Enacting Identity: Toward an Interdisciplinary Theory of Religions in Diaspora

The following is another old conference paper.  I gave the following paper on rethinking diaspora to the History of Religions section of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion in Atlanta, GA in March 2008.

The term diaspora seems to carry with it an imperative for interdisciplinary work.  Diasporas are approached by Judaic studies, anthropology, sociology, Caribbean studies, and various other cultural and area studies disciplines.  But what does religious studies have to offer for an understanding of diaspora?  I argue that while anthropology offers strong theoretical definitions and models for what diasporas are and what they do, religious studies, through a study of lived religion, offers an understanding of how diasporas are experienced and lived out in ordinary daily life.  In order to show how religious studies offers an “on the ground” understanding of life in a diaspora I take the example of South Asian Hindus living in the United States as my point of departure for two reasons.  First, because Hinduism in the United States is an under studied tradition and, second, because when it is studied, studies of American Hinduism have yet to take on lived religion approach found in other studies of American religions.  As such, the conclusion of this paper is a theoretical gesture toward the solution of these two disciplinary lacunas.

In order to establish a working definition of diaspora I turn to the discipline of anthropology.  Anthropologist James Clifford offers two definitions for diaspora.  First he presents William Safran’s definition, summed up as:

…a history of dispersal, myths/memories of the homeland, alienation in the host (bad host?) country, desire for eventual return, ongoing support of the homeland, and a collective identity importantly defined by this relationship.[1]

This definition creates a diaspora that is firmly oriented towards the homeland.  Safran’s diaspora gazes backward to the homeland while insulating itself against the host culture surrounding it.  It is transnational insofar as it crosses national borders psychologically  through memory and myth,  politically through international activism, and materially through financial support of the homeland.  However, there is also a sense that the walls between diaspora and host are impermeable and that the diaspora is a temporary existence that will culminate in a return to the homeland.

Clifford moves beyond Safran’s definition which he describes as a  “family resemblance, of shared elements, no subset of which is defined as essential to the discourse,”[2] and towards his own diacritical definition.  This diacritical definition argues: “Diasporas are caught up with and defined against (1) the norms of nation-states and (2) indigenous, and especially autochthonous, claims made by “tribal” peoples.”[3] In this definition a diaspora’s boundaries are permeable and its orientation is toward the nation-state.  Insofar as a diaspora is “caught up with” the norms of the nation state it is trans-cultural and allows influences to pass back and forth between the diaspora and the host nation.  Insofar as it is defined against the norms of the nation-state a diaspora is transnational; rejecting the notion of a singular national identity in order to maintain its identity as an extension of the homeland within the host nation.  The diaspora, as Clifford defines it, is not only a transnational space connecting the host nation and the home nation but it is also a para-national space existing along side nation states and defined as both not the host nation and not the homeland.

Clifford’s  definition of a trans-cultural, para-national and transnational diaspora is the most useful for understanding the South Asian diaspora in the United States.  In the United States, cultural exchange occurs between the South Asian diaspora and the mainstreams of American culture through public spaces and private relationships.  South Asians in the U.S. tend to remain involved in the politics of the homeland and South Asian political parties are active among South Asians in the U.S. in a manner aptly described as transnational.  Lastly, while South Asian communities are embedded within the United States, they distance themselves communally creating a para-national space that is neither their South Asian home nation, nor America.

Such an anthropological definition helps us to find the diaspora in the midst of the host nation but it does not provide a model for the dynamics within these diasporas.  Anthropological models of the dynamics within diaspora center on the concept of identity and the production of identity through difference in a diaspora.  The key characteristic of diaspora is difference and this difference becomes the force for producing and reproducing identity.  As Stuart Hall states, “Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.”[4] Because a diaspora is defined by its diacritical qualities it constantly produces and reproduces identity through difference—through its “definition against” the host nation and the home nation.  Difference then is the source of power in the diaspora and this power enables the production of identity.  Ellen Rooney describes this “threatening feature of difference” as:

…its power to choose us, to determine us.  Differences as an unfolding diacritical process that determines us makes us realize that we cannot preexist our relation to what we come to ‘know’ (or ‘choose’ or ‘fight’) in any sense that gives comfort or security.”[5]

Difference determines identity, I know who I am by what I see I am not, and diaspora offers, through its very character, such strong difference as to generate and regenerate identities.

The question still remains, how helpful is an understanding of identity production within a diaspora for getting to the reality of daily and ordinary life within the diaspora.  My answer, in short, is not very.  The powerful formation of identity within diaspora is extraordinarily empowering for individuals and communities within the diaspora and it is useful to the politics of diaspora but it does not get us any closer to understanding daily life and on the ground realities of life in a diaspora.

