Eric R. Paison
Claremont Graduate University
The word diaspora prompts the image of “flows” or “waves” of people spreading away from their homeland, heading in different directions as if following forks in a road or fingers on a hand. Moving in streams, and just like streams of water that ultimately end up in pools, so do the people in diaspora settle into various “pools” or communities around the globe. An obviously over romanticized image I admit, given that for many migrant people heading to or forming a diaspora, have done and do so under great stress and often great danger. So what does the word “diaspora” really mean?
In the latter part of the twentieth century, large numbers of migrant peoples having been forced against their will through various mechanisms such as violent force, political pressure, and economic necessity. Settling in enclaves throughout the world, most will feel a sense of displacement and a loss of identity. These movements have continued as the twenty-first century and the age of globalization and in fact, migration and diaspora are a large part of the concept of globalization. Therefore, a need to categorize these movements is critical if the discourse of cultural studies is to have meaningful discourse on the subject.
The word diaspora has recently become used quite widely in academic writing and nowhere more so than in the humanities and the social sciences, with cultural studies right in front. Its original form describing the plight of the world wide Jewish population has not been discarded, though there is plenty of controversy. The term has been borrowed by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, to describe a large variety of migrant and displaced populations. It has been used somewhat acceptingly to a number of migrant groups such as the Greeks, Armenians, and of course Africans.
Some people oppose what they see as an over use of the word, which is of course a concern in any discourse as it is in this paper. Some go to the extreme of believing the word should only be used in its original biblical context with reference to past and present Jewish experience. Those of us with a more progressive point of view, see the word as a much more flexible concept than it was just a few short years ago and cautiously allow concession for the addition of multiple extensions of the word to applications not yet suggested.
A good example of how problematic the word Diaspora is can be seen in the application of the concept to such mass migrations as the great “Oklahoma Dust Bowl” in the American Midwestern plains states. The disaster and its migratory outcome lasted for the ten year period of 1930 through 1940. “The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California” (Worster 1979). Just the sheer number of people that were displaced, settling wherever they could and creating enclaves of “Okies” as they were called, constitutes at least some consideration for “Diaspora status”. These are people that had their hopes, dreams and entire lives stripped from under them. Yes, improper farming techniques caused the disaster, and there is little depth of time involved past a few decades, and of course most did not leave the nation, they merely shifted to a different region. They did suffer immensely in the grips of the great depression that ran hand in hand with the disaster. But there are still those that would argue that the government should and could have done more, and on, and on, and back and forth… With all the shifting back and forth in opinion, fitting the criteria for a diaspora at times, and not at others, it is quite difficult to discern where some groups should be categorized, if at all. Cohen paraphrases Safran with a list that makes a good attempt at delineating the types, or groups of people that tend to be afforded the right to be called a diaspora. ‘“…diaspora is now deployed as “a metaphoric designation” to describe different categories of people – expatriates, expellees, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants and ethnic and racial minorities tout court”’ (Cohen 1997). Using the phrase “tout court”, the French equivalent of the English “in short” implies that the list is much longer, and I agree. So we must continue to push forward and at least attempt to find an appropriate definition.
In what could be considered the “Globalizing Technology Age”, people are realigning and readjusting the temporal, physical, and ideological spaces they occupy for numerous reasons. With advanced travel and communications technologies available, people are able to move around much more freely than ever before. Through the lens of “transnational theory” Arjun Appadurai lists out a loose set of paradigms of “…scapes”, as in “landscape”. He discusses “…five dimensions of global cultural flows that can be termed (a) ethnoscape, (b) mediascapes, (c) technoscapes, (d) financescapes, and (e) ideoscapes” (Appadurai 1996). In what is commonly referred to as “Cyber Space”, people can share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas instantaneously from and to any place on earth. This de-territorialized and invisible terrain is part of what Appadurai is implying in these terms. These terms can be used simultaneously with Safran’s above, and Cohen’s nine features I will be discussing later to better understand the complexities we are dealing with here.
