“Where once were dispersions, there now is diaspora”
Expressions, beginning with “the diaspora must…,” “the diaspora should…,” followed by action verbs, such as “do,” “accept,” “(not) intervene,” “(not) participate” and so on, referring to the generalized role of a diaspora, are quite ubiquitous in the discourses of officials representing nation-states, leaders of state or diaspora-based organizations, editors, journalists, publicists, as well as among casual commentators on social media, not only among Armenians. A simple Google search of expressions, such as “diaspora must help,” “diaspora should act” and so on, will render many examples. Diaspora in such expressions is endowed with agency, imagined and conceptualized as a social entity capable of producing collective behavior, of acting in unison.
My intention in this brief article is to foreground the complexities of diasporas, and the Armenian diaspora in particular, beyond such groupist perceptions by briefly examining three conspicuous approaches to diaspora conceptualizations, and the historical and contemporary realities of the Armenian diaspora. In the first part, I am going to provide a concise outline of three approaches to diaspora conceptualizations which have developed in comparative and theoretical studies on migrations, transnationalism and diasporas since the 1980s. In the second part, I will discuss the ways in which these three approaches help or hinder our understanding of the historical and contemporary realities of the Armenian diaspora. I conclude by outlining several aspects of the complexities in the Armenian diaspora and proposing that, while studies of the Armenian diaspora can benefit from selective and combined employment of various conceptualizations of diaspora, privileging any of the approaches may obscure parts of the historical and contemporary realities of the Armenian diaspora.
Brief Outline of Three Approaches to Diaspora Conceptualization
Scholarship on diasporas—while failing to offer a universally-shared consensus around the definition of the concept of diaspora—has produced three conspicuous approaches to diaspora conceptualization: diaspora as a subtype of an ethnic collectivity (hence the term “ethnic diaspora”); diaspora as a site of hybrid cultural forms and identities; and diaspora as a collection of immigrant/transmigrant communities.
Diaspora as a subtype of an ethnic collectivity approach stresses the resilience of ethnic communities “lacking a territorial base” which maintain some form of connections with a real or imagined homeland. Diasporas in this approach are often contrasted both to their host-states and home-states, and sometimes they are referred to as “ethnic diasporas.” To distinguish diasporas from other similar ethnic formations, such as minorities, William Safran, Robin Cohen and others employed Max Weber’s concept of “ideal types” to suggest some characteristics of diasporas. Alienation from the host country, the idealization of eventual return, and the commitment to homeland are proposed as important characteristics defining diasporas. It is in such perceptions that various typologies of diasporas become possible because of certain observable features of specific diasporas, even if the exaggeration of these features is done deliberately, as a necessary abstraction for building “ideal types” for analytical and comparative purposes. This particular way of thinking has often been criticized for the inherent “groupism” and for essentializing the shared ethnic features among the dispersed populations. Diasporic boundaries, in this approach, are provided and maintained through ethnically defined cultural markers, and the crossing of ethnic boundaries is often described as assimilation.
The approach defining diasporas as a site of heterogeneous and hybrid cultural forms and identities has developed under the growing influence of post-colonial studies. This way of thinking evolved as scholars found the structuralism and state-centrism of the triadic approach inadequate for theorizing the African, Caribbean and other diasporic experiences. This counter current, emerging and developing in the writings of Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, James Clifford, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin, Floya Anthias and others, emphasized instead dual consciousness, lateral connections, boundary crossings, the mixing, creolization and hybridity of diasporic cultural identities. Stuart Hall’s definition of diaspora, which deconstructs the triadic framework, is illustrative of this approach: “Diaspora,” Hall writes, “does not refer us to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea. This is the old, the imperializing, the hegemonizing form of ‘ethnicity.’” Questioning the very idea of the eventual return, he suggests instead a perception of diaspora that is produced through transformation and difference: “The diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of identity which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are constantly producing and reproducing themselves, through transformation and difference.”
The third approach—diaspora as a collection of immigrant or transmigrant communities—emerged in the contemporary studies of transnationalism and migration studies, and in the cognate field of diaspora engagement and policy studies. It evolved as scholars began addressing global migration flows and population movements beyond the assimilation-integration frameworks, emphasizing instead the transnational social spaces and cross-border communications among and between immigrant/transmigrant communities and their respective countries of origin. Defined as immigrants who are involved and engaged in multiple trans-border communications and social relations, who are embedded in more than one nation-state—in their countries of origin and destination in particular—transmigrant communities resemble diasporas in many ways. Diaspora, therefore, became a convenient concept to describe these communities of recent immigrants and their descendants. Advocates of this approach often make little distinction between the interrelated terms of “expatriate communities,” “diasporas” and “transmigrant communities.” The term diaspora is usually defined broadly to include these other forms of dispersed transnational communities. This approach has introduced a significant break from the conceptualizations of diaspora discussed above, which theorized diasporas as longue durée historical phenomena.
