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New Diasporas: Implications for Theory and Methods in Africanist Anthropology
American Anthropological Association Meetings
November 1999, Chicago, IL

By Jon Holtzman (Indiana Univeristy-Purdue Univeristy Indianapolis)

2000 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

Friday, November 19, a group of panelists gathered for one of AfAA’s two invited sessions -- ‘New Diasporas: Implications for Theory and Methods in Africanist Anthropology.’ Jon Holtzman chaired the session, with additional papers presented by JoAnn D’Alisera (U Arkansas), Donald Carter (Johns Hopkins), Rose Kadende-Kaiser (Mississippi State) and Bruce Roberts (Moorhead State). Paul Stoller (Westchester U) served as discussant.

The aim of the panel was to consider the role which new diasporic African communities play, or might play, within contemporary Africanist anthropology and within Africanist anthropology in the years to come. Through both voluntary migration and forced displacement, Africans currently are leaving the continent in numbers unseen since the days of the transatlantic slave trade. Within this context we are witnessing the creation of a variety of new African diasporic communities -- ones which do not fit neatly within traditional conceptions of ‘the African diaspora’ or the ‘African anthropological subject’ -- West African traders in the US, Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and the like. While other area specializations within anthropology have seamlessly integrated migration, transnational communities and globalization into their area focus for some time -- particularly Latin Americanists -- Africanists have paid comparatively little attention to these processes. Because these types of communities are ones that are likely to be of growing significance in the coming millennium, the panelists aimed to consider the place of transnational processes, and transnational communities within Africanist anthropology.

In the first paper, ‘My Commute to Nuerland,’ Holtzman considered the implications of doing research in the US among a people who represent perhaps the quintessential case study in Africanist anthropology, the Nuer of Sudan. In seeking to understand the lives of Nuer refugees in Minnesota, he weighed the usefulness of employing an analytical framework which emphasizes their unique and well-known cultural background versus one focussing on the class position they have assumed at the lowest rungs of American society. As anthropologists increasingly turn to issues in their own societies, or at the interface of their own and that of the Other, they run the risk of framing their new subjects within the same tropes of ‘the exotic’ with which anthropologists have long had an uneasy relationship. Holtzman presented a reflexive examination of these issues through his fieldwork among the Nuer, a community of whom are now living as refugees in suburban Minneapolis. While finding it both natural and necessary to frame discussions of the Nuer community in Minnesota within longstanding anthropological understandings of Nuer life, this creates an analytical tension since Nuer life in Minnesota owes as much to their current class position -- as refugees, welfare recipients, and minimum wage workers at the lowest rung of American society -- as it does to their unique, exotic cultural heritage.

In ‘Multiple Sites, Virtual Sightings: Ethnography in Transnational Contexts’ JoAnn D’Alisera challenged the notion of the anthropological field site through her analysis of Sierra Leonean Muslims in Washington, DC. She explored the ethnographic, methodological, and theoretical implications of studying a group in which the very fact of operating simultaneously in geographically distant social fields has become a central component in the construction of transnational Sierra Leonean identity. Transnational migration, she noted, brings distant worlds into immediate juxtaposition, with the result that the production of meaning can no longer be understood in terms of distinctions between here/there, self/other, and difference/similarity. As anthropologists increasingly problematize the notion that people are ‘naturally’ rooted in particular geographical spaces we are increasingly challenged both methodologically and analytically, particularly within the theory and practice of fieldwork. D’Alisera challenged Africanists to rethink the ‘field site,’ viewing it no longer as a highly localized, stationary construct, but rather as a delocalized, moving and moveable site, or even a multiplicity of sites.

Rose Kadende-Kaiser examined a very different type of new African community, and gave new meaning to the ‘field site’ in her paper ‘Interpreting Language and Cultural Discourse Among Burundians in the Diaspora: The Case of Burundinet.’ She examined the role which the virtual community on the Burundinet website plays in creating a multiethnic Burundian diasporic community. At a time when Burundi is involved in a civil war between the two major ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi, Kadende-Kaiser suggested that Burundinet comprise a multiethnic forum through which Burundians in the diaspora create a virtual community, albeit one imbued with differing visions and diverse agendas. Methodologically, Kadende-Kaiser also suggested that -- since virtual anthropology involves neither face-to-face interaction nor long term residence in a particular community -- anthropologists working in their own cultures are particularly suited to interpret the often highly nuanced cultural meanings inscribed in sites like Burundinet.

Bruce Roberts presented a paper prepared by himself and Josie Sadler (Southern Mississippi) entitled ‘African Student Adaptations to Life in the United States and the Ephemeral Concept of African Unity.’ Roberts and Sadler examined a multinational African community, a student association at a mid-sized southern university. Focussing on the uses to which these students create and manipulate a pan-African identity, Roberts and Sadler consider the role this identity plays in the student's interactions with one another, as well as with the wider American community. While the student association’s outward strategies appeal to a concept of African unity -- ‘Unity is Progress’-- and self designation as ‘Africans,’ at the same time members celebrate individual backgrounds based upon national and/or ethnic identity. While recognizing the advantages derived from the emphasis on unity, Roberts and Sadler suggested that cultural differences, along with ephemeral group composition, ultimately limit group solidarity.

In the final paper, ‘Encounters: Diaspora in Theory and Practice,’ Donald Carter used the case of Senegalese communities in northern Italy as a medium through which to explore the theory and practice of diasporic life. Carter considered notions of diaspora and exile contained in the Nigerian author Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road. In the opening, a child contemplates life in the mundane world or return to a spirit realm, ‘To be born is to come into the world weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile.’ Similarly, the experience of diaspora has often posed similar oppositions between home and elsewhere. Diasporic social practice, notes Carter, is at once inflected with new possessions drawn from a world in motion and imbued with an uncommon sense of loss gained from peculiar and multiple locations in trans/national/local processes. While those in diaspora are not betwixt and between the spirit world and the every day as the spirit child of Okri’s novel, they must contend with an ‘inextinguishable sense of exile,’ one that sets off the basic tensions of living in multiple sites, from the lives of those left behind. While theorists seek to contain a certain disciplinary cartographic anxiety by bounding the subject of analysis in regions, cultural domains and areas of specialization, those who live diaspora confound such notions as African and European in daily practice.

In considering these various case studies from a range of theoretical perspectives, we hope this panel will serve as an impetus for a greater exploration of the implications which the development of new African diasporic communities has for Africanist anthropology as a discipline, as well as for the methodological practices of Africanist anthropologists.

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