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Diasporas and Transnational Communities

This is an extract of the article “Diasporas, transnational spaces and communities”, by Michel Bruneau, published in R. Bauböck, Th. Faist (eds), Diaspora and Transnationalism: concepts, theories and methods, Amsterdam University

Press, 2010, p. 35-49, which is provided here in full text. In this version, emphasis in bold letters has been added for better readability.


The term Diaspora, long used only to describe the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the world, has in the last thirty years elicited unprecedented interest and has attracted attention not limited to the academic world, but also from the media and is now part of everyday speech. It has come into such generalised use as to be applied to all forms of migrations and dispersion of a people, even if not as a result of migration. The connotation of this term corresponds not only to a development and generalisation of international migrations throughout the world, but also to a weakening, or at least a limitation, of the role played by Nation-States, at a time when globalisation has become a dominant process. It is typically a term taken both from social sciences and everyday speech, which causes wide confusion as to its precise meaning. We are addressing the notion of Diaspora from a geographical stance, from a point of view that takes in account its materiality through the space, the place and the territory. We postulate that this geographical dimension is pertinent to the diasporic phenomenon.

The notion of Diaspora

A Diaspora exists and is reproduced by relying on everything that creates a bond in a place among those who want to group together and maintain, from a distance, relations with other groups, installed in other places but having the same identity. This bond can come in different forms, such as family, community, religious, socio-political, economic bonds or the shared memory of a catastrophe or trauma suffered by the members of the Diaspora or the forebears. A Diaspora has a symbolic and “iconographic” capital that enables it to reproduce and overcome the – often considerable – obstacle of distance separating its communities.

The four criteria for a Diaspora

Diaspora areas and territories must be gauged first in the host country, where the community bond plays the essential role, then in the country or territory of origin – a pole of attraction – through memory, and finally through the system of relations in the network space that connects these different poles. The term Diaspora often has more of a metaphorical than an instrumental role. We can narrow down the different criteria suggested by most authors to four essential ones:

– The population has been dispersed in several places, not immediately neighbouring of the territory of origin, under pressure (disaster, catastrophe, famine, abject poverty).

– The choice of countries and cities of destination is carried out in accordance with the structure of migratory chains, which link migrants with those already installed in the host countries.

– This population is integrated without being assimilated in the host countries, i.e. it retains a rather strong identity awareness linked to the memory of the territory, of the society of origin and its history

– These dispersed groups of migrants (or groups stemming from migration) preserve and develop among them and with the society of origin, if the latter still exists, multiple exchange relations (people, goods of various natures, information, etc.) organised under networks. Relations tend to be horizontal rather than vertical.

For a Diaspora to be able to live on by transmitting its identity from one generation to the next, it must, have places for periodic gathering of a religious, cultural or political nature, or for all three at once, in which it can concentrate on the main elements of its iconography. These can be sanctuaries (churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.), community premises (conference rooms and theatres, libraries, sports clubs, etc.), or monuments that can be used for commemorations, perpetuate memory. They also include restaurants and grocery shops, newsagents and the media (newspapers, community magazines, local radio and television stations, websites). These various places can be concentrated in the same “ethnic” quarter, the same locality, or be dispersed throughout a city or a larger territory.

Four major types of Diasporas

The different Diasporas are deployed on a world scale at the beginning of the 21st century, with an unequal degree of globalisation and at times a more or less confirmed continental tropism among them. In every Diaspora, the folklore, cuisine, language and culture in the wide sense (literature, cinema, music, press), community life and family bonds play a fundamental role. Family connections constitute the very fabric of the Diaspora, in particular those stemming from Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, which are characterised by the existence of extended families. Similarly, the community link is always present in and constitutive of every Diaspora. The most distinguishing characteristics are the unequal degree of their structuring and their organisation, and the more or less decisive influence exerted by their nation of origin, when it exists. Religion, enterprise and politics are the three major fields through which these two discriminating characteristics manifest themselves. At the current state of research, we can only sketch a typology according to these criteria from the example of some Diasporas.