“The term that once described Jewish, Greek and Armenian dispersion now shares meanings with a larger semantic domain that includes words like immigrant, expatriate, refugee, guestworker, exile community, overseas community, ethnic community.” This observation made by Khachig Tölölyan in 1991 in his inaugural introductory article in Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies is still very much relevant today. Noting the stretching of the meaning of diaspora to an extent that it becomes useless, Rogers Brubaker went further to suggest examining diaspora not as a bounded entity, but as “an idiom, stance and claim,” made by states, elites and institutions, in order “to articulate projects, to formulate expectations, to mobilize energies, to appeal to loyalties.”
The approaches I briefly discussed here have influenced the thinking of many scholars in the interdisciplinary field of diaspora studies. If a field of studies implies some level of exchange and mutual engagement among scholars and institutions, one may even rightfully question the very existence of a field of diaspora studies as such. Studies of diasporas have become dispersed across various disciplines, area and thematic studies, academic journals, conferences, institutions and also geographic regions to such an extent that advocates of a certain approach in many cases rarely engage, if at all, with discourses developing in cognate fields, beyond their academic and disciplinary circles.
The three approaches I outlined above are by no means a comprehensive overview of the interdisciplinary field of diaspora studies, the accomplishment of which falls beyond the scope of my goals in this article.
Approaches to Diaspora Conceptualization and the Armenian Diaspora
The contemporary Armenian diaspora comprises many different layers. The oldest among them are diasporic communities in Russia, Iran, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, those in Jerusalem or Istanbul, the Catholic Armenian congregation in Lebanon, the Mekhitarist Armenian Congregations in Venice and Vienna, and others, which had emerged long before the deportation and the genocide of Armenians in the 20th century. The genocidal dispersion of Armenians during the last decades of the Ottoman Empire added another layer, resulting in the emergence of sizable diaspora communities in the Middle East, in Western Europe (France in particular) and the Americas. The “internal diaspora” formed in the republics of the former USSR during the 20th century, and the most recent dispersion of Armenian immigrants from Armenia (both Soviet and independent), whose numbers have significantly grown in Russia, Western Europe and North America in the past four decades, have added yet another layer to the complex social-demographic and cultural composition of the Armenian diaspora. To complicate matters further, these various waves and the mobility of Armenians across the “lateral axes of diaspora”—mostly from the Middle East to Europe, Australia, North and South America—resulted in the overlaps between various layers of the Armenian diaspora.
Comparative studies of diasporas have primarily relied on the Armenian case as one of the “classical,” “archetypical” or “prototypal” diasporas, alongside the Jewish and the Greek diasporas. In the approaches privileging the resilience of ethnic forms, the resilient features of the Armenian ethnicity—religion and language—and the memories of the forced and violent dispersals, the genocide during WWI and the complicated relations with Soviet Armenia, have been foregrounded for the purpose of comparison. In his typology of the “ideal types of diasporas,” Robin Cohen categorized the Armenians as a “victim” diaspora, alongside the Jews, Africans, Palestinians and the Irish, all of which share two important characteristics: “the traumatic dispersal from an original homeland” and “the salience of the homeland in the collective memory of a forcibly dispersed group.” Gabriel Sheffer suggested examining the Armenian diaspora as a “stateless diaspora,” at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These generalizations are often made deliberately, as I explained above, for building “ideal types,” but the question is whether the construction of “ideal types” helps or hinders the actual and factual analysis. The “victim” diaspora framework, for example, is hardly useful for explaining the Julfa Armenian trade network, with its many nodes extending from Amsterdam and London to Madras, Calcutta and Manila in the 17th century; that is a notable example of a “trade diaspora.” That same framework of the “victim” diaspora seems less suitable for examining the voluntary dispersions of Armenians from the Republic of Armenia and the emergence of sizable diasporic communities of more recent Armenian immigrants in Russia and former Soviet countries, in Europe and the Americas. Between state-linked and stateless in Sheffer’s classification, one could convincingly argue that the Armenians were both a state-linked and stateless diaspora during the Soviet times. While Soviet Armenia was not an independent state, certain segments within the Armenian diaspora remained connected to what they considered to be the homeland, and many even “repatriated” to Armenia. In parallel to this state-linked diaspora, there were segments in the Armenian diaspora, who constructed discourses opposing Soviet Armenia, who fought for establishing an independent Armenian homeland, acting as a “stateless” diaspora.