These issues are most definitely a sign of “growing pains” in the evolution of both globalization and the term diaspora. It is also a sign that the term has outgrown its earlier sense of meaning—an issue to which many of us are indeed having to deal within “Cultural Studies” and “The Academy” in general. With the controversial appropriation of the term to describe a host of migration patterns and their consequences, so comes the need to adjust and refine our definition of the term. Sorting through some of the various definitions available is a confusing task and one I have unwittingly taken on in this paper. Though my attempt may be necessarily lacking, it has nonetheless helped in the scholarly effort of uncovering what is most certainly a “tangled web”.
As seen above, diaspora is a word that carries with it a large amount of controversy and difficulty. The toughest part for most people I have read and spoken to is that the term has held only one [accepted] meaning for thousands of years. One should certainly question as to “whom” is doing the accepting at this point! Anyway, in the 1960s the word was applied to the “Black” experience with a main focal point on the transatlantic slave trade. I found out early on when in my reading, coming across the word in a number of unexpected contexts, exactly why the meaning of the word is seen by some as spiraling out of control and losing any sense of real meaning. The worry is that the term had been made available to any group that was willing to adopt it. Tech Diasporas, engineering Diasporas, trade Diasporas, and the list goes on, as if attempting to distance itself from the unpleasantness of the suffering and sacrifice that the original meaning implies. This in turn prompted me to ask the question “why is this word so difficult to define and place into context?”
This prompted a simple dictionary search for a solid definition—little did I know that my short break from reading would become an all out hunt. It initially seemed reasonable place to begin by defining the word, but what is the best or most accurate definition when there are dozens that don’t seem to agree? In many versions the focus is on the Jewish Diaspora, something that even the most progressive and inclusive definitions include. So the issue is not, as far as I can tell, with a discounting of the Jewish Diaspora, rather that with too many variations the urgency of the Jewish use may lose its power. Even if we admit that the term can be used in relation to other groups, there is still a major issue with what other groups should be included. The trouble for me began when I started seeing differing levels of vagueness in some and uncomfortable complexity in others. I won’t belabor this paper with all the various definitions found; the reader can easily conduct such a search of his or her own if further elaboration is desired. I will, nonetheless, list a few examples here in order to demonstrate the level of variability from one to the next and what can be seen with quite a bit of confusion. Hopefully this paper will clear some of that confusion up.
First, below is the definition found in the Oxford English Dictionary database which was accessed through the Claremont Colleges library website:
The Dispersion; i.e. (among the Hellenistic Jews) the whole body of Jews living dispersed among the Gentiles after the Captivity (John vii. 35); (among the early Jewish Christians) the body of Jewish Christians outside of Palestine (Jas. i. 1, 1 Pet. i. 1). Hence transf.: see quots.
(Originating in Deut. xxviii. 25 (Septuagint), thou shalt be a diaspora (or dispersion) in all kingdoms of the earth.)
1876 C. M. DAVIES Unorth. Lond. 153 [The Moravian body's] extensive diaspora work (as it is termed) of evangelizing among the National Protestant Churches on the continent. 1881 tr. Wellhausen in Encycl. Brit. XIII. 420/1 s.v. Israel, As a consequence of the revolutionary changes which had taken place in the conditions of the whole East, the Jewish dispersion (diaspora) began vigorously to spread. 1885 Encycl. Brit. XVIII. 760 s.v. Philo, The development of Judaism in the diaspora differed in important points from that in Palestine. 1889 Edin. Rev. No. 345. 66 The mental horizon of the Jews of the Diaspora was being enlarged.
