Book Review: Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, by Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny’s book, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, is part of a series of short introductions on a wide range of topics published by the Oxford University Press. As a very short introduction with just 109 pages of content, Kenny does his best to avoid becoming bogged down in historical details and instead focuses on elucidating the theoretical framework of diaspora itself. Kenny argues that the term diaspora has been used in so wide a variety of situations that it has begun to lose its utility as a tool of study. To combat this trend, Kenny tries to narrow the definition of diaspora by identifying three key attributes that diasporic groups possess: movement, connectivity, and return. He supports and expands on this framework for diaspora by analyzing a geographically diverse range of population movements.

Kenny’s conception of diaspora is heavily rooted in Jewish tradition. He traces the word diaspora back to its use in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures from approximately 250 BCE. He argues that the Jewish understanding of diaspora, which was originally meant to convey the idea of spiritual estrangement from God, became conflated with galut, a Hebrew word which means physical exile (Kenny, 4-5). So, the Jews saw physical and spiritual exile from the land as being part of the same experience or process. Kenny positions this process of catastrophe, forced movement and a hope for redemption through return as the most useful structure of diaspora as a concept.

Is Kenny’s understanding of diaspora sound? Does it make sense to only apply the term diaspora if a migratory group’s situation conforms to the Jewish experience of exile and a hoped for divine redemption, or does that privilege Western understandings of history unnecessarily? One could argue that a word must have a set meaning, but the meanings of words have always changed over time. Also, for an academic study, it might make more sense to define a term in a way that does not rely on a specific set of religious ideas, especially if the goal is to make it generally applicable for groups of differing religious and cultural backgrounds. Because of how Kenny positions the idea of diaspora, at times it feels as if he is stretching the experience of the immigrant groups he examines to push them into the box he has built. He also fails to examine in any meaningful way the experiences of groups that would challenge his construction of diaspora. That may not be a fair critique for a very short introduction, but considering his conjecture that there are many opposing viewpoints of what constitutes a diaspora, including an example could have benefitted readers. Also, if Kenny is committed to the idea of scholars having the obligation to create a specific definition of diaspora and maintain it, why does he backpedal in his closing chapter by asking, “But if a given group chooses to define itself as a diaspora for its own purposes, who is the author of a short introduction to disagree? (Kenny, 109).

Kenny’s book is arranged thematically, rather than by group. He defines how he understands diaspora in chapter one and then spends the next three chapters expanding on the experiences of a handful of groups to elaborate on that definition. On the one hand, arranging his book this way makes it difficult to follow the individual experiences of the groups he reviews. In most cases, there are no chapter subheadings to orient the reader if they were interested in just one group’s experiences, making the reading experience potentially more laborious. Arranging his book thematically also leads to the repetition of information in some cases, which is space that could have been used for opposing views or the analysis of additional groups. On the other hand, organizing the book thematically allows the reader to clearly see the similarities between the experiences of the different groups, which better suits the author’s purpose of attempting to define diaspora.

Kenny’s first qualifier for a group to be a diaspora is an initial movement from a homeland. This movement must have a catastrophic element that creates a sense of imposed exile. Because of his concern for overextending the use of the word diaspora, Kenny is careful when discussing the history of the migration of different groups to differentiate between normal migration and a forced migration that creates a diaspora. His best example to support this idea is his discussion of the continuous migration of Irish to other countries over a period of hundreds of years, beginning in the 1700s. He points out that it was the potato blight in 1841to1855, which caused massive famine and a sudden, massive increase in the number of people migrating out of Ireland that was the defining moment in the creation of an Irish diaspora. The Irish who went abroad blamed England for their circumstances and for the deaths caused by the famine. They felt that England engineered the blight to eradicate them. This feeling of oppression created a sense of exile that reinforced their identity as a diasporic community. He also shows how the Jewish diasporic community suffered a catastrophic event that began a period of diaspora, though he oddly positions the beginning of diaspora in 586 BCE with the Babylonian exile. While historically accurate, Jews see exile and return as cyclical and the most recent exile, imposed by the Romans in 70 CE after they destroyed the Second Temple was the defining event for the majority of diasporic Jews. It marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for approximately two-thousand years and, unlike the Babylonian exile, removed almost the entirety of the population from the area.

