Deflating "Diaspora"

April 5, 2013

In a well-read and oft-cited article, Roger Brubaker observed that the immense popularity of the term “diaspora” and its application for all sorts of dispersed emigrants has stretched the term to the “point of uselessness”.[1] He argues that if each and every emigrant, individual or group, is treated as a “diaspora”, then the distinctive qualities associated with it will disappear, erasing its usefulness. He is not alone in expressing unease with the ever-growing popularity and usage of the term. Queen’s historian, Donald Akenson, who has researched extensively on the Irish diaspora, has complained even more forcefully that the term has become a “massive linguistic weed.”[2]  The controversy was re-visited in mid-2011 during a recorded discussion between Robin Cohen and Khachig Tololyan, two names often associated with diaspora studies, where the former characterized the term as “provocation” and not “necessarily description”.[3]

To what extent are these concerns justified? Just when, how, and if migrants become part of the diasporic collective needs to be examined and constructed more carefully. Likewise, we must pay attention to the diasporic identity they themselves create and connect with. We cannot simply treat all migrants as the extension of the country of origin placed overseas. Just because a person is a migrant from a particular country, it does not necessarily mean that they will identify with or even associate with it.  One of your bloggers (Crush), for example, was born in the UK but has absolutely no feeling for or connection with the country, except for a strong passion for the diaspora group of soccer players based in London known as Arsenal Football Club.  

Cultural and ethnic attributes, especially those that shape personal and collective identity, may also not overlap with the boundaries of the countries they migrated from. The situation becomes even more muddled when groups can claim connections, both in terms of origin and migration trajectories, to several different social, cultural, and geographical contexts.  Your other blogger (Ramachandran) illustrates this complexity.  Her background lies in two Asian countries, India and China, though she can assert a strong emotional and social connection to only one of them. Her father has an enduring cultural bond with Kerala, his province of birth and origin. But, her upbringing in Delhi and the fact that she does not speak the native language of Malayalam means that she does not relate to it the same way.

A recent special series of articles celebrating the Ismaili diaspora in Canada in the Vancouver Sun further exemplify the convoluted nature of diasporic identity and affinity.[4]   Many of the more than 75,000 Ismailis in Canada trace their ancestral heritage to the Kutch region of Gujarat in India.  In terms of religion, Ismailis draw their lineage to the Shiite branch of Islam that divided into distinctive groups in the seventh and eighth centuries and whose followers migrated to India in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  Ismaili migrants from this area subsequently settled in different parts of East Africa, including Uganda and Tanzania, before and during the colonial period. The demise of British rule in East Africa, nationalization of property and businesses, social isolation, anti-Asian riots and, in the Ugandan case, forced expulsion, resulted in the emigration of Indians from these countries. The Aga Khan, their religious leader, negotiated an agreement with Pierre Trudeau to accept some six thousand refugees from Uganda into Canada and throughout that decade, Ismailis from other countries like Tanzania joined them.

The Sun series included the profile of Dr. Iqbal Ahmed, born in Uganda to an Indian family from Gujarat whose three generations lived in East Africa before they were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972.[5]   Ahmed studied and lived in England before migrating to Canada but did not relate to any of these three countries (India, Uganda and England). Only his country of settlement and religion defined his identity: “I am a Canadian. I am fortunate to be a Canadian. And I am a Muslim,” he asserted.   Another profile was that of Frenny Bawa, whose family left Uganda under similar circumstances. She, however, emphasized her affinity for India by describing herself as an Ismaili Canadian of Indian origin.[6]

These diverse identifications exert an enormous influence on the kinds of transnational and diasporic practices migrants pursue in Canada, with direct consequences for development. And despite the high potential in terms of value of resources that can be generated, they may not always be channeled to the countries of origin.  The Ismaili community, for instance, has an extraordinary tradition of humanitarian work, rooted in their religious practices, for Canadian causes. The Ismaili Walk 2012 event raised some $250,000 to support YWCA’s Cause We Care project to provide affordable housing for low-income single mothers in the Downtown Eastside/Strathcona areas of Vancouver.[7] The previous year, the annual event raised more than $640,000 to benefit the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Canada. The 2009 Walk for Women event organized by the Ismaili Muslim community of British Columbia collected some $280,000 to assist the Women’s Health Research Institute of BC Women’s Hospital & Health Care.

Similarly, the World Partnership Walk organized by the Ismaili-Canadian community has raised over $70 million since its inception for the Aga Khan Foundation Canada to support development programs and initiatives in developing countries. Funds have not been collected exclusively for projects in India, Uganda, or Tanzania, but some of the funds have been expended for projects in these countries. Here, religious rather than geographical affinity has determined the nature of diasporic philanthropic practices.

So, can we really think of a common South African, Indian, Tanzanian, or Ugandan diaspora when migrants imagine themselves in much more complex ways that do not always align with national identity? Other affinities, including cultural and ethnic identities, may acquire much greater significance. Because these intricacies have a strong bearing on transnational and diasporic practices, it is these complexities that we need understand in order to fully comprehend the diaspora-development nexus.  

[1] Brubaker, Roger 2005 “The ‘diaspora’ diaspora”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 1-19.

[2] Cohen, Robin 2008 Global Diasporas: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, p. 15

[3] “Robin Cohen and Khachig Tololyan discuss Diasporas”,

[5]   Bramham, Daphne “Iqbal Ahmed: Refugee experience reinforced the Ismaili values of education, hard work and giving back to community”, Vancouver Sun, September 28, 2012,

[6] Bramham, Daphne “Frenny Bawa: Education, a value that leads to success”, Vancouver Sun, September 28, 2012,

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Sujata Ramachandran is a research associate with SAMP at Queen’s University. Her research interests include SouthSouth migration, diaspora development engagement and migrant integration in receiving countries.