As far as my understanding goes, the “O.E.D.” is the resource of choice within cultural studies. When I saw how limited this definition is, it was a bit confusing since I felt this would be the end of my search—it was of course only the beginning! Looking in a hard copy of the “Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary”, that seemed to only fan the flames of confusion. In the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (the online version matches the print copy) they attempt to be more encompassing but seem a bit vague with the entries pointing towards a “Black” or “African” Diaspora:
Main Entry: di•as•po•ra
Pronunciation: \dī-ˈas-p(ə-)rə, dē-\
Function: noun Etymology: Greek, dispersion, from diaspeirein to scatter, from dia- + speirein to sow
1 capitalized a : the settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile b : the area outside Palestine settled by Jews c : the Jews living outside Palestine or modern Israel
2 a : the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland <the black diaspora to northern cities> b : people settled far from their ancestral homelands <African diaspora> c : the place where these people live — di•a•spor•ic \ˌdī-ə-ˈspȯr-ik\ adjective 
Going back online, I came across the “online Compact Oxford English Dictionary”. This “compact” definition I find a bit lacking as well, but of course it is not the full “O.E.D.” definition either. However, when compared to the assumed “full” O.E.D. definition, as can be see above in figure 1, I found the “full” version to be even more exclusionary than the supposed “compact” definition. This definition, like many others, focuses mainly on the Jewish Diaspora and just “matter of factly” includes an entry that felt to me like a statement such as “Oh, and by the way, there is a Black Diaspora too”. It is understandable how there is confusion as to the proper bounds of the word if there is such variance in definitions. Therefore, I find compact definition below a bit more palatable.
/diasp r /
• noun 1 (the diaspora) the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel, chiefly in the 8th to 6th centuries bc. 2 the dispersion of any people from their traditional homeland.
— ORIGIN Greek, from diaspeirein ‘disperse’. 
In this compact version, the “Black” has been substituted with “any people”, though vague about who “ant people” might actually be. I would certainly not consider a group Pop Music artists traveling abroad to play concerts a diaspora, but some others perspectives while not necessarily calling something like this out by name, do imply that migratory movements such as this should be included. Nonetheless, it is quite interesting how a company such as Oxford would be so varied in their own different publications. Another quite interesting set of definitions comes from the Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition:
a. the dispersion of the Jews after the Babylonian and Roman conquests of Palestine
b. the Jewish communities outside Israel
c. the Jews living outside Israel
d. the extent of Jewish settlement outside Israel
2. (in the New Testament) the body of Christians living outside Palestine
3. a dispersion or spreading, as of people originally belonging to one nation or having a common culture
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005 
Here we see multiple entries referring to the Jewish Diaspora with entry 3 “a dispersion or spreading, as of people originally belonging to one nation or having a common culture” being more inclusive, but one must still ask, “what people, what nation, and dispersing or spreading to where”?
And of course, I don’t want to leave out the quite busy entry found in the “Encyclopedia Britannica”;
Hebrew Galut (“Exile”) (Greek; “Dispersion”) “The dispersion of Jews among the Gentiles after the Babylonian Exile (586 BC), or the aggregate of Jews outside Palestine or present-day Israel. The term also carries religious, philosophical, political, and eschatological connotations, inasmuch as the Jews perceive a special relationship between the land of Israel and themselves. Interpretations of this relationship range from the messianic hope of traditional Judaism for the eventual “ingathering of the exiles” to the view of Reform Judaism that the dispersal of the Jews was providentially arranged by God to foster monotheism throughout the world. Historically, Diaspora Jews outnumbered the Jews in Palestine even before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Thereafter, the chief centres of Judaism shifted from country to country (e.g., Babylonia, Persia, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and the U.S.), and Jewish communities gradually adopted distinctive languages, rituals, and cultures, some submerging themselves in non-Jewish environments more completely than others. While some lived in peace, others became victims of violent anti-Semitism. While the vast majority of Orthodox Jews have supported Zionism, some Orthodox Jews go so far as to oppose the modern State of Israel on the grounds that it is a godless and secular state defying God's will to send his messiah at the time he has preordained” .
These few examples should suffice in demonstrating the diverse yet limiting nature of a term like diaspora when attempting to find a useable definition. Other more abstract questions like “what does a diaspora look like” can be helped if we can determine if there are and what those different types of Diasporas are. By discussing the different types of diasporas, it should not only accentuate my point as to the difficulty this word creates, but also highlight its flexibility and usefulness in the post-colonial era when more and more people are leaving home in search of a better life. Types of Diasporas.