Kenny’s second qualifier is connectivity. This is an interesting idea, but it does not seem as well-developed as Kenny’s explanations of either the initial migration or of the desire for return. Or rather, it seems that in each category a different group fits more neatly into Kenny’s definition of diaspora. For the initial migration, Irish and Jews clearly fit into the model of catastrophe leading to diaspora. For Africans, there was certainly a catastrophic event, but Kenny points out that Africans were victims of being sold into slavery in other parts of the world as well. Kenny attempts to downplay the experiences of African slaves in other areas of the world to bolster his claim that Atlantic slavery was definitive in creating an African diaspora. It seems more likely, however, that rather than the initial experience of being sold into slavery, it was racialization that created a feeling of commonality between Africans, which is something that Kenny brings up, but only in the sense that it created a sense of connectivity among Africans in the Atlantic world. This brings up another point. What is connectivity? Did Africans in South America actively communicate with Africans in the southeast United States or the Caribbean? Or is Kenny simply referring to a feeling of solidarity and common experience?

The third qualifier, which focuses on the idea of return, is the most interesting. Kenny focuses on the fact that many members of diasporic communities may not choose to return, even when given the opportunity. He oddly situates a discussion of this regarding Indians in South America in the chapter dealing with connectivity, but it is relevant here as well. This speaks to Kenny’s definition of the desire to return as being a desire to return a homeland that may be more imagined than real. His explanation of return focuses most heavily on the Jewish experience and the Rastafari movement. The Jewish experience was extremely informative because it shows what can happen when a diasporic group attempts to become a singular nation. The differences between the waves of immigrants that arrived in Israel shows that life in the diaspora has an effect on migrant groups. They become partially assimilated the cultures they live in. One could almost say that they stop being part of the same group in almost every sense of the word, becoming something in-between, rather like the Japanese experience in the American west. This is something that Kenny touches on when discussing the reasons why diasporic groups may choose to remain outside of their homeland. His discussion of the Rastafari movement was fascinating, though it seemed out of place. Kenny attempted to present the entire African diaspora in the Atlantic as connected, but used the experience of one group to show a general desire for return to Africa.

There were other odd additions to Kenny’s narrative that seemed out of place. One was the long discussion of the Palestinians in the chapter on return. Why add in a new group of people but only discuss them in a specific chapter, rather than as a part of the whole narrative? This may have been a limitation of the decision he made to structure his book thematically, but if that were the case, it may have presented a cleaner narrative if the Palestinians had not been included. However, since they were included in the narrative, the way they were approached feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than describing in excessive detail the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, Kenny could have examined the Palestinians as a diaspora. Even more, he could have looked at the dynamics between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas and discussed how they affect, or possibly reinforce each other. Another odd inclusion was the discussion of ancient human migrations out of Africa. Was this necessary for a discussion on diaspora?

Despite any problems that Kenny’s book may have, he is tackling a topic that is hard to define and hard to discuss, especially in a very short introduction. With a book this short, Kenny necessarily must take a certain point of view and stay with it. His desire to give the term diaspora a set meaning is reasonable, especially if we want the term to be useful as a tool for studying migration, and he presents a definition that seems to fit the groups he chooses for analysis reasonably well. Kenny spent time on subjects that were not necessary to his topic, but they do not detract from the book in a serious way. He also seems to broaden and bend his definition based on the group he is analyzing. As an introduction to diaspora, this book is well worth the time it takes to read and, if the reader has more questions, Kenny provides a list for further reading based on chapter.



Kenny, Kevin. 2013. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Universy Press.

Reading Response: Development of Modern American Federal Immigration Control

The authors for this week’s readings have focused on detailing and expanding our understanding of the development of modern immigration control. Erika Lee positions the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as the primary force driving the creation of federal immigration controls and ideology, politics, and the law of “gatekeeping.” Beth Lew-Williams builds on Lee’s position by discussing the difference between restriction and exclusion, presenting 1888 as the most significant year of change in immigration policy. Hidetaka Hirota shifts the conversation to one with a national perspective by placing the conversation about immigration controls in the context of preexisting state policies and by showing how those policies influenced, created and implemented federal immigration policies. Anna Law, in turn, builds on Hirota’s analysis by showing that pre-antebellum states had directed and meaningful policies regarding migration and freedom of movement, disputing the “open borders” trope she states is common in American immigration literature.

