Diasporas through Anthropological Lenses: Contexts of Postmodernity

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Diaspora 9:1 2000 Diasporas through Anthropological Lenses: Contexts of Postmodernity1 André Levy Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Faith in History: Armenians Rebuilding Community. Susan P. Pattie. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Hershberg's assertion, back in the early 1970s, that "the Age of Aquarius is being replaced by the age of Ethnicity" (1) remained appropriate for almost two decades, as many anthropologists and other social scientists followed the intellectual agenda encapsulated in this catchphrase. In the early 1990s, however, the study of cultural groups seemed to veer toward a study of diasporas, and "diasporic language appear[ed] to be replacing, or at least supplementing , minority discourse" (Clifford, "Diasporas" 311; see also Anthias, Demetriou. The founding of this journal—Diaspora—in 1991 also exemplifies that shift in interest, which remains current. Oddly enough, anthropological monographs are under-represented in this endeavor, and many anthropologists seem reluctant to join the bandwagon of diaspora studies. Although many anthropologists study diasporic communities, only a few have articulated a concept of diaspora and placed it at the heart of the matter. They seem to feel uneasy dealing with it, both as a conceptual tool and as an ethnographic setting. As Robin Cohen hints, the inclination towards cultural relativism, so powerful among anthropologists, leads to an aversion regarding the overt use of comparative or universalistic concepts (151). For this reason, Susan Pattie's monograph Faith in History: Armenians Rebuilding Community (hereinafter Armenians) is a welcome exception. In order to better understand anthropology's reluctance to embrace the concept of diasporas, one must observe more closely some of the threats it poses to social scientists' assumptions in general and especially to those of anthropology, which are particularly vulnerable. In general, diaspora emerges as a powerful counterpoint to prominent theoretical concepts regarding cultural groups in anthropology. Anthropologists who work with postmodernist and post-structuralist approaches call (in different voices and in various ways) for an understanding of situated, multivocal, and/or hybrid 137 Diaspora 9:1 2000 group identities. Numerous studies, however, stress that diasporas work to crystallize identity and solidarity among their members (mainly through identification with a desired homeland). According to these studies, it appears that diasporas repudiate disintegration, or at least resist multifaceted group and individual identities. This line of study thus accentuates the fact that diasporas function as a sociocultural integrative apparatus. How does anthropology deal with the apparent clash between the concept of diasporas as uniquely united cultural groups and authoritative postmodernist and post-structuralist "disintegrative" approaches? True, this problematic is not limited to anthropology; but, as I will demonstrate, anthropology is especially vulnerable because of its intensive interest in the culture concept and its main methodological tool—fieldwork. These paradoxes and threats to key anthropological concepts have impeded the anthropological study of diasporas. Armenians, which stands out as a comprehensive ethnographic work on diasporas , will serve in this article as a springboard from which to discuss these paradoxes and disciplinary anxieties. To explain the tangled shift from ethnicity towards diasporas in anthropology, I will center the discussion on two points, both of which respond to the paradoxes I have outlined above: 1)The fact that ethnicity (since the work of Frederick Barth) is regarded not as an inherited and static cultural content that is free from any sociopolitical context but, rather, as situated and selectively exploited political, social, and cultural resource. At face value, diasporas seem to contradict this tendency of thought, for they appear to aspire to constitute a sense of a real "We." 2)The reflexive critique of the anthropological discipline regarding both the colonialist background of anthropology and the place of the author in his or her monograph. By elaborating these points with reference to Armenians, I will situate the book in a context that it needs and Pattie neglects to provide. Anthropological Context: The Fragmentation of Collectivities Even today, when compared to previous decades' intensive study of ethnicity, diaspora studies remain on the margins of anthropology . Apparently this state of affairs is related to anthropology's theoretical heritage and constraining epistemological premises. Yet, as I will stress in the next two sections, some of the pathbreaking studies of diasporas may offer a promising passage...
Original languageEnglish GB
Pages (from-to)137-157
Number of pages21
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2000


  • Anthropologists
  • Anthropology
  • Armenians
  • Capital levy
  • Communities
  • Cultural groups
  • Cultural relativism
  • Cultural resources
  • Cultural values
  • Diaspora
  • Disintegration
  • Epistemology
  • Ethnicity
  • Ethnography
  • Fieldwork
  • Groups
  • Identification
  • Identity
  • Inclination
  • Levy
  • André
  • Paradoxes
  • Pattie
  • Susan Paul.
  • Susan Paul
  • Postmodernism
  • Poststructuralism
  • Rebuilding
  • Relativism
  • Scientists
  • Sociocultural factors
  • Stress
  • Studies
  • Vulnerability


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