As seen above, for those of us relatively new to the academy, the word diaspora has undergone a recent transformation that allows it to help explain a much wider range of migratory and settlement phenomena than was previously allowed. This shift in use is a relative recent event, beginning during the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. Black Americans had drawn a “Zionistic” parallel between their centuries of suffering brought on by the transatlantic slave trade, and the biblical exile of the Jews. Cohen considers the “African” Diaspora along with the “Armenians” a “Victim diaspora”. Cohen points out that “…it is not surprising that the Jews are often provided the for other victim diasporas” (Cohen 1997).
When joined to the notion of a desire to return to the lost homeland the use of diaspora to describe the experience of dispersion became paradigmatic, signifying not only exile, but an alienated and often oppressed state of being that, however perduring, would one day be reconciled by return and the rebuilding of the lost, original homeland, which is the image that is preserved through collective memory and ritual practice. It was this sense that later was applied to the Armenians, the African Diaspora and a wide range of comparable uses. These have come to reconstruct the concept of diaspora quite profoundly.
Of course certain terms, though similar in meaning to other related terms, can be a little more or less appropriate for a given piece if text depending on the context of its use. On the other hand, I feel it is also appropriate to extend the definition of a term such as diaspora if the determining factors are legitimized. Of course the [symbolic] end of colonialism and colonial rule is responsible for the unleashing of the waves of migration that have come to pass through a myriad of causal factors. In all cases, the term diaspora embodies a sense of displacement, where the population in question finds itself displaced from its national territory for many different reasons. “Most of the time there is a sense of hope and desire, even in cases where it is improbable due to political reasons, or where the is no actual homeland to return to” (1997).
“…the migration movements that make up demographic globalization can engender absentee patriotism and long distance nationalism, as the political affinities of Irish, Jewish, and Palestinian diasporas and émigré or exiled Sikhs in Toronto, tunnels in London, Kurds in Germany, Tibetans in India” (Anderson 1992).
Quite possibly one of the most important features of any diaspora is the notion of returning to their homeland at some point, if the "homeland" still exists in any meaningful sense. Some writers have noted that diaspora may result in a loss of nostalgia for a single home as people "re-root" in a series of meaningful displacements. In this sense, individuals may have multiple homes throughout their diaspora, with different reasons for maintaining some form of attachment to each.
‘“In its classic usage--before its quantitative and semantic explosion—the word “diaspora” applied particularly to those people with or without a state who’s centenary, not to say millennial, migration traditions had not affected the persistence of a permanent collective conscience rooted in an enduring reference to a history, a land, or a religion”’. [Dufoix 2003]
Dufoix makes a good point in the above statement pointing out that there are at least a minimum number of [traditional] conditions that a group must satisfy in order to be considered a diaspora. In this still incomplete definition, time and space play a large part, but actual causal factors, such as violence, politics, economics, and hunger along with numerous other push/pull factors are absent. So what are the characteristics of a diaspora? Robin Cohen lists nine features that make up a diaspora which I find helpful (Cohen 1997).
One fear, and possible a fairly legitimate one (though only remotely probable in my opinion), is that national cohesiveness will weaken due to the large numbers of non citizens, non naturalized citizens and first generation citizens (born in the host country) as is the case in the United States. [Note that I am recognizing here that not all immigrants wind up or even plan to wind up in the U.S., but head to destinations all over the globe including Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Scandinavia, Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and so on]. Nonetheless there are ethnocentric and xenophobic individuals in most all societies and among those individuals many extreme views such as “this is the end of America as we know it” are commonly heard in formerly middle class [white] neighborhoods, a number of which I have personally lived in. This and other similar comments are among many I have heard when talking to my [white] neighbors about the predominantly “Vietnameseness” of the neighborhood as opposed to 20 years ago. Other comments range from “They have overrun us!” to “I hate the smell of fish; I wish they’d just go home!” (I keep my mouth shut quite a bit while thinking “They are home—stupid”!). However, on the “other side of the coin”, I would also get “They are the friendliest people!” and “I just love their food!” and other condescending comments weather they meant it that way or not. Unfortunately, these negative attitudes will have a less than positive effect in helping to for a consensus over who to call a diaspora, and who to exclude.