In “The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924,” Erika Lee focuses narrowly on the West Coast and describes the process of public fears regarding Chinese labor migration. In her analysis, she describes the exclusion of certain groups of Chinese based on economic circumstances. She brings up the idea of “whiteness,” and while she does not elaborate, race seems less relevant here than labor concerns. Chinese migrants were primarily cyclical, returning to China with earned income rather than intending to settle in the U.S. While public concerns on the West Coast did expand to include other Asian immigrants who did intend to settle, the fears that people on the West Coast are shown to have mostly mirror those that Hidetaka Hirota describes in his article, “”The Great Entrepot for Mendicants:” Foreign Poverty and Immigration Control in New York State to 1882,” in which he describes the frustrations Northeasterners felt as they were inundated with European paupers. The desire to exclude those paupers was not based on race, but on the fact that they were not economically self-sufficient.

So, on the one hand, people on the West Coast were facing labor competition, and on the other, people on the East Coast were facing a potential financial crisis resulting from an overflow of poor migrants that would have to rely on state and private aid. The arguments that Beth Lew-Williams presents in “Before Restriction Became Exclusion: America’s Experiment in Diplomatic Immigration Control” support this argument. While her primary purpose is to draw a distinction between a temporary restriction of Chinese labor immigration in 1882 and the actual exclusion of all Chinese immigration after 1888, her analysis supports the focus of public attention on the West Coast on economic, rather than racial, concerns.

In his previously mentioned article as well as in “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” Hirota makes the important point that federal immigration law did not appear out of a vacuum. It was not the major break from tradition that Lee and Lew-Williams so heavily emphasized. Hirota’s focus on the role of the New York and Massachusetts in defining what would become federal immigration law and their roles in subsequently enforcing those laws creates a continuity that was previously lacking. His choice in focusing on New York City was reasonable, given that for the time period covered, that was the port of entry for the majority of migrants. Hirota recognizes that West Coast, as well as Northeastern concerns, played a role in shaping federal immigration policies, but he fails to address the impact this has on southern states if any. As Anna Law mentions in “Lunatics, Idiots, Paupers, and Negro Seamen—Immigration Federalism and the Early American State,” the North and South had different economic concerns regarding immigration and free movement of peoples. This was, however, somewhat beyond the scope of what he intended to focus on and would likely have been more detrimental than helpful to the point he was trying to prove.


Reading Response: Historiography of “Whiteness” and race in the United States

“Irish-American Workers and White Racial Formation in the Antebellum United States,” which is chapter 7 of The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, by David Roediger, “Whiteness, Racism, and Identity,” by Barbara Fields and “Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America,” by Peter Kolchin all address the development of ideas of racial identity in the United States. Fields’ work incorporates ideas from Roediger’s earlier book, while Kolchin in turn incorporates their ideas, along with those of Matthew Frye Jacobson into his critique of whiteness studies up to that point. The works reviewed were all written in period covering roughly 10 years, between 1991 and 2002, and are, according to Kolchin, representative of the first decade of a new type of literature addressing the concept of whiteness in American history.

The chapter from David Roediger’s book focuses on the Irish immigrant experience and the racism that they faced. Roediger argues that the Irish were not seen as white and implies that they were considered black. He couches this argument in terms of class conflict and attempts to establish that the Irish differentiated themselves from blacks by pushing blacks out of the labor markets they occupied while simultaneously trying to add respectability to those positions by changing the terminology used. It seems as if Roediger was arguing that the Irish were primarily responsible for their inclusion in the idea of “whiteness”. Roediger also falls into the trap of racial essentialism by claiming that the Irish were predisposed to racist attitudes because of their adherence to Catholicism and their dislike for the British.

Barbara Fields challenges Roediger’s idea by stating that it is impossible for a group that is being subjected to racism to negotiate that racism; they can only challenge it and attempt to navigate the obstacles that are created as a result of the construction of a racist idea about who and what they are. In other words, Fields sees whiteness and race as a cover for racism, because it defines categories and places people in them regardless of their personal identity and in spite of their agency. A portion of Roediger’s work actually supports Fields’ later argument, because he notes the role of the Democratic party in redefining the role of the Irish in American society. The Democratic party recognized the Irish population as an important voting bloc that they could use to maintain power. While the Irish had positioned themselves to be more easily accepted as being on par with native American whites, it wasn’t until they were seen as useful politically that they were granted an equal status.

