What is a diasporic community?

There are many diaspora populations in the world: the African diaspora, with populations in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe; the Chinese diaspora, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cuba and the United States and Canada; the Jewish diaspora, from eastern Europe and Spain across all of Europe, to South Africa and North America with historical enclaves in India and China; and so on for numerous national and cultural groups. In some instances these groups maintain a strong sense of collective identity in spite of the physical and social distances that separate various sub-populations, and in some instances the strands of identity have attenuated significantly.

The fact of diaspora is a deeply interesting one, in that it provides a kind of “natural experiment” on the subject of the persistence and plasticity of culture. It is possible to observe the variations and modifications of culture as they occur over time and geography in diasporic populations.

The question I’d like to raise here is whether a diasporic population, an archipelago of separated groups of common national or cultural origin, can be said to constitute a community. Or does a population require a greater intimacy, a deeper social reality of face-to-face contact, in order to constitute a community? And is it possible that the unavoidable distancing and separation created by diaspora inevitably leads to the fragmentation of community?

I’m led to this question by a current reading of Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, a major new contribution to southeast Asian studies edited by Andrew Walker. The authors and contributors are working with an innovative concept of “modern community”, deliberately challenging the idea of traditional communities organized around stable peasant villages. And they consider a specific version of this question: do the groups scattered across nations in Southeast Asia that are bound together by a Tai language and a set of overlapping practices and values, constitute a modern community? The book warrants a careful reading, and I will return to it more specifically in a later post. But here let’s look at the broader question: can a physically separated set of populations constitute a genuine community?

It won’t do to attempt to reduce this question to pure semantics — “it depends on what we mean by community”. Instead, we need to understand the question in a way that makes substantive sense of the ways in which human groups are constituted over time and space. But to make it a substantive and theoretically interesting question we have to specify a few characteristics that we think communities must possess. And this requires some conceptual work that goes beyond ordinary language analysis and stretches into the realm of theory construction. So consider these features of social groups that might be considered crucial for community: a degree of shared collective identity; a degree of shared values, histories, and meanings; an orientation by members towards others as belonging to a valued social group; a degree of communication and interaction among members of the group; and a preparedness to engage in some degree of collective action in support of the group’s interests. We can think of examples of social groups that possess some of these characteristics but not others, and in some cases we’re inclined to deny that these groups are “communities.” So what about diasporic populations?

It is clear that a separated population may certainly possess some of the qualities that paradigm cases of communities exhibit. Separated populations may maintain traditions, beliefs, and practices that extend backward in time to their origin. They may possess memories and myths that serve as a foundation for identifying them as a specific group. They may retain a strong sense of cultural identity with the group, both in the home location and throughout the world.

Moreover, in the context of modern forms of communication and the internet, it is possible for separated populations to maintain significant interaction with members of other sub-populations throughout the world. Indian sub-populations in Michigan, Germany, and Argentina can have significant real-time contact with each other through web pages, Facebook, or Twitter, and these mechanisms can create real interpersonal relationships across space. This is a significant difference in the situation of diaspora in the twenty-first century relative to the nineteenth century: we might hypothesize that there is the possibility of greater cultural unity across a diasporic group today than was the case a century ago.

It is also possible that a diasporic population will display “creolization” — the incorporation of new cultural elements into the mix of its practices, values, and meanings. This is suggested in the photo above; one imagines that Caribo-Chinese culture is a mix that would seem foreign in Canton. And this raises the possibility of a significant degree of cultural “drift” — with the result that isolated sub-populations no longer speak the same cultural language. This would seem to cut against the idea of community.

Finally, we can ask whether the motivational ideas mentioned above can persist in a diasporic community. Will members of the Chinese communities in Cuba or Canada retain a high degree of solidarity with their counterparts in China? Will they be willing to support the struggles that are presented to various of the Chinese groups across the world — repression of Buddhism in China during certain periods, racism against Chinese workers in other countries, ethnic violence against Chinese businessmen in yet other settings? Accepting the point that there are substantial elements of Chinese culture and history that persist in the various Chinese communities around the world — is this a sufficient basis to generate the willingness to mobilize that core communities possess? To what extent do diasporic populations support the kinds of integrative mechanisms that are needed in order to sustain solidarity across a dispersed group? And what can we say about those mechanisms of solidarity in the circumstances of diaspora?

These questions require careful theoretical and ethnographic work. But I’m inclined to agree with the perspective that Andrew Walker, Nicholas Farrelly, and other contributers to Tai Lands and Thailand put forward: the intertwining mechanisms of popular culture, personal mobility, communications technology, and a reservoir of values and histories that many modern identity groups retain, give a positive basis for thinking that diasporic community is possible in the globalizing world of the twenty-first century.


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