What is a diaspora?

Many will think about the Jewish or Armenian diasporas when considering what a diaspora is. Historically, the term has primarily been used to refer to these groups of people forced from their homeland. Over recent decades, however, scholarship has advanced.

Diaspora is not the same as migration

The important point to make is that diaspora is not the same as migration. In popular debate and media reporting, the words diaspora and migration are very often used interchangeably. This is misleading. Migration refers to the movement of people away from where they were born. We can distinguish between different types of migration, for example:

  • internal migration
  • migration to another country to settle there permanently
  • migration to another country for work, with the plan to eventually return home
  • forced migration
Regardless of which migration someone undertook, diasporas form when people from the same background come together to actively recognise their homeland roots and act as a collective. In cases of forced exile, this is not the result of a choice, but essentialy the effect of that exile. Diaspora, therefore, is more than just the movement of people. It is about the links between them and ongoing connections to their (real or imagined) homeland.
Moreover, they also recognise, even if they do not know everyone, that other members of the diaspora exist elsewhere. Think about Burns Night, the annual celebration of the life and work of the poet Robert Burns. Held on 25 January each year, haggis, neeps and tatties abound. This celebration was transported around the globe by Scottish migrants and, to this day, it is being celebrated widely in this Scottish diaspora. Customarily, greetings are sent to other ‘brither Scots’ all around the world on that day.
This coming together is one characteristic of an active diaspora. It is not specific to Scots, but they have always actively pursued it in the communities in which they settled abroad.

How can we measure diaspora?

For diaspora to be a meaningful concept it’s not enough to say that it is more than just migration. Because if diaspora is not just the movement of people the question is how we can actually ‘measure’ it. In order to do that the best approach is to look at the migrants as agents in the making of diaspora.

The agents of diaspora

But why is it important to consider this agency? The short answer is because diasaporas need to be actively built and sustained: they do not just appear, but are being made by immigrants who choose to be active in their expression of the ethnic identity, shared roots and customs. As such, these immigrants use structures to help them with the active expression of diaspora. These structures can be varied and can have other purposes. Churches, for example, could serve this function by providing an organised gathering place for immigrants of the same brackground. While the primary purpose was whorship, churches could serve wider community-building activities.

But there were also many associations that more directly pursued diaspora-building functions because of their express focus on the immigrants’ roots. These organisations are called ethnic associations and include clubs and societies such as Burns clubs; St Andrew’s societies or the so-called Sons of Scotland. Such groups were common in immigrant communities around the world and no matter where immigrants originated from.

On the one hand these ethnic associtations served a function of remembering the old homeland. From haggis at Burns Anniversaries to caber tossing at Highland Games, there was a clear Scottish identity. Many of clubs and societies that were set up served a much wider purpose, however, helping fellow immigrants in distress. In New York the local St Andrew’s Society set up support provisions that ranged from meal tickets to advice on finding jobs, for example. Consequently, while these societies served an ethnic fucntion that helped sustain the Scottish diaspora, they often had a much wider civic purpose that made them pillars in the new societies Scottish immigrants settled into.

Diaspora connections

Diaspora is also about ongoing connections with the old homeland. From the Australian Scottish Delegation Tour of the Motherland in 1928 to the Hamefarin of New Zealand Scots to Shetland in 1960, these ongoing links continue to sustain a global community of Scots from around the world to this day.