of things being not as they should be” (Wettstein 2002, 2) and is often considered to be the result of the loss of that “homeland” with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. As Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson (1971, 275) explains, “The residence of a great number of members of a nation, even the majority, outside their homeland is not definable as galut so long as the homeland remains in that nation’s possession…. Only the loss of a political-ethnic center and the feeling of uprootedness turns Diaspora (Dispersion) into galut (Exile).”
This nuanced history is almost always overlooked in the current appropriations of the term “diaspora” that render it as a loose equivalent for a range of other words, conflating it with “exile,” “migration,” “immigration,” “expatriation,” “transnationalism,” “minority or refugee status,” and “racial or ethnic difference.” Scholars have also debated the “primacy” of the Jewish model in any definition of “diaspora” (Tölölyan 1996; Boyarin and Boyarin 2002). Yet the genealogy of the term in the Jewish intellectual tradition itself might be taken as an indication that the Jewish diaspora should not be considered to be an “ideal type,” as some scholars of comparative diasporas would have it (Safran 1991). “Diaspora” is first of all a translation, a foreign word adopted in the Jewish intellectual discourse of community. As such, it should serve as a reminder that there is never just one “first” dispersion of a single people but instead a complex historical overlay of a variety of kinds of population movement, narrated and imbued with value in different ways and to different ends. As the historian Erich Gruen (2002, 19) has explained with regard to Jewish populations in the Hellenic period, “a Greek diaspora, in short, brought the Jewish one in its wake.” With regard to the study of the movement of peoples under globalization in the contemporary period, this history of usage should make us skeptical of an overarching concern with the movement of groups considered as discrete or self-contained and compel us to focus on the ways in which those movements always intersect, leading to exchange, assimilation, expropriation, coalition, or dissension. This is to say that any study of diaspora is also a study of “overlapping diasporas” (E. Lewis 1995, 786–87; Brent Edwards 2003b).
In the United States, the term “diaspora” has been invoked in interdisciplinary academic initiatives, first and foremost in attempts to institutionalize Africana and black studies programs, as well as in popular culture at least as early as the late 1960s. Yet it became especially prevalent in scholarly discourse as a result of the international influence in the late 1980s and early 1990s of a group of intellectuals associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham (Brent Edwards 2001). In the writings of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, “diaspora” is invoked expressly in a critique of previous scholarship in cultural studies and labor history by Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E. P. Thompson, among others, which was limited above all by its implicit assumptions about the racial character of Englishness. It is reductive to discuss such forms of national belonging, Hall (1993) and Gilroy (1993) argued, without taking into account the ways in which English identity itself has been defined through the exclusion of a range of “others,” particularly populations of the former British colonies who have been forcibly denied the rights and privileges of citizenship. This critique opened an entire arena of study, as the younger generation of Birmingham scholars began to consider culture “within the framework of a diaspora as an alternative to the different varieties of absolutism which would confine culture in ‘racial,’ ethnic or national essences” (Gilroy 1987, 155).
Despite the antiessentialism of the Birmingham model, diaspora has been theorized most often in relation to the scattering of populations from sub-Saharan Africa in particular as a result of the slave trade and European colonialism. As some scholars have cautioned, given the historical peculiarities of the African diaspora, this model should not be taken as a template for any inquiry into the dynamics of diasporic forms of community (Tölölyan 1996; Brent Edwards 2001). Moreover, diaspora structured in terms of race may be qualitatively different from diaspora structured in terms of religion (as evident, for instance, in recent scholarship on the “Sikh diaspora”), nation (as in the “Indian diaspora,” the “Cuban diaspora,” or the “Palestinian diaspora”), ethnicity (as in the “Berber diaspora” or some definitions of the “Chinese diaspora”), region (as in the “Caribbean diaspora”), or sexuality (as in the “queer diaspora”).
Especially in historical and sociological work on diaspora, much scholarship continues to take what Kim Butler (2001, 193) has termed the “checklist” approach, testing a given history of dispersal against a set of typological characteristics: to be “authentic,” a diaspora must involve, for instance, the forced migration of a people to two or more locations, a collective memory or narrative of the homeland, the maintenance of autonomous group identity against the backdrop of the host environment, and, in some versions, a persistent network of ties to the homeland or ongoing agitation for its redemption. In contrast, “diaspora” tends to be used in American studies and cultural studies scholarship as a term that runs against the grain of any fixed notion of belonging; cultural identity is thereby understood as necessarily “unstable points of identification or suture,” as Stuart Hall (1990, 226) puts it: “not an essence but a positioning.” This emphasis on diaspora as a politics of process or practice, especially in anthropology and literary studies, has resulted in scholarship investigating the uneven and dialogic interplay of material, ideological, and discursive phenomena in transnational cultural circuits (Nandy 1990; Warren 1993; E. Gordon 1998; Matory 1999; Yelvington 2001). Some of this scholarship insists on language difference as a key structural feature of transnational culture and thus theorizes diaspora through the intricacies of translation (Rafael 1988; Gruesz 2002; Brent Edwards 2003a; Hofmeyr 2004).
Given that “diaspora offers an alternative ‘ground’ to that of the territorial state for the intricate and always contentious linkage between cultural identity and political organization,” the term represents a challenge to any mode of knowledge production framed around the nation-state as an organizing principle (Boyarin and Boyarin 2002, 10). In this sense, the term reframes and transforms the discussion of a wide variety of issues in an area-based field such as American studies. Seen through the lens of diaspora, some of the traditional, even paradigmatic concerns of American studies, such as immigration and assimilation, are thrown into question or rendered peripheral (Mishra 1996). With regard to community affiliation and self-description in the contemporary conjuncture, it is crucial to consider the reasons that groups that not long ago might have called themselves “minorities” are increasingly calling themselves “diasporas” (Clifford 1997). An emphasis on diaspora also necessitates a new approach to the study of foreign policy, as evinced in the growing scholarship that has begun to consider the impact of “mobilized” diasporic pressure groups on US foreign affairs (Mathias 1981; Edmondson 1986; Shain 1994–95; Von Eschen 2004). The term likewise opens up new avenues of inquiry into the history of US imperialism, not just in relation to its attendant dispersal of military, labor, diplomatic, and administrative populations but also because of the ways in which transnational population movements in the Americas, especially those involving groups of people considered “others” in the US nation-state, necessarily take shape in the shadow of US globe-straddling ambitions.