BY RAZMIG B. SHIRINIAN
The study of the Armenian Diaspora is not a new fad, but it sure sounds like a new fantasy. On November 20, 2010, the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California organized a symposium to (re)introduce the idea of a centralized structure for the Armenian Diaspora. What is commendable at first glance is the attempt by the Institute to embrace a didactic hue of Armenian politics and an understanding of its policy processes. It is commendable because the established Armenian Studies programs have long ignored the political discipline in their curriculum and have traditionally fulfilled the extensive intellectual needs in the disciplines of History, Arts, Language, and Literature, largely ignoring the social sciences in general and political science in particular. Social disciplines have been treated as somewhat peripheral to the mainstream Armenian interests.
Since its inception in 2005, the Institute of Armenian Studies at USC has offered promises of understanding contemporary Armenian politics in Diaspora. Incorporating political studies into Armenian Studies appeared to be an important breakthrough as the Institute often stimulated thoughtful discussions about future directions of political life and relations both in Armenia and the Diaspora. However, the purpose of the Institute in organizing such a symposium does not seem to be heuristic. In order to advance our understanding of the Armenian Diaspora, we need to go beyond the simple and often ritualized presentation of ideas and practices of Diaspora life and situation.
I have said this elsewhere and I will say it again here. The Armenian Diaspora, much like any other entity, begs for exploration of long neglected basic classes of explanatory concepts which will furnish a full and an adequate understanding of its politics. This is simply a preliminary consideration before we jump into structural discussions and conclusions. Political structure is just one of the many underlying explanatory variables of an entity. It is imperative for both practitioners and scholars of Armenian political affairs to develop a comprehensive understanding of the Diaspora and make effective use of the existing political knowledge. The phenomenal presence of the Armenian Diaspora cannot be appreciated without the basic explanatory concepts including, for example, the dynamics of political culture, behavior, socialization, personality, and even somatology for an understanding of human nature as a key component of political life. Such concepts need to be tackled as requirements for an adequate understanding and explanation of all political phenomena including the Armenian Diaspora. The political concept of structure alone will not be sufficient to understand Diaspora as a functioning polity, let alone the assumption that a centralized structure will give it more efficiency.
Many assumptions in our effort to understand the Armenian Diaspora fail to capture the essence of its polity. To depart from appropriate ground knowledge and avoid theoretical dearth, key questions should be tackled before we jump into structural conclusions. These questions should be drawn from the basic explanatory concepts I mentioned above and confronted as primordial challenges for the Diaspora understanding: What is, for example, the constitutive knowledge of the Armenian Diaspora? What are its component units? How do the component units sustain the Diaspora entity? What are the predispositions, motives, and goals of individual Diaspora Armenians and their learned patterns of behavior that come into play over a wide variety of behavioral traits? What correlation or compatibility exists between political culture and political structure? Notably, the concept of political culture here refers to the system of meanings and symbols transmitted from generation to generation in the Diaspora polity and its key components include ideology as well as preferences, values in political action, hopes, expectations, discontents, and beliefs in legitimacy. Also, how individuals are politically socialized, recruited, and play a Diaspora role? Finally, the key concept of behavior, or the political processes that go on within the political structure are primary considerations for a holistic picture of the Diaspora. At best, we are stuck in the observation of why people in the Armenian Diaspora act in the way they do politically, say, participate (or not) in an organization, support or follow, argue, lead, negotiate, vote, or make choices. In sum, many of us in the Diaspora have come to recognize the need to take these questions into account in our effort to understand, explain, and categorize the Diaspora as a purposive and functioning entity.
For an adequate structural discussion of the Armenian Diaspora, all those explanatory factors should be clarified in the background. It would be too simplistic and easy to depart from the generic consideration that polities need to have some form of centralized, governmental structure in order to function effectively and endure. This consideration reasonably suggests that all political entities attempt to develop a cohesive political structure in order to comprise the society they form into a unified actor. This certainly is true for a state entity, but for the Diaspora, a nonstate and trans-societal entity, it might be a recipe to destroy its dynamic nature.
Razmig B. Shirinian is a Professor of Political Science at the College of the Canyons