Armenians constitute a self-conscious ethnic community in many diasporic localities. In most of these places, the Armenians maintain churches, schools, periodical press, publications in the Armenian language; many are self-conscious of their ethnic differences and would identify as Armenian without much hesitation. The approach to diaspora theorization privileging the resilience of ethnic forms, therefore, can be conveniently applied to the Armenian case to generate some descriptive accounts of the long presence of Armenian communities, churches and other institutions in host-countries, outside the Armenian homeland. This approach provides a limited analytical framework, however, for explaining the diverse realities of the Armenian diaspora. While many Armenians may feel some alienation from the countries in which they live, many others—the diaspora-born generations in particular—do not necessarily feel alienated from the countries of their birth. The approach stressing the resilience of ethnic forms in diasporas is less relevant for explaining the relatively small ratio of respondents in the Armenian Diaspora Survey (ADS), conducted in Lebanon, Argentina, Romania and Canada in 2019, who identified as exclusively “Armenian” (only 29%), when about 61% identified as “hyphenated Armenians.” Similarly, it is not much useful for explaining why 57% of the respondents thought of the homeland as “the country where I was born” and why these numbers were significantly higher, especially among younger generations born in Argentina and Romania. If diasporas are conceptualized within homeland/host-county duality, in-between, alienated from the host-country and yearning for the homeland, a female respondent from Lebanon having “mixed feelings” about the homeland, having difficulty to determine whether “Armenia and/or Lebanon” was homeland, should not be considered diasporic at all.
The global migration flows accelerating since the collapse of the Eastern bloc, but especially the unprecedented advances in communication technologies—social networks, texting, email, instant messaging, blogging and video conferencing—that have significantly shrunk social space and time, provided impetus for many states in the past decades to develop diaspora strategies. When the Armenian diaspora is examined through the prism of comparative studies of diaspora policies, strategies, diaspora governance, and within discourses constructed around “sending” and “receiving,” “origin” and “destination” states, the long established vast segments of the diaspora, with their transnational networks of institutions and organizations, that have not originated from the state of Armenia (whether Soviet or independent), remain in the blind spots of such approaches, too. Within the Armenian diaspora, certain segments among the long-established Armenian communities have developed a perception of the contemporary Republic of Armenia as the homeland and, with some reservations, the discourse of “homeland” and “hostland,” “origin” and “destination” countries can be applied to these segments as well. Yet in parallel to these segments, there are also many, who have less to no connection with the Republic of Armenia, for whom diaspora has been and will remain a permanent experience. According to the ADS 2019 data, the majority of respondents thought of their homelands as the country in which they were born, and 55% of all respondents had no active connections in the Republic of Armenia. Not surprisingly, these numbers were higher among the diaspora-born generations: among respondents whose grandparent or earlier generations had first arrived in the country in which they lived, 66% thought of their homelands as the country in which they were born, and 59% had no active connections in the Republic of Armenia. The structuralist binaries of sending/receiving, origin/destination, diaspora/homeland are too rigid, thus, to capture the actual diversities of the Armenian diaspora, if diaspora in relation to the Armenian case is to be used in a meaning other than just an “idiom, stance or a claim.”
The choice is between adopting definitions of diaspora that may limit and exclude certain segments and populations who identify and act in one way or another as diasporic, or approaches that are more inclusive and provide more appropriate frameworks and methodologies for analyzing, explaining and dealing with diasporic diversities. The fact that the respondents of the Armenian Diaspora Survey participated in the surveys and qualitative interviews voluntarily, knowing that it was a survey about the Armenian diaspora, suggests that, at least on the emic level—on the level of subjective perceptions—they considered themselves diaspora Armenians. The empirical realities of the Armenian diaspora, thus, may not always conform with theoretical and comparative approaches privileging ethnic resiliency or those treating diasporas as a collection of immigrant communities. Approaches that define diasporas as sites of heterogeneous and hybrid cultural forms and identities, in this case, provide more inclusive frameworks which help explain the experiences transcending strictly ethnic boundaries and the rigid triad of homeland/diaspora/host-land.