In the case of South Asians in America, the diaspora identities work to maintain a sense of  separation from the mainstreams of culture and the nations state in the American context and to simultaneously maintain connections with the homeland.  Robin Cohen sums up the problem diaspora identities pose for the nation state:

“many immigrants are no longer individualized or obedient prospective citizens.  Instead they may retail dual citizenship, agitate for special trade deal with their homelands, demand aid in exchange for electoral support, influence foreign policy and seek to protect family immigration quotas.”[6]

The identity model for diasporas only gets us as far as the politics of living in a diaspora.  A diaspora stands in tension with the host nation and maintains ties to the home nation.  But, how strongly does this identity persist in the everyday lives of immigrants in a diaspora?  Does the Indian woman shopping at the grocery store identify as ‘Indian’ when she buys a box of Raisin Bran?  Does her son consider the hybridity of eating Raisin Bran for breakfast and Indian dishes for dinner?  How does identity account for the music, the food, the conversations, the relationships, and the materiality of life in a diaspora?  In short, how do we account for how diaspora identity produced through difference is enacted in tangible, ordinary, and daily ways?

One way to discover how identities generated within the diaspora are enacted is to examine religion in the diaspora.  In the past ten to fifteen years, religious studies, and especially the study of American religions, have taken a turn toward understanding the tangibility of religion in daily life.  Scholars have pushed the discipline toward accounting for the materiality and sensuality of religious life in America.  This turn to “lived religion” is, as Bob Orsi says, a turn to locating religion “situated amid the ordinary concerns of life, at the junctures of self and culture, family and social world.”[7] Catholic transnational communities have often been approached by religious studies scholars in this bottom up method but studies of South Asian Hinduism in America have yet to take on this “on the ground” flavor.  If the above definition and model are correct, and the diaspora is space where difference produces identity, then applying a “lived religion” method of religious studies to Hinduism in the South Asian diaspora in the United States will reveal how diasporic identities are enacted “amid the ordinary concerns of life.”

Scholars in religious studies have tried to account for Hinduism in the South Asian diaspora two ways.  First, scholars like Joanne Waghorne have used models of globalization to account for the religious connections between diasporas and the homeland. Such studies generally focus on the building of temples and institutions.  Second, scholars of American religions, such as Diana Eck, have attempted to account for the Hindu diaspora by including them in the history of religions in America.  Both of these methods have illuminated aspects of the South Asian diaspora but neither bridges between identity and the enactment of identity effectively.  In short, the relationship between identity generated within the diaspora and religious practice in the diaspora is left unexplored.

Joanne Waghorne explores the transnational relationships involved in the building of temples and the establishment of organizations in the South Asian diaspora.  For Waghorne, the diaspora is a network of “globalized localities” between India, the homeland, and the various diaspora communities.  Waghorne focuses on temple building in the diaspora:

“I take on a double task: first, to put Hindu temples and temple building into conversation with the complex study of “religion and the city,” and second, to put both modern Hindu temples and world history into conversation with the study of religion.”[8]

Waghorne’s focus on temples gets closer to the materiality of diaspora reality but only so far as explaining why and how temples are being built and institutions established.  She emphasizes the transnational nature of temple building through examples of deities that are shipped from India to Washington, D.C. or traveling temple designers who build temples around the world.  Such a study does not go far enough down into the diaspora to account for the criss-crossing of American culture and sensibilities through the Hindu diaspora and the influence of the diaspora on American culture surrounding it.  Rather, such a view implies heterogeneity across Hindu diasporas despite the different host nation-states they are located in.

The second method for approaching diaspora within religious studies works to include marginal and diaspora identities and histories into the meta-narrative of American religious history and tends to get closer to an understanding of how religion offers an opportunity for the enactment of diasporic identities.  Diana Eck does so using a narrative of Hinduism in America told through the eyes of Vivekananda:

“One hundred years after Swami Vivekananda came to the United States and began planting the seeds of Vedanta in American cities, the Hindu tradition has truly taken root in America…Were he to return to tour the United States in the late 1990s…he would be quite surprised to find Bengali summer picnics in Boston, practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine in Seattle, a temple youth choir learning Hindi devotional songs in suburban Maryland, a group gathering to sing the Hindi Ramayana straight through in Chicago, and the procession of Lord Ganesh through the streets of San Francisco.”[9]

Through a history of Hinduism dating back over a hundred years, Eck tries to include the diaspora in the narrative of American religious history.  This desire for inclusion underlies much of the work by religious studies scholars who approach diaspora communities.  Because the field of religious studies has long been dominated by the white Protestant narrative of religious history, just getting recognition of alternative histories is considered a political feat.  These alternative histories, as Eck exemplifies, are told in terms of institutions (temples and societies), texts (songs, Vedic study), and rituals (processions, picnics, festivals).  Eck moves beyond Waghorne’s temples and organizations and towards things people actually do.  However, Eck does not explore the relationship between diasporic identity and these ritual actions.

