Diaspora politics: At Home Abroad

Author:   Gabriel Sheffer
Publisher:   Cambridge University press
Reviewer:   Arsala Nizami
Designation:   Research Scholar, IGNOU

Sheffer, Gabriel. (2003). Diaspora politics: At Home Abroad, Cambridge: Cambridge University press. Pages -290, ISBN no. -0521811376

Diasporas have become important actors of global affairs, especially because of their trait of linking domestic sphere with the international sphere, notably in the aftermath of cold war. These transnational ties can either be constructive or destructive, depending on the orientation and interests of diaspora groups. It is this quality of diasporas that is increasingly considered to be impacting and mobilising international politics. Sheffer, is one of the earliest authors who worked on the role in diaspora in international relations.

This book is divided into 10 chapters. Along with the introduction, Sheffer has devoted first two chapters in defining problem, identifying causes, building hypotheses and describing important concepts related to the field. The author’s style of writing is both descriptive as well as analytical, which aids in developing his main ideas in a logical order.

Sheffer analyses the genesis ‘ethno-national diasporas’ and their incessant struggle to establish their identity through cultural, social, economic and political involvement. “Ethno-national diasporas” according to him are “a social-political formation, whose members regard themselves as of the same ethno national origin and who permanently reside in host countries, having contacts with their homeland” (page no. 9).  Throughout the book, Sheffer unpacks the underlying perceptions regarding the ethno-national diasporas. Before moving to his main debate around politics of ethno-national diaspoars, he explains important concepts, like diasporic, diasporism, difference between migrants and diasporas and between diasporas generally and ethno-national diasporas specifically.

After defining these terms, Sheffer describes how diasporas, once being considered as irrelevant to both home as well as host countries, gradually comes to the forefront of global politics towards 1990’s.  The advent of processes like globalisation, regionalisation and democratisation had an impact on diasporas in three contradicting ways. Firstly, there have been returns of diasporas to homeland. Secondly, these trends led to a greater tolerance of host countries towards ethnic diversities. Thirdly, ethno national diasporas increasingly became involved in cultural, economic and political affairs of home as well as host country.  Shefffer further argues that diaspora groups have used various strategies and formed organisations to actively participate on political matters on one hand, and negotiate their interests on the other, with both home as well as host country.

This argument is quite logical seeing that with the increasing trends of globalistaion  and liberalisation, diaspora groups across the globe are forming organisations for different purposes including protecting their rights, lobbying for important issues in homeland as well as host land, for instance, GOPIO (global organisation of people of Indian origin) was formed to fight human rights violation of people of Indian origin. Lately, it also started lobbying on important economic and political issues like Indo –US nuclear deal 2008. Similar cases can be found among the other diasporas.

While dealing with the question whether ethnic diasporism is a recent phenomenon or does it have roots in history, Sheffer analyses four theoretical debates: namely, primordialists, instrumentalists, psychological approach and constructionist approach. After finding them insufficient, he concludes that there is a need for a synthesis approach including multiple social, cultural and economic factors.  He further gives the example of Jewish, Armenian, Greek, Chinese and Gypsy diasporas, stating how these were formed in antiquity or during middle ages but are still surviving. With more and more global migrations, there is emergence of new diasporas, what he calls ‘modern diasporas’. He then reaches on a conclusion that diaspora is a historical phenomenon, but addition of new diasporas certainly adds to the dynamics of diaspora politics. This argument of Sheffer stands to be true, as we have observed that old Indian diaspora in USA being politically inactive though, has helped in keeping the culture and customs of India intact. Thereby contributing to the dynamics of diaspora.

After categorising historical and modern diaspora, Sheffer further classifies diasporas into state linked and stateless diasporas. Former share a notion of physically and politically identified homeland, whereas latter doesn’t identifies a unified tangible and political space as their homeland. Sheffer completely grabs the attention of the reader when he discloses six strategies which diasporas use to amalgamate themselves in host country politics. These are : the assimilationist strategy, the integrationist strategy, the communalist and corporatist strategies, the autonomous strategy, the irredentist strategy and the separatist strategy. The last two are mostly employed by stateless diasporas. He further asserts that both kinds of diasporas employ different strategies to maintain trans-state networks. He concludes by stating that all the categories of diaspora that he has explained, being different from each other, have extensively contributed to the development of diaspora politics.

After having analysed different categories of diaspora and their respective channels of networking, Sheffer puts forward the main argument of the book, that is increase in number of diasporas, their use of what he calls ‘new media’, their organisations, strategies and assertiveness has transformed diasporas into important cultural, social and most importantly political actors in both homeland and host land. He further asserts that although diasporas doesn’t present a dangerous image to either home or host country, their intricate loyalty towards one is sometimes portrayed as a potential threat to the other. Furthermore, Sheffer argues that more than being a threat, diasporas serve as facilitators to intra-state as well as inter-state conflicts.

But, we see that dynamics within diasporas include both kinds of diasporas: peace makers and peace breakers.  For example, various communities of Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora supported and aided LTTE (a militant organisation) in their demand of a separate state. On the other hand, Sudanese diaspora in Sweden have contributed to democratisation and reconstruction of  Sudan.

Sheffer ends his argument by commenting on the nature of diasporas as “these are neither imagined nor invented communities, but are a combination of primordial, symbolic and instrumental elements” (p. 257) and how they are continuously engaged in a struggle to feel at home in the host country, consequently influencing global politics.

The title of the book is straightforward, yet multifaceted. I am calling the heading multifaceted because Sheffer, through this book has not just tried to understand politics around diasporas but has also dealt with the whole gamut of international politics by including host country as well as homelands. He thoroughly highlights the role of historical, modern, incipient, stateless and state linked diasporas in forming groundwork for contemporary diaspora politics. Sheffer has not just dealt with political but has also dealt with the social and cultural underpinnings of ethno national diasporas.

However, some arguments seems repetitive in the book, for instance, Sheffer has at many places explained the term ethno-national diasporas and also that these are historical phenomenon and not a new one. Nevertheless, his work is brilliant as he thoroughly peels away the pretenses by showing that diaspora is a historical phenomenon and not a new one. Although less in number, historical diasporas sill survive and influence global politics against the backdrop of trans-state networks.

Arsala Nizami, Research Scholar working on the Indo-Pak Diaspora in the context of Conflict and Peace, School of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

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