Further, Roediger seems to premise his work on the idea that the Irish were not seen as white. However, as Peter Kolchin later points out, this is not the case. The Irish were admitted into the country as “whites” and, while the Irish were looked down on, it isn’t necessarily because their color was in question. Kolchin believes that there were other factors that were more important, like the perceived conflict between Irish Catholicism and Protestant American Republicanism. It would also be reasonable to believe that Irish immigrants, coming from a preindustrial lifestyle, and admittedly being called savages, were considered educationally and technologically inferior. They had no skilled labor to speak of and, according to Roediger, performed the most menial work available. It is as if an informal caste system had developed, in which black Americans and the Irish were vying for the bottom rung.

Roediger asks a related question that is somewhat odd, in that the answer should be evident. Why did the Irish identify blacks as the group they should compete against rather than other white ethnic groups? Fields states that whiteness equals white supremacy and European immigrants become white by adopting white supremacy, which results in material rewards. So, the Irish would have attempted to become white by adopting white supremacy. Roediger’s work shows that the Irish did proactively adopt racist rhetoric at the least. However, this contradicts Fields’ own argument about people not having any agency at all in their racial designation. An easier explanation might be that water takes the path of least resistance. Not only were black Americans easy targets who could be attacked with little fear of repercussion, they were directly competing with the Irish for jobs.

Sexual relations are a topic that comes up frequently in Roediger’s reading. He focuses heavily on the fact that biracial sexual relations were looked down on and came up frequently as a “danger” of racial equality, but he does not go into detail (in the chapter reviewed, at least) as to why these sexual encounters were thought to pose such a great risk to American society. The answer becomes clear in Kolchin’s work, where Lincoln indicates that, while blacks should be entitled to the fruit of their labor, he felt that they were inherently inferior. This idea remains prevalent in some segments of society today, which is ironic given the myth of the United States as a “melting pot.” How does a pot of varied ingredients melt together without mixing?

Of the works covered, Kolchin’s raises the most important points in terms of how whiteness and race in general should be addressed in the future. Should race as a category be abolished, or should whiteness be redefined, or should white as a category be abolished and what would that mean for those people that traditionally identify that way? Would abolishing white as a category just create space for another category with the same meaning to take its place? And how does one modify the attitudes of just one group of people? An interesting path of research would be to look at what it meant to be “white” at specific periods of American history and see if those ideas match up with what people thought it meant to be American.

Migrating From Blogger to WordPress [Under Construction / Expect Errors]

Hi.  You’re probably looking for something and found this generic web page instead.  I’m in the process of transferring my Blogger blog to a self-hosted WordPress solution with Dreamhost.  Check back in a few hours and, hopefully, I’ll have this thing up and running. The hard part is over, I think.  I had a hell of a time getting the DNS records right with eNom and just getting the blog to load in a browser.  Now comes the easy part… proofreading all the posts and reposting them.

Update: I was wrong. It took forever to get a few plug-ins set up and get the posts imported.  Now I have to proofread all the posts and fix the categories and tags (Blogger only has one, not both), but that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Update 2:  It seems as though none of my images are loading properly, which means I’ll probably have to edit each and every post.  I’m glad I don’t have plans for tomorrow.

Update 3:  I’ve managed to fix the categories and tags on 24 of 33 pages of posts.  This is taking longer than expected.  Hopefully that’ll be done tomorrow so I can focus on fixing the problems with the images and formatting.

Update 4:  I’ve finished doing the categories and tags.  I’m sure I’ll rearrange them later, but for now, I think I’ve got them about where I want them.  Now I can get started on fixing the images, reinserting videos and removing formatting errors. =)

Update 5: I was in class again this week, so it has slowed down my efforts to fix picture and text errors.  Still working on it. (Friday, 6/9/2012)


Moving To WordPress

I’ve finally found the time and the motivation to get this blog moved to WordPress, so if you notice some funkiness over the next few days, that’s why.  Also, if you don’t see any posts from me for a couple of weeks, then you may need to update your RSS feed, though I’ll try to find a way to make my current Feedburner feed move to WordPress with me.