A Cambodian Diaspora?
I may be making a bold move by classifying the “overseas Cambodian community” as a diaspora. As I mentioned earlier, there are those who would like to forbid the use of the term in any form outside of its biblical use in conjunction with the Jews. Some have come to allow the recognition of the “Black” or “African” Diaspora, base on its Zionistic roots built on the foundation of slavery. But then, there is still a line drawn to resist other uses of the word. Some other tentatively accepted Diasporas are the “Greeks”, the “Armenians”, the “Chinese” , among a few others, but I have found it tough to find in the literature many who recognize a Cambodian Diaspora. Nonetheless, I have good reason to recognize the Cambodian community as such based on Robin Cohen’s nine “common features of a diaspora” discussed above.
Based on evidence I have come across while researching the history of Cambodia, it should become apparent that the migrant Cambodian community does satisfy at least minimum of the nine features Cohen discusses. As Cohen points out, “…no single diaspora has ever perfectly satisfied all nine [features] at the same time, which is also most certainly evidence of the terms transitory nature” (1997). In other words, the term is bendable and capable of taking on several varied meanings. Cohen discusses several types of diaspora besides the classical Jewish notion which includes “victim diasporas, labor and imperial diasporas, and trade diasporas”. There has been some debate as to whether or not this community constitutes being part of a larger Cambodian Diaspora. The debate is largely arguments over issues such as, voluntary as opposed to involuntary migration, the ability to return to the homeland (which is not as easy as it sounds), and ongoing relations with the homeland. This point in fact is quite important when it comes to the study of identity construction. Robin Cohen discusses a similar premise in the case of the African diaspora that I see as distinctly relevant:
‘“Some knowledge of Jewish history would help students of Africans abroad to realize that, in the expression “the African diaspora” diaspora is being used metaphorically. This would prevent it becoming an over rigid, idologized concept, to the detriment of serious and imaginative research. Furthermore, knowledge of Jewish usage enables the appreciation of the voluntary as opposed to the involuntary element in the diaspora of the Jews…”’. [Cohen 1995]
Likewise, when deploying the word Diaspora to the Cambodian community, one needs to be aware of its flexibility and avoid being locked into too narrow of a definition. However, I would like to make clear that I am not implying that this use is some sort of metaphor, just that the Cambodians have as much as a right to the term as does any other dispersed group. There is indeed room for the Cambodian Diaspora that is equally as valid as that of the Jewish, the Armenian, or African communities. If anyone meets the requirements of being “in diaspora”, it is the Cambodians. The trauma brought on by the Killing Fields is a common bond, and along with the reverence most of the Cambodians I have met show for “their country”, I definitely place them into the category constituting a diaspora without hesitation.
The Killing Fields, as mentioned above, is a term used to refer to a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime in the four year period they were in control of the country which lasted from 1975 to 1979 following the end of the American-Vietnam War. At least 200,000 people were executed by the Khmer Rouge, with estimates of the total number of deaths, including from disease and starvation, ranging from 1.4 to 2.2 million out of a total population of approximately 7 million. In 1979, Vietnam invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime, which was officially called Democratic Kampuchea at the time.
In 1979—after the invasion of Cambodia by neighboring Vietnam in the Cambodian/Vietnamese War—Pol Pot, head of the Khmer Rouge regime, fled into the jungles of southwest Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed . From 1979 to 1997 he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated from the border region of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power and United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia. Pol Pot died in 1998 while held under house arrest by the Ta Mok faction of the Khmer Rouge. Since his death, rumors that he was poisoned have persisted.
Due to the sheer poverty that the Khmer Rouge rule created, mass migration was almost certainly the only option for most of the migrants. Given the glorious history of the Khmer Empire, I am certain that the push factors far outweighed the pull factors in the decision to leave. The reverence that people in the immigrant community demonstrate for the great temples of Angkor and their desire to return shows me that most did not leave willingly, another reason to consider this a diaspora.