Historically, the Armenian diasporic identities have developed both within ethnicity and also beyond ethnicity. In this regard, studies of Armenian identity would certainly benefit from “a process of de-ethnicization of identity.” Theoretical approaches to diaspora conceptualization that emphasize cultural mixing and hybridization seem to provide more inclusive frameworks for explaining the complexities of the Armenian diasporic identities. From the perspectives of these approaches, the “Russification,” “Americanization,” or “Francization” of Armenians, the multigenerational transition “from being to feeling Armenian” are not merely processes leading to final and irreversible assimilation, but they can also be examined and explained as processes of diasporization in a sense suggested by Stuart Hall, that produce and reproduce Armenianness “through transformation and difference.”
I would like to conclude by rephrasing Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin’s claim about Jewishness, who wrote: “Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these in dialectical tension with one another.” The same holds true for Armenian diasporic identities: Armenianness is not ethnic, not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these in dialectical tension with one another. The dialectical tensions that need to be accounted for in theoretical and comparative studies of the Armenian diaspora can be summarized not exclusively in the following points:
- Homeland-centrism and diaspora-centrism: The Armenian diaspora has been historically multilocal or polycentric. The contemporary Armenian diaspora comprises populations both centered around the homeland, generally perceived to be the Republic of Armenia, and also those centered around various diasporic localities and diaspora as a whole. Homeland-centrism and diaspora-centrism are not mutually exclusive: the homeland-centered segments are in one way or another also involved in diasporic cultural production, and the diaspora-centered segments may occasionally visit the Republic of Armenia or Artsakh, and may also contribute to various projects there. The major difference between these two is that, while the advocates of homeland-centrism stress the idea of return and some among them eventually relocate to the Republic of Armenia, for the latter segment, return or repatriation has no place in their experiences and practices of Armenianness, for whom diaspora is a permanent and productive space.
- Ethnicity, cultural production and diaspora: Various localities in the Armenian diaspora have at different times served as important centers of Armenian cultural production. The role of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice was crucial in the “Armenian cultural revival” movement of the 18th century. Throughout the 19th century, Constantinople and Tiflis emerged as important centers of Armenian cultural production, contributing respectively to the standardization of the Western and Eastern dialects of the modern Armenian language. Beyond contributing to ethnic cultural production, however, the Armenian diaspora also provided spaces for cultural mixing and the emergence of new forms of hyphenated Armenianness. Publications in Armeno-Turkish, literature produced in English, French, Spanish and other languages on Armenian themes by diaspora Armenians, are some examples of such diasporic products, developing in mixed cultural forms.
- Language and diaspora: While Western Armenian is spoken throughout many Armenian diaspora communities, it is not the lingua franca of the Armenian diaspora. Alongside many native speakers of Western Armenian, the Armenian diaspora also comprises populations whose mother tongues include, among others, Russian, English, Spanish and French. These individuals, often with mixed backgrounds, may have some level of proficiency in the Armenian language or they may not speak the language at all. But they identify as Armenian in various situations, they fund, staff and maintain Armenian organizations in their countries, contribute to Armenian affairs locally, nationally and sometimes transnationally, and are diasporic in many ways.
- Religion and diaspora: While most diaspora Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, organized under dioceses of the Catholicosates of Etchmiadzin or Cilicia, the Armenian diversities also include sizable communities of Catholic and Protestant Armenians, and smaller communities of other religious denominations. While the Armenian Church has served as an important integrator of Armenians around the diaspora, diasporic Armenianness transcends the boundaries defined by the church and religion as well.
From the perspective of the complex empirical realities of the Armenian diaspora and the approaches more sensitive to diasporic diversities, diasporas are too vast and heterogeneous to generate any coordinated collective action in unison. Diasporas, however, are capable of generating power through coordinated action, especially through diasporic elites, organizations and institutions, moreso when large segments of diaspora populations happen to share, at certain historical junctures, emotions emanating from reactions to catastrophic events—whether happening at the time or embedded in traumatic collective memories. The unprecedented mobilization of the Armenian diaspora after the 1988 Spitak Earthquake, during the wars in Artsakh in the 1990s and 2020, or during the annual commemoration events of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, are some examples of large-scale diasporic actions that become possible due to the emotional resonance of these events among broader segments of the diaspora.