A first set of Diasporas is structured round an entrepreneurial pole; everything else is subordinated to it or plays only a secondary role. The Chinese, Indian and Lebanese Diasporas are the best examples of this. Essentially because it is diverse, religion does not play a structuring role. The nation-state of origin does not exercise any decisive influence, either because it is pluralist (Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, South-East Asia in the case of the Chinese), or because it is deliberately discrete and intervenes only in case of extreme difficulties (the case of India), or because it is too weak and divided (the case of Lebanon). Entrepreneurship constitutes the central element of the reproduction strategy of these Diasporas.

Another set of Diasporas is that in which religion, often associated to a language, is the main structuring element: this is the case of the Jewish, Greek, Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean Diasporas. This religion is monotheistic and strongly connected to a sacred language, be it Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Armenian. In the case of the Jews, this language was long only a sacred language, but its identity-shaping force was such, that it was chosen as the national language for the Jewish state, Israel, in 1948. Greek and Armenian are taught in schools alongside religion in the schools of the Diaspora. Enterprises play a very important role in the life of these Jewish, Greek and Armenian Diasporas, but they are not the central pole that ensures the reproduction of the Diaspora in the long run. That pole is religion: the synagogue and the church, with a pronounced ethnic tint, are the constitutive elements of these Diaspora communities. On the other hand, ever since it has existed, the Nation-State has had an increasingly stronger influence on its Diaspora. Nevertheless, even in the Greek case, where this influence is the greatest, the Diaspora, the cohesion of which is secured by the Orthodox church, has managed to preserve a relative independence, after the Holy Synod of the Athens Church (1908-1922) tried to take hold of the Greek communities in the United States, with the restoration of the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Since the independence of Armenia in 1991, the Armenian State has also exerted a growing influence but has not, for the moment at least, acquired the weight of the Greek or of the Jewish State in respect to their respective Diaspora. Religion remains the main element of Armenianness, the Apostolic Church the best defender of the language, culture, memory, and the “Motherland.”

A third set of Diasporas, on which we have observations on a shorter duration, is organised chiefly round a political pole, when the territory of origin is dominated by a foreign power and the main aspiration of the population of the Diaspora, is the creation of a Nation-State. We may cite the example of the Palestinian Diaspora, which had succeeded in establishing a real state in exile, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), whose objective to establish a Nation-State next to the State of Israel has already been partially achieved by the creation of the Palestinian Authority endowed with territories that it has administered since 1994. The religious content of the national identity of the Jews or the Armenians is absent among the Palestinians who are Muslims, but also Christians. Their collective memory is rooted in the historical events that mark estrangements, the main one of which is the catastrophe (nakba) of 1948.

A fourth set is organised around a racial and cultural pole; this is the case of the black Diaspora, on which hinge several ways of defining identity. Centred on the notion of negritude, its originality in relation to the foregoing lies first in the fact that this Diaspora has no direct affiliation with the society or societies, or territory or territories of origin. This Diaspora stands out first by the continental scope and the diversity of its territory or territories of origin: the coasts of West and Central Africa as a point of departure of the exodus, but also the very vast continental hinterland that is very difficult to define, going as far as Ethiopia and Sudan, and even Egypt.


The black Diaspora is defined first and foremost by the socially constructed negro-race, and only subsequently by culture, the definition and origin of which are subject to various debates and interpretations. There is extensive vagueness on this front, due to the traumatic experiences under which this Diaspora formed: the slave-trade and slavery of the plantation estates. These two founding phenomena of the black Diaspora have levelled and clouded the identities and cultures of origin to the point of making them disappear in part from the conscience of the populations concerned. These populations define themselves more by their social condition and their “race” – the only visible element – in the societies into which they were brought, than by their identity and culture of origin, and even less by their nationality, of which they have no clear, if any conscience at all.


Transnational communities

It is therefore difficult to define a Diaspora from the economic and political migration of a people stemming from a segmented society and comprising notable differences of identity. To take better account of these phenomena, researchers such as Riva Kastoriano have suggested the notion of transnational community. Countries at the edge of the industrialised and tertiarised world of the major powers of the North (United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan), which often are former colonies or old countries of the Third World, are sending more and more migrants in search of employment and remittances to their communities of origin, with which they keep strong ties. These are mostly unskilled economic migrants from rural areas. They are organised from a village, a basic rural community, to which the migrants remain very attached and to which they return periodically. The family structure, more than the village community of origin, is essential in explaining the cohesion of the networks. Those from a rural community in a Latin American country or the Philippines, for instance, migrate to more and more urban centres of variable sizes in the United States. A migration movement is established between this place of origin and the places of settlement and work. The migration territory also comprises relay places, most often a large city, the hub of the migratory route network: Dallas or Chicago for Mexicans from Ocampo, Buenos Aires for the Bolivians from the Cochabamba region. The strong association with these different places thanks to the movement of the population of one village, where the dominant activity is migration under different forms, constitutes a transnational migration territory.