By joining the anthropological definition and model of the diaspora with the lived religion approach of religious studies, the study of Hinduism in the South Asian diaspora can get beyond the building of temples and institutions and the necessity of historical inclusion and begin to examine how identities produced within the diaspora are enacted through ordinary, daily, lived religious practice and experience.  That said, I propose a tentative theory for understanding Hinduism within the South Asian diaspora in the United States that may guide research into new avenues:  The South Asian diaspora, characterized by difference with the mainstreams of American culture, produces and reproduces identities, standing in tension with the nation-state and with cultural memories, that are enacted through both innovations and traditions of religious ritual, daily practice, materiality, and community. Thus, Hinduism is the religious enactment of diasporic identities.  I base this theory on my own reading of the South Asian and Hindu diaspora in America but I think it would be useful in understand other diasporas as well.

My goal is to point research of religion and diaspora within the field of American religions away from mere recognition historically and toward an understanding of the ways diasporas produce innovations in lived religion.  The transnational temple building analyzed by Waghorne is just one example of how diasporas improvise religiously in the midst of a nation-state.  The list of Hindu moments in America compiled by Eck gets closer to identifying moments of innovation.  But in the future, research needs to unite the understanding of a diaspora’s productive power to the materiality of religious enactment.


[1] James Clifford, “Diasporas” Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3 (August 1994): 305.

[2] Clifford, 306.

[3] Clifford, 307.

[4] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Contemporary Postcolonial Theory ed. Padmini Mongia, 120 (London: Arnold, 1996).

[5] Ellen Rooney, “The Predicaments of Differences Without Positive Terms,” Ethnicities 5, no. 3, (2005): 408-409.

[6] Robin Cohen, “Diasporas and the Nation-State: From victims to Challengers” International Affairs 72, no.3, (July 1996): 519.

[7] Orsi, Robert A. “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live in?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  Vol. 42 Issue 2 (June 2003) 172.

[8] Joanne Waghorne, Diaspora of the Gods, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): 12.

[9] Diana Eck, “Negotiating Hindu Identities in the U.S.” in The South Asian Religious Diaspora in Britain, Canada, and the United States ed. Harold Coward et al., 235 (New York: SUNY Press, 2000).

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3 thoughts on “Enacting Identity: Toward an Interdisciplinary Theory of Religions in Diaspora

  1. This is one instance where Judaic Studies is IMPERATIVE in understanding the theoretical concept of a diaspora. The very term emerged out of a Jewish context (the septuagint if I’m not mistaken). In fact it should be noted Safran is probably approaching the term through the Jewish context. But of course an anthropologist like Clifford wouldn’t know a Jewish concept if it slapped him in the tush. Thus his definition that a diaspora is set in relation to the norms of nation-states. What before circa 1789 there were no diasporas?
    I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I get the feeling that when anthropologists write theoretically about ‘diasporas’, they simply ignore (forget) a whole range of ‘Jewish’ issues.

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    1. I think you’re quite right to point out the Jewish origins of the term diaspora. However, the term has taken on a new life–almost a second life of sorts–as way for thinking about communities in modernity.

      “What before circa 1789 there were no diasporas?”

      This is a great question. Again, you’re right that there certainly were diasporas before then. But in this paper I was trying to think about the relationship b/w diaspora and modernity. In theorizing communities in modernity, anthropologists like Clifford and Hall took the term diaspora from its Jewish context and gave it a new meaning. I would say, though I’m not a scholar of Judaism, that the modern Jewish diaspora is something different from its premodern predecessor.

      I think you point out an interesting question about the genealogy of the term that needs more digging. How did the term diaspora jump from a longstanding Jewish term to a term that describes an aspect of global modernity?

      I would also say something I didn’t put in the paper– I don’t really like the term diaspora because of its deep ties to the nation-state, modernity, and a Euro-centric history of sorts.

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  2. Ha “second life” that’s a funny term. Honestly I thought your paper was interesting, I just blame Clifford:) Really I shoulnt be just blaiming Clifford. Anthropologists do this a lot. They take a local term, turn it into a theoretical tool, and then relate it to any number of UNrelated issues. It’s one of the ways that anthropology is one of the most universal (secular) and universalizing (secularizing) disciplines out there. While this is legitimate, and one can reap many interesting insights, there is also a lot lost in the process. For one, it turns ‘theory’ into something rather shallow, and intellectually opportunistic.
    So for example your right the jewish diaspora in the modern period is something different then perhaps in premodernity. On the other hand there is also a lot of intellectual continuity happening. This intellectual continuity is something that anthropologists like clifford tend to de-emphisize (perhaps because anthropology just isn’t history).

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