Diaspora Studies Calling
By Yiorgos Anagnostou
The massive emigration of Greeks in the 2010s represents one among several dramatic consequences of the debt crisis. Once again in its history, Greece experienced the exodus of human resources under pressing conditions. It is noteworthy that this phenomenon erupted at a historical moment when the massive waves of emigration that marked the country throughout the twentieth century were considered a feature of the past. The sense of consumerist bliss that prevailed toward the end of the 1990s and early 2000s led to the view that emigration was obsolete, and, consequently, that the making of a new diaspora was no longer a possibility. Yet, against all predictions, there were surprises in store.
Under these conditions, the Greek diaspora returned to the center of public discussions as a major social and political phenomenon. The reasons for this reversal are not difficult to pinpoint. Disruptions experienced by families directly affected by emigration, concerns over the loss of human capital, and questions regarding the new diaspora’s relationship with Greece all contributed to this development. The conversation about the vote of “Greeks abroad” was revitalized. Scholars began to focus their research on the so-called brain drain. At the same time, the Greek American diaspora was proving once again its willingness to extend humanitarian and other forms of assistance to Greece. The role of the diaspora via-a-vis its historical homeland was once again a matter of national interest.
In the midst of these developments, an additional issue emerged, one that preoccupies many academics: the absence of university programs or research centers, both in Greece and the United States, that would systematically undertake the multifaceted and long-term study of the Greek diaspora. At work, of course, are valuable contributions from particular academic fields—such as language education for heritage speakers—and research groups, as well as committed individual scholars. The problem lies in the institutional scale and the prospects of diaspora studies in Greece, the United States, and possibly elsewhere. Both are gravely limited.
The current developments raise the urgent call for the empowerment of diaspora studies via the establishment of research centers and academic programs across the world. To what end, one might ask? What would the usefulness of this investment be, and for whom?
The value of institutionalizing diaspora studies in Greece has been linked with the importance of diasporas—particularly the affluent diasporas in North America and Australia—as engines for Greece’s economic growth and modernization. The prospect of further investments, philanthropy and humanitarianism, and the lending of expertise from diaspora professionals constitute an invaluable economic and social capital that needs to be cultivated for the purposes of development while linking Greece global economic, social, and educational networks.
The understanding of this phenomenon—and hence the call for diaspora studies—is posited as necessary to bolster these prospects. Knowledge about diasporas is seen as a resource in the service of governmental best practice: the making of the legal and social environment as well as the offering of incentives to facilitate exports, encourage investments, support philanthropic projects, and attract highly qualified diaspora professionals to Greece. The creation of transnational educational and professional networks is another facet, as I mentioned, to bolster Greece’s position in the era of globalization.
Diaspora studies is a field that is also positioned to produce understanding of the ways in which Greek identity is produced in the diaspora. This contribution is not independent from those legal, economic, and social processes I identified above, now and in the future. A diaspora’s affective and economic connectivity with Greece hinges upon the continuous operation of substantive diaspora bonds across generations. Diaspora studies produces knowledge illuminating diaspora’s cultural reproduction and contributes, in turn, to policies for enhancing it. At work here is the dialectical mutuality between a culturally empowered diaspora and its continuous multifaceted entanglement with Greece.1
The diaspora phenomenon, however, is not limited to one-way connections with the historical homeland. Rather, diaspora collectives and individuals create a variety of two-way cultural expressions. In Greek America, for example, the musical group Annabouboula mixes the clarinet and the dumbek (Mediterranean goblet drum) with electronic funk. In Greek Australia, painter Nikos Soulakis brings to his art elements of both Greek and aboriginal Australian culture. Diaspora entails cross-cultural encounters and produces cultural combinations.
It is also important to remember that a diaspora community is internally heterogeneous. The various identities within its space are multiple, and often in ideological conflict with one another. There were Greek Americans, for example, who actively supported equal rights for Black Americans in the mid-twentieth century, while others remained passive, or even hostile to this activism. The position of the Greek Orthodox Church offers yet another relevant example. The civic activism of the late Archbishop Iakovos and recently of Archbishop Elpidoforos has sparked a broad conversation about the theological and social foundation for the church’s anti-racist advocacy. A quick perusal of social media, however, is enough to demonstrate that this stance is not universally acceptable by the U.S. Greek Orthodox flock.
Identity in the diaspora—like everywhere—entails more that affective identification. It connects with an ideological position and its antecedent social and civic practice. In what way do narratives of identity envision the Greek American, the German American, or the Greek Australian citizen? What answer do they offer to the question “what does it mean to be Greek” in the world, and in the twenty-first century? I believe this angle of understanding diaspora is a productive departure point to endorse diaspora studies and explore its social value.
A diaspora social field is created transnationally, through the two-way movement of ideas, knowledge, cultural products, and human beings—literature, documentaries, films, scholarship, autobiography, music—across diasporas as well as across a particular diaspora and Greece. The significance of this phenomenon for the understanding of the Greek people at a global level is multifaceted. Here I only share selective examples from the Greek American diaspora social field: Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex and the documentary Pallikari narrate for the Greek public situations that connect various Greek worlds beyond geopolitical and social borders. They connect Smyrna with Detroit; Crete with Colorado. Often, the ideas originating from the diaspora are groundbreaking and open up new ways of understanding the world. Consider for example Nicholas Calas, George Economou, and Annie Liontas. Or scholars who have proposed unconventional perspectives about Greek literature or the diaspora.
These cultural products entangle with the question of what it means to be a Greek citizen in the world today. Do they advocate interethnic solidarities? Do they call for activism against inequalities? Do they propose cultural purity or intercultural exchanges instead? The answers we provide to these questions illustrates the kind of society we envision.
This movement of ideas encompasses a wide range of demographics—organizations, translators, authors, activists, scholars, leaders, readers, immigrants, grassroots organizations—both in Greece and the various Greek diasporas. It concerns us all.
The enrichment of collective cultural life and its public benefits are reasons enough to respond to the calling of diaspora studies, to both extend institutional support for the field and expand its range
The ideas that the various diasporas produce require reflection and public conversation, which are impossible to deliver substantively without deep knowledge of the history and culture of each respective diaspora. It is in this practice of translating diasporas responsibly to various readerships—in Greece and elsewhere—that I locate the value of diaspora studies. Diaspora studies offer a venue for self-understanding and educating citizens across continents. It provides a route for mutual understanding across diasporas, and between a diaspora and Greece. Diaspora studies can generate new ideas. It can provide a vital venue and vital resources for the conversation about Greek identity, particularly its political and ethical dimensions, in the twenty-first century.
1. Antonis Kamaras, 2020. “Renewing Diaspora Studies in Greece: A Research Agenda,” Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), June 30. https://www.eliamep.gr/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Policy-paper-35-Antonis-Kamaras-final.pdf