In conclusion, I think that it is apparent that the far reaching usage of the term Diaspora is here to stay. Though it should be used cautiously, it is nonetheless a very powerful word that accurately describes the situation of many migrant and displaced peoples. Will the controversy continue? I am quite certain that it will and that we will just have to deal with it the best we can. That is par for the course, since globalization has now touched virtually every part of the globe. Am I going to continue referring to the Cambodian community as a Diaspora? Absolutely!
1992 The New World Disorder. New Left Review 190:3-14.
1997 Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
2003 Diasporas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
1979 Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930's. Oxford University Press.
 http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Diaspora Accessed 12/09/09
 For more information on Diaspora, visit Britannica.com. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Copyright © 1994-2008 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc
 Time necropsy". Time.com. http://www.time.com/time/asia/asia/magazine/1999/990823/pol_pot1.html. Accessed 11-28-2009.
~ "In its classic usage--before its quantitative and semantic explosion—the word “diaspora” applied particularly to those people with or without a state whose centenary, not to say millennial, migration traditions had not affected the persistence of a permanent collective conscience rooted in an enduring reference to a history, a land, or a religion” (Dufoix 2003:38).
What makes a diaspora more than just a collection of people? What is the difference between a diaspora and an exiled population?
The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship program at Johns Hopkins this year, which is focusing on the concept of diaspora, has an interesting analysis that may be useful to you:
“Diaspora” derives from the Greek diaspeirein, “to scatter” or disperse. Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War uses the term to describe the destruction of the city of Aegina, the result of which was the uprooting, scattering and exile of its population across the Hellenic world. A wider and more durable use derived from its appearance in the Greek translation of the Torah known as the Septuagint. It occurs in Deuteronomy (28:25) to narrate the coerced scattering of Jews from Jerusalem into Babylonian exile (in Hebrew, galut), both as an event and as a punishment for sin, thus over-laying the concept with a traumatic origin and burdened future. When joined to the notion of a desire to return to the lost homeland the use of diaspora to describe the experience of dispersion became paradigmatic, signifying not only exile, but an alienated and often oppressed state of being that, however perduring, would one day be redeemed by return and the reconstitution of the lost, originary land of dwelling, the image of which is preserved through collective memory and ritual practice. It was this sense that later was applied to the Armenians, the African Diaspora and a wide range of comparable uses, which have served to inflect the idea of diaspora in a variety of ways.
Diaspora is also employed metaphorically to characterize alien residents, political refugees, and ethnic and racial minorities, thus adding to the already overly rich stew of referants. Perhaps the one common thread that runs through the various definitions of 'diaspora' is that of 'de-territorialized identities.' The concept of 'de-territorialized' identities seems to have arisen as a means to evade the risk of essentializing racial, ethnic or minority identities by theorizing hybridized ones, but almost by definition must posit a residual core identity that is nonetheless subject to the splitting implied by the very condition of diasporic existence. As a conceptual device, the idea of 'de-territorialized identity' seems to reflect the recognition that in the context of a world increasingly marked by migrations, cultural as well as economic globalization, allegiance and hence identity are constantly being redefined. Yet it also provides an analytical framework that allows scholars to talk about these processes from a global perspective, one independent of the nation-state as the framing unit of discussion.
The proliferation of meanings and uses that the term “diaspora” is currently experiencing has produced such rapidly changing discursive and semantic domains that Khachig Tololyn suggests that it is “in danger of becoming a promiscuously capacious category that is taken to include all the adjacent phenomena to which it is linked but from which it actually differs in ways that are constitutive, that in fact make a viable definition of diaspora possible.” Moreover, the tendency to combine the social and historical processes that are constitutive of a diaspora and the cultural meanings that such a position produces generates a tension at the heart of the concept. Clearly the time has come to attempt to bring order to the concept of diaspora, whose growing discursive popularity and expanding use in academic circles suggests that it possesses a certain intellectual and affective power that endows it with a utility whose precise significance is not easily grasped. '