From New Helots to New Diasporas: a retrospective for Robin Cohen

Nicholas Van Hear

Robin Cohen has been at the forefront of migration and diaspora studies for at least three decades, and as he passed his 70th birthday in the summer we thought it fitting to organise a retrospective of his work and contribution. What we nick-named the Robinfest took place early in October at the Martin School in Oxford. As well as reuniting old friends and comrades, the day and a half event proved to be a stimulating review of the various political and intellectual themes and threads with which Robin and others present have been engaged: international labour studies, African studies, the study of globalisation and cosmopolitanism, migration studies, and the study of diaspora and creolisation.

RCOn a personal note, I have known Robin for nearly forty years, since I was a doctoral student at Birmingham University, and during this time he has been a mentor, colleague and friend. To note one collaboration among several, in the 1990s I was at the Refugee Studies Programme in Oxford and Robin was at Warwick, though often floating around the Oxford migration studies scene, such that it was then. We thought it would be a good idea to get migration studies people spread in and around Oxford together in what we dubbed the Odyssey club. This turned out to be a sporadic gathering usually over dinner to chew the fat about migration. It was then that we realised that there was a significant number of scholars (a critical mass even) in and around Oxford doing migration-related work – a precursor perhaps of today’s vibrant migration studies scene at Oxford. I’m not saying we started it all, but those days and that grouping in some ways prefigured what we have in Oxford today: 70 or more migration-related researchers – one of the largest concentrations of such scholarship in the world. But that’s enough boasting about our place in the rise of Migration Studies.


We chose two of Robin’s most influential works with which literally to ‘bookend’ or frame the Robinfest: The New Helots: Migrants in the International Division of Labour and Global Diasporas.

I very much dislike the baleful metrics with which scholarship is measured these days, but it’s perhaps interesting to see (crudely at any rate) how Robin’s influence has risen:  so New Helots that came out in 1987 has 460-odd google scholar citations, while Global Diasporas  (1997, 2nd edition 2008) dwarfs that with 3000+ citations.

bookendsMetrics aside, here I offer my thoughts on the influence of these two works, and how the two themes of the books – labour and class struggle on one hand and diaspora on the other – are linked. This first takes me back to a debate in the 1990s when ‘diaspora studies’ were just unfolding.

I remember one of our colleagues in international labour studies asking in the mid-1990s why on earth Robin was pursuing diaspora in his research and writing – and therefore moving away from class as the centre of gravity of his work.  In this view, diaspora was an ephemeral social phenomenon, or even a phoney one. Why was Robin apparently abandoning class and pursuing this dead-end?

But just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it is not worth studying – especially if it’s a phenomenon of growing significance. Diasporas – in some ways like the resurgence of religion (which left secularists also don’t like of course) – are significant social, economic, political and cultural phenomena which need to be addressed and need explanation. Moreover, our burgeoning research in this field highlights divisions within diaspora – not least class…

Classy diaspora

That brings me to what I think is a prominent thread in Robin’s work, as with many of us perhaps, and that is the search for a vehicle or agent of (progressive) social change. Two such agents have been preoccupation of Robin – and here my work has intersected with his: these are class and diaspora.

In the 60s and 70s class or classes were seen as agents of change – though there was much debate about which and how.  Migrants (or at least some of them) were seen as part of the working class – and were indeed engaged in and often at the forefront of working class struggles (in the UK, Grunwick, Imperial Typewriters and so on, which Linda McDowell has written on recently in the project ‘From Grunwick to GateGourmet’). There was also of course much debate about whether the peasantry or the ‘lumpenproletariat’ constituted classes, let alone classes that were agents of progressive change.

Of course the wider social context – the political economy — has since changed profoundly. In the face of the postmodernist blob (to subvert a Gove-ism), the argument has been that class has faded has a social force, and with that fading, as a subject of study too — though there has been something of a revival in recent years, witness the recent British Social Class Survey and the debate it sparked. So too, largely though not wholly, has interest in the place of migrants in class and class in migration faded – though we may see a revival here too: see recent pieces by former COMPAS colleague Davide Pero (2014), and Van Hear (2014).

As is well known, in the late 1990s and 2000s diasporas came for some to be seen as the vehicles of change – for example in the form of lobbying and political action in the ‘host’ country and/or promoting development or post-war recovery in ‘home’ countries.  The problem with them though is that their solidarities are usually inward-looking and exclusive – usually based on ethnicity (this was part of the 1990s critique I think). Also, as I have said and as we all know, the wider social context – the political economy – has of course changed.  People as a whole – and diasporas are no exception – are more atomised, individualised, entrepreneurial: they are ‘neoliberal subjects’ in the academic argot. Allegiances are less universalist and more particularist.

In fact now the steam is perhaps beginning to go out of the idea of diasporas as vehicles of change, as Alan Gamlen, Hein de Haas, myself and