New Directions in the Ethnographic Study of the Iranian Diaspora

The conditions and events leading up to and following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) contributed to a rapid dispersal of Iranians worldwide. Iranians who left Iran in the last 40 years have scattered to nearly every continent, creating a global population estimated to be between 4 and 6 million strong.

As this diverse global diaspora has matured and given birth to subsequent generations, the ways in which Iranians in their various countries of residence have become active in the political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of diasporic life have emerged as rich sources of ethnographic inquiry. Emerging scholarship built upon long-term ethnographic fieldwork among Iranian communities across the world is engaging with new questions related to class, racialization, cultural identity, activism, and economic participation.

This panel highlights contributions to this new wave of ethnographic literature on the Iranian diaspora. The first presentation begins with one of the oldest communities of the diaspora, offering a historical trajectory of Iranian-American efforts to “bridge” Iranian diasporic cultural identity with an American mainstream identity. Through fieldwork among Iranians of Southern California across several decades, the authors show a shift between first- and second-generation approaches to questions of belonging, identity, and representation.

Questions of belonging in the American context have given way to new questions relating to personhood and participation beyond the exile context. The panel’s second presentation takes up these questions in relation to middle-class Iranians living and working in Dubai, where the inability to attain legal permanent residency or citizenship and a sense of displaced Iranian modernity have had significant impacts on individuals’ practices, particularly in the realms of real estate and urban development.

The third presentation highlights the relationship between local understandings of race and the impact these have on immigrants and their descendants. Through ethnographic fieldwork among Iranians working in anti-racist movements in Stockholm, this presentation offers an analysis of recent developments in Sweden and investigates the comparative racialization of Iranian immigrants.


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This paper explores the conditioning of Iranian diasporic experience in Malaysia, the ways domestic policies, state relations, and international politics mold diasporic discourses, organizations, and economics. My fieldwork in Kuala Lumpur shows that three accompanying processes embed this formation: fragmentation that takes place along the overlapping socioeconomic, political, and gender categories; polarization that refers to clashes between political ideologies/allegiances, religious interpretations, and ethnic groups; pluralization that denotes emergent socio-discursive capacities accommodating interaction and communication among diverse groups. Exploring linkages between these processes, I argue those who observe, discuss, and imagine the diversities of Iranians against the plural backdrop of the host country develop a plural discursive capacity and tolerance in associational life.

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Research widely agrees that social relations between Iranian transnational migrants are shaped by mistrust, and explains this phenomenon with the heterogeneity of their social backgrounds. Indeed, the thought that not only the relations of migrants with the majority society, but also within group relations are shaped by relations of power is acknowledged in the Iranian context, but still marginal in transnational migration studies. In this paper I want to unpack the notion of heterogeneity, and study it as a category of analysis. Building on literature that applies and evaluates Pierre Bourdieu’s approach to social mobility in the context of transnational migration, my aim is to trace the construction and deconstruction of social boundaries among Iranian migrants, and understand how these processes are related to the chances and hindrances they meet in striving for upward social mobility.
Thereby, I draw on data raised through various qualitative methods during long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Hamburg. The German port city was one of the first destinations of Iranian – mainly mercantile – migration and is historically linked to Iran through longstanding political and economic ties. Covering the period from the 1930s until today, the paper focusses on the agency of two transnationally active professional groups, i.e. import-export entrepreneurs and film professionals. More concretely, I trace how individual professionals engage with changing social, political, and economic conditions, and try to accumulate economic, social, and cultural capital in German, Iranian, and transnational social fields. Against this background, the complexity of their interactions with other people of Iranian origin both in public (associations, cultural events) and in private (family, friendship networks) settings unfolds and it becomes possible to identify the role markers of social difference such as class, gender, and ethnicity, but also education, and political and religious orientation play in these processes.
These considerations allow me to argue that the way Iranian migrants relate to one another is influenced by their social position not only in Iranian, but also in German and transnational social fields. Underlining the fluidity and relativity of social differences enables us to understand that relations of power develop among migrants when individuals or groups construct or deconstruct social boundaries to overcome barriers to their social mobility.

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A youthful generation of Iranian Americans has recently come of age in Los Angeles, California, the largest and oldest cultural hub of the Iranian diaspora. However, the cultural and political implications of this demographic shift have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. By focusing on the perspectives of active second-generation community members, and juxtaposing them to research findings on the first generation conducted in the same field site, this paper builds a longitudinal picture of the developments in political and cultural positioning across migrant generations.

Ethnographic in its methodological approach, the paper draws predominantly on the findings generated from the author’s doctoral research in LA between 2008 and 2010, and supplements this with work from earlier ethnographic and cultural studies analysis from the same field site to understand processes of change that pertain to a range of societal dynamics, including the changing political landscape in the post-9/11 US, the developing (digital) media landscape, and youth cultural styles of expression. The argument this paper puts forward builds on earlier work that showed the prevalence of the metaphor of “bridging” (between American and Iranian cultures) in first-generation community organizers’ public discourse. However, it demonstrates how the second generation of Iranians in LA are engaging in emergent forms of identification with Iranian- and American-ness that focus, instead, on the language of community “building” in the processes that produce their political subjectivities.

As diverse cultural assemblages of Iranian-ness continue to be negotiated transnationally, the research presented here adds to the burgeoning ethnographic understanding of the Iranian diaspora. It analyses illustrative cases of active organization and self-representation by members of the second generation, and in doing so, contributes to the nascent theorization of the role of the second generation in cultural diaspora formation. For this, the paper draws on ethnic and migration studies, engaging in particular within the subfield of second-generation studies. It develops not only understandings of cultural change in an immigrant context over two generations past and present, but also illuminates current inter-generational dynamics as they are taking shape, colored by youth cultural styles and expressions, media practices, and institutional familiarity and embedding that are all particular to the everyday lives of these second-generation actors. The paper posits that influential sociological understandings of second-generation dynamics tend to fall short of explaining the complex manifestations of political positioning that the second generation are exhibiting.

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This is a paper about ‘property’ and ‘persons’ in the context of migration. Focusing on middle class Iranian residents of Dubai, it draws from ethnographic research conducted between 2010–2012 and examines their shared engagement with urban transformation as an ‘ethical’ project; that is, as a opportunity to inhabit a certain kind of personhood (one imagined to be hindered in Iran) by means of inhabiting a certain kind of urbanity (one imagined to represent an Iran that might have been).
Studies of the Iranian diaspora continue to amplify the trope of exile, focusing on the structures of feeling and social practices implicated in its shared experience. Such scholarship has often engaged Iranian interlocutors in cities of the ‘Global North’, while elaborating exilic sentiments in terms of rupture from an historical homeland. This paper looks to contribute to the study of diasporic Iranian life by departing from this trend in two respects: 1) examining Iranian life in a Persian Gulf city-state where permanent residency and citizenship are unavailable, 2) and elaborating a sense of exile that is informed not by a break from the past but from a potential future.
To this end, it will explore how Dubai’s superlative cityscape was imagined by so many middle class Iranians to signal this city’s arrival into a displaced Iran modernity, and how their practices of inhabiting or speculating in its real estate were often informed by connotations of being the denizens of this Iran in potentia.