Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad

Author:   Gabriel Sheffer
Publisher:   Cambridge University Press
Reviewer:   Ashwin Kumar
Designation:   Student, School of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi

Sheffer, Gabriel (2003) Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad, Cambridge University Press, UK; pages, 290, ISBN: 9780521009874

What forms the basis of Diaspora politics? What are the main formational tools that leads to Diaspora  formation within the ambit of a trans-national network? How do we associate Diaspora politics within this increasingly globalised world? These some the questions Gabriel Sheffer tries to tackle in the book “Diaspora Politics Home and Abroad. With this book, Sheffer tries to analyse the extent to which Diaspora networks play within the context of both homeland and the host country. This is a question that has particularly come within the fore front of the global stage.  The book itself is structured in a form which looks to first discuss, then debate the question of the driving forces towards the formation of Diaspora politics within the homeland and looks to provide an analytical framework which could be used for further research.

The central focus of Sheffer’s Diaspora analysis is set on the factor of “ethno-nationalism”, a term he underlines while putting forward the Primary Questions and Hypotheses of the book. It is with this focus that Sheffer then builds on his various conclusions within the book itself. By ethno-national Sheffer tries to understand the politics of diasporas founded solely on the basis of a feeling on nationhood led by similar “ethnic and national traits, tendencies and familiarities” (p. 11). This acts as the foundation which the author uses to analyse the extant theories regarding the formation of diasporas so as to distinguish them from other sets of immigrants. With this important note, the first few chapters deal with the clarification of certain terms as well as the setting out of certain caveats while analyzing the role diaspora politics in the global scenario. Having set out the types of diaspora to focus on in the opening chapters, Sheffer then attempts to show how the concept of a diaspora lobby group influencing politics in both the homeland and the host is not a new concept. Tracing the histories of ancients diasporas such as the Jewish, the Greek and the Armenian diasporas and subsequently the Chinese and the Indian diasporas, Sheffer shows how these groups had already formed a precursor to the sort of diaspora politics found today.

There are two basic points of reference where Sheffer tries to draw our attention towards while discussing the political and cultural group formation within diaspora groups. One important point of distinction is the difference between a “state-linked” diaspora- those diaspora groups who have a concrete and politically recognized notion of a homeland- and a “stateless” diaspora- those groups who lack the former. This point of difference is an important one according to Sheffer and the author keeps bringing the reader back to this point regularly throughout the remainder of the book. The other point of reference is the historicity of diasporas. Hence, as the author leads from the fact that diaspora formation is quite an old concept, he also shows that various new diaspora groups keep springing up everywhere in the world. This plays an important part in their participation within the politics of both homeland and host countries and the strategies that the various diasporas use when dealing with these two nations and vice versa. It is this difference between the historical and established diaspora and the incipient diasporas as well as the stateless and the state-linked diasporas that the book tries to analyse throughout the remainder of the book.

Given these two points of contention, it is then that the author proposes the questions of strategies used by the diasporas to exist and bargain both with the host country as well as the homeland. This process, as Sheffer notes, is not merely a one-way relationship, as homeland and host countries are always on the lookout to woo the diaspora groups to their advantage. Within this complex web of transnational politics, what Sheffer then tries to anlayse is the way in which diaspora political groups are formed and even unmade (put forward in the chapter “The Making, Development and Unmaking of Diasporas”). One of the most interesting aspects of the book comes when Sheffer tries to place state-linked and stateless diasporas within the ambit of six broad strategies of integration – assimilationist, integrationist, communalist/corporatist, autonomist, irredentist and separatist- within the host country. Each diaspora group owing to its identity as a state-linked/ stateless diaspora as well as its history of establishment, will pick and choose one strategy from the former so as to increase their spheres of influence regarding their socio-economic and political mandates.

It is from this angle also that Sheffer views the issues of trans-national networks, their relationship with traditional nation- states in an increasingly transnational world and finally and importantly, the question of a diaspora pledging its loyalty towards either the host country or a homeland. Again through the lens of ethno-nationalism and the previous criss-crossing identities, Sheffer points out that a diaspora groups loyalty depends on a whole host of prevalent political conditions in both the homeland and the host country.

It is in the final chapter that Sheffer tries to look beyond the conventional categorization of diaspora groups (making a direct reference to particularly the features of a diaspora group given by Safran and the types of diaspora as given by Cohen). In order to understand the true nature of diaspora functioning within a global context requires a departure from these narrow view towards a more holistic view, which consists of a primordialist view as well as a mytho-symbolic view as well as the instrumental approach already mentioned in the book. It is only when one sees the making and development of diaspora groups within the country, according to Sheffer, can one truly contextualize the role of diaspora politics within a globalized world. Thus, as the title refers, it is important to understand how the diaspora makes itself home abroad that will define its role with respect to the world.

Sheffer does a good job of identifying and then analyzing the various issues and strategies used to overcome those issues by various sets of diaspora groups. His justification for using the ethno-nationalistic perspective for doing so is also put forward adequately. The book also provides adequate insight into the historicity of the formation and development of diaspora groups for those not aware of it. All in all, the book does provide a clear perspective on how to go about analyzing the role of diaspora groups within a globalized economic and political system.

By Ashwin Kumar, Student, School of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi, Email: [email protected]


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