A transnational community is based on the specific know-how of mobility, a “migration expertise” which is the social capital of the inhabitants of these places, highly marked by migration, who have made it their essential activity. The mobility of these peasants may be based on the experience of mountain peasantry, which has always had to move with the seasons, whether in transhumance in certain cases, or because of several ecological stages in the case of Andean peasants. Peoples with a long nomadic tradition like the Turks or Mongols can also be moulded more easily in these transnational spaces. A transnational community links the global to the local, networking places of highly unequal importance without hierarchy between these different hubs. The role of the border is very highly relativised by a migrant population whose essential element of identity is knowing how to cross the border, passing through the border area, and living beyond it, whilst avoiding expulsion.

These migrants come from a Nation-State, where they have lived for a relatively long time, to return periodically, investing part of their income in their village of origin. They left at best to stay there, or if not themselves, at least part of their family. The members of a transnational community seek to acquire the citizenship of their host country, while retaining that of their country of origin. This double affiliation is not only a matter of ease, but also a way of life. Contrary to the Diasporas, there was no uprooting from the territory and the society of origin, nor trauma. There is no desire to return, because transmigrants never actually left their place of origin, with which they retain family and community ties that are much facilitated by the growth, regularity and safety of communications.

The concept of the Transnational Community is also used by researchers who have studied transnational nationalism. The Turkish transnational community, for example, lives in a four-dimensional space: the immigration country, the country of origin, the immigrant communities herself, and the transnational space of the European Union. The “at distance nationalism” refers to the nation-state of departure, Turkey, which acts on the exile population by the way of language, religion, double citizenship. This nation-state tries to strengthen as much as possible the loyalty of its nationals outside. But the transnational networks of migrant associations can bypass the states acting directly on transnational European institutions. We observe the emergence of a transnational space, characterized by the dense interaction of actors belonging to different traditions (Islamist and laic Turcs, Alevis, Kurds, Lazes…). It is a new space of political socialization, of identification beyond the national societies. For Kastoryano, the notion of Diaspora should be better applied to populations scattered before the making of their nation-state like Jews, Armenians… from whom the nationalism refers to a mythical place, to a territory to be recovered, to a future state-building.

Originality and value of the notions of Diaspora and transnational community

The value of the notion of Diaspora is that it shows the sedimentation, in time, often in the long term, of communities dispersed in the world, and more or less diverse depending on the case. These Diasporas are characterised by the search for a certain cultural or religious – at times even political – unity. They have been formed, through the course of time, by several waves of migration, each of which could have different or several causes at once. It is this sedimentation in the long run that makes the Diaspora, unlike the transnational community, which has been formed recently owing to a call for labour, or unlike smugglers who depend on the underground economy. The Diaspora members, wherever they find themselves, negotiate their cultural and social unity with the local and national shapes, as their integration is characterised by intergenerational trajectories.

Unlike people of the Diaspora, transmigrants and cross-border entrepreneurs or smugglers do not seek to establish a social network destined to last, a transnational social group based on the richness of a symbolic capital and a memory transmitted from one generation to the next. They seek first and foremost to build a house in their village and climb the social ladder there, and then in their place of settlement, when such a place exists. Transmigrants are far too dependent on their Nation-State of origin and on their host country to become as independent and creators as people of the Diaspora. The social group to which they belong often does not exceed the community of origin and the network of its migrants, whereas the people of the Diaspora have the feeling of belonging to a nation in exile, dispersed throughout the world, and bearing an ideal. But transnational communities, such as the Turkish one, are sometimes bearer of a transnational nationalism, which appears with the interactions of their different actors and try to influence the nation-state of their origin as the one of their settlement. Double citizenship and migratory circulation in the frame of a transnational region such as the EU favour the emergence of new trans-borders societies different from the long term Diasporas.


Please find the bibliographic references in the full text version of this article.




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Book Cover

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