By Eduardo Tasis, University of Central Lancashire

Most dictionaries, such as Cambridge, Oxford or the Spanish Royal Academy, define diaspora as both the dispersion of the Jewish people from Israel and the spreading of people from their place of origin. These definitions largely coincide with the traditional meaning that prevailed until the second half of the twentieth century, when the term started to proliferate. This proliferation of meanings began to distort the term in what Rogers Brubaker calls a ‘“diaspora” diaspora, a dispersion of the meanings of the term in semantic, conceptual and disciplinary space’ (2005: 1). The multiplicity of accepted meanings that followed made the term become, in the words of Khachig Tölölyan, “a promiscuously capacious category” (1996: 8) that called for a narrower definition. This entry aims to summarise the evolution of the term, showcase some of the contemporary attempts to define it and propose a solution.

The term diaspora originates from the Greek noun διασπορά, which is formed by the prefix δια (‘across’) and σπορά (‘spores’), and the verb διασπείρε, which refers to the act of scattering and disseminating. Later meanings started to develop from the first Greek translation of the Bible, where the term signified the dispersion of the Jewish people from Israel. After that, it was used to denote the exile of the Jewish people from the northern kingdom of Israel between 740 and 722 BC, from the southern Kingdom in 587 BC, and from Roman Judea in 70 AD. Since then, the Jewish diaspora has been considered the paradigm of diaspora. In fact, when capitalised in English, the word refers to this case. However, the term was not widely assimilated into the English language until the 1950s. A decade later, it started to be used to refer to other migrant populations. Walker Connor’s definition of diaspora as a “segment of a people living outside the homeland” (1986: 16) is the perfect example of a trend that, as highlighted by William Safran, would lead scholars to use the term when referring to “several categories of people — expatriates, expellees, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants, and ethnic and racial minorities tout court” (1991: 83). This proliferation was partially due to political reasons. Being associated with a diasporic discourse became a source of empowerment exploited by some migrant communities to gain influence and autonomy both in the home country and the host countries, such as in the case of the Cuban diaspora in the United States. In this setting, scholars like Safran saw the need to redefine the boundaries of the term.

Building on Walker Connor’s definition of diaspora, Safran attempts to provide a narrower definition based on the following characteristics: dispersion from an origin into peripheral or foreign regions, retention of a collective memory, the return to or reconstruction of the homeland as the main aim of the community, and an ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity built on the relationship of the community members with their homeland (1991: 83-84). Safran’s definition sits on the paradigmatic case of the Jewish diaspora, what he calls the “ideal type”, and, although none of them meet all six characteristics, applies his definition to what he considers other core cases: “Armenian, Maghrebi, Turkish, Palestinian, Cuban, Greek, and perhaps Chinese diasporas at present and of the Polish diaspora of the past” (Safran 1991: 84).

A change in paradigm during the 1990s also contributed to broaden the use of the term. Scholars like Paul Gilroy (1993) and James Clifford (1994) inspired others, as explained by Karsten Paerregaard, “to explain ethnic relations and identity processes as the outcome of globalisation and transnationalisation” (2010: 94). This triggered a new wave in the field of migration studies that led many scholars who studied migration, multiculturalism and ethnicity to recast their work as diasporic studies (Paerregaard 2010: 94). Thus, the word diaspora, which seems to fit quite nicely within the transnational nature of a modern globalised life, became a new buzzword. In this context, Khachig Tölölyan (1996) felt once more the need to rethink the term as Safran had done in 1991. In his article Tölölyan provides a historical survey of definitions from the Greek term to the present day that emphasises the seed of its current ambiguity. He offers examples of early uses of the term that even then didn’t conform with its original meaning: “rupture, scattering and reproduction”; particularly the “element of traumatic and coerced departure” (Tölölyan 1996: 11) that would later be associated with the Jewish diaspora and become a core feature within the definition that prevailed until the 1960s.

In response to the broad category that the term had become, Tölölyan highlights the consistency and durability of safeguarding the identity and communication with the origin and other kin communities as the distinctive characteristics of a diasporic community. Thus, he differentiates ethnic communities from diasporic communities “by the extent to which the former’s commitment to maintain connections with its homeland and its kin communities in other states is absent, weak, at best intermittent, and manifested by individuals rather than the community as a whole” (16). Nevertheless, building on Anny Bakalian’s analysis of diasporas from ‘being’ to ‘feeling’ (1993: 15), he admits that the lines separating both groups are not always clear-cut and that it might be “preferable to speak of individuals and communities who behave as ethnics [ethnic communities] in some spheres of life, as diasporas in others and, most importantly, who shift from one to the other” (18). This approach emphasises a lack of correlation between a diasporic discourse created by a “leadership elite” (19) (academics, artists and politicians…) and the reality, which often pictures a high degree of fluctuation between the diasporic community and the host community, as well as high levels of assimilation into the latter regardless of the prominence of the diasporic discourse.

Kim Butler (2001), Rogers Brubaker (2005) or Thomas Faist (2010) speak of three distinctive features: dispersion, orientation to a homeland and community boundary-maintenance. They also emphasise the importance of the latest in differentiating diasporas from other types of migrant or transnational communities. Newer accepted meanings of the term, as explained by Faist, accept “cultural hybridity” (13) and go beyond the boundary-maintenance idea by incorporating the coexistence of assimilation in the host country and cultural distinctiveness as a possibility, which explains why the term has been used to refer to a wide range of migrant communities..  In this setting, Brubaker warns us against treating diasporas as quantifiable entities, as this often leads to “weak definitions, [used] to emphasize numbers (and thereby the import of the phenomenon)”, as opposed to “strong definitions […] used to emphasize the distinctiveness of diaspora as a social form” (11). He then proposes to think of diaspora as a stance and a category of practice before applying it as a category of analysis. As a stance, “diaspora is a way of formulating the identities and loyalties of a population” (Brubaker: 12), which do not always apply to all members of the community, as Tölölyan had argued before. Consequently, if we think of diaspora as an stance and a category of practice before applying it as a category of analysis, we will be able to correctly analyse the actual reach of the diaspora in the same way that we do with any other collectivity, such as nationalist groups (Brubaker: 13). This approach can help differentiate actual diasporas from any other migrant communities that do not actually meet the criteria of community boundary-maintenance. It can also help us understand that not all members born in the diasporic community necessarily adhere to the diasporic discourse and even those who do might occasionally fluctuate, which will help us provide a more accurate picture of diasporic communities.

Brubaker’s advice to think of diaspora as a category of practice first and then a category of analysis might therefore be the most sensible approach to tighten the use of “a global word that [apparently, and only apparently] fits the global world” (Dufoix 2008: 108). As Paerregaard (2010) suggests, I propose that we use diaspora as “an analytical category to study particular aspects of migration processes rather than as a general term for all forms of hybridity and mobility in the contemporary world” (92). We might then find out that, even when they have diasporic claims, most migrant communities are “constantly negotiated and contested […], that [they] exclude as much as they include”, that they are not “bounded and homogeneous”, that they do not “embrace all migrants from a particular nation” (92), and that, therefore, not all should be considered diasporas. This approach might help us recover the usefulness of a term that has often been misapplied.


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Brubaker, Rogers (2005). ‘The “diaspora” diaspora’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28 (1), January: 1-19.

Butler, Kim. (2001), ‘Defining diaspora, refining a discourse’, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 10 (2): 189-220.

Cambridge Dictionary, definition of diaspora. Online: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english-spanish/diaspora [Last accessed 23/08/2021].

Clifford, James. (1994). ‘Diasporas’, Cultural Anthropology, 9 (3): 302-338.

Connor, Walker (1986). ‘The Impact of Homelands Upon Diasporas’, in Modern Diasporas in International Politics, ed. by Gabi Sheffer (New York: St. Martin’s), pp. 16-46.

Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española (RAE), Definition of diaspora. Online: https://dle.rae.es/di%C3%A1spora [Last accessed 23/08/2021]

Dufoix, Stephane. (2008). Diasporas (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Faist, Thomas (2010). ‘Diaspora and transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?’, in Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods, ed. by Rainer Bauböck and Thomas Faist (Amsterdam: IMISCOE Research / Amsterdam University Press), pp. 9-34.

Gilroy, Paul. (1993). The Black Atlantic: Double Consciousness and Modernity (Cambridge:

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Oxford English Dictionary, Definition of diaspora. Online: https://www.lexico.com/definition/diaspora [Last accessed 23/08/2021].

Paerregaard, Karsten (2010). ‘Interrogating diaspora: Power and conflict in Peruvian migration’ in Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods, ed. by Rainer Bauböck and Thomas Faist(Amsterdam: IMISCOE Research / Amsterdam University Press), pp. 91-108.

Safran, William (1991). ‘Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return’, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 1 (1), Spring: 83–99.

Tölölyan, Khachig (1996). ‘Rethinking Diaspora (s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment’, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 5 (1), Spring: 3-36.

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