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United for the “homeland”? The myths of diaspora politics and implications for IR theory

Henriette Rytz
Osnabrück University
Henriette Rytz
Osnabrück University
Open Panel

Abstract

The emergence of “globalization” as a key concept in the academic study of international relations in the 1990s moved diaspora politics across borders into the scholarly focus. Yet, while empirical studies on the subject abound, the diaspora politics has but cautiously been integrated into IR theory. In my paper, I argue that this negligence has been driven by three different myths surrounding diasporas as transnational political actors. The first myth is terminological and relates to the collective identity and references of belonging. The term “diaspora” in its original sense implies a strong attachment to the “homeland” culminating in the desire of eventual return – contrary to the reality of many contemporary diasporas. The second myth is conceptual and addresses the scope of political representation – diasporas are seen as unified actors which directly engage in political activism. The conceptual convergence of the diaspora community and the political actors is misleading, as such factors as countervailing powers, the gap between the representative and the represented, and the heterogeneity of political beliefs and mobilization within one community are neglected. The third myth is also conceptual and addresses the scope of political activism of diasporic actors – which are often assumed to easily transcend the borders of nation-state political systems, virtually unrestricted in their radius of action. The removal of these terminological and conceptual hurdles will allow for a fresh approach to the incorporation of diasporic actors in IR theory. In particular, I argue that theoretical approaches to diaspora politics in international relations need to move beyond the binary nature of liberal theory, as exemplified by the two-level game theory, and towards a multilevel and transnational framework.