Diaspora, Identity, and Religion: New Directions in Theory and Research

By Waltraud Kokot; Khachig Tölölyan et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction

Waltraud Kokot, Khachig Tölölyan and Carolin Alfonso

In the last decades of the twentieth century, questions of boundaries, space and mobility have become a central focus of debate in anthropology. Time-honoured approaches of fieldwork seemed to have lost their sites, social entities long held to be clearly defined by distinct boundaries of reference and/or of location, seemed to dissolve before the anthropologists' gaze. The concept of culture - once a comfortable, if admittedly vague, reference to everything anthropologists used to study, had lost its innocence. Now 'culture' is seen as fraught with notions of homogeneity, boundedness and locality, implicitly denying new realities.

In this context, the concept of diaspora has acquired a new and theoretically challenging position. Following Tölölyan's (1991) programmatic statement in the first issue of the journal Diaspora, this concept has been related to a vast field of meanings, including global processes of de-territorialization, transnational migration and cultural hybridity. These notions, as opposed to more 'rooted' forms of identification such as 'regions' or 'nations', seemed to imply a decline of 'locality' as a point of reference for collective identities. A growing body of literature on space, place and the crossing of boundaries has criticized and deconstructed the general discourse of 'rootedness' which long dominated anthropological research and stereotyped other forms of existence as exotic exceptions or as a threat to the natural order of things (see Malkki 1992).

Following these changing points of departure, the concept of 'diaspora', once associated with traumatic dispersal and incomplete attempts at coping with collective deficits, was now hailed as the 'paradigmatic other' (Tölölyan 1991:4) - occasionally even as the 'moral better' - of the nation state (see Clifford 1994). This, however, has created the danger of trading old myths for new.

As Karen Fog Olwig (Olwig and Hastrup 1997; see also Olwig in this volume) and others have shown, the field of migration studies, particularly in the USA, is presently dominated by a terminology of mobility, transnational relations and the dissolution of local boundaries. This, however, may be more of a reflection of contemporary discourse in Western social sciences than of lived experiences of diaspora. Ethnographic close-up studies of such experiences are needed to provide a testing ground for theoretical concepts and generalizations.

The chapters in this volume present a range of different case studies addressing questions of how diasporic identities are formed over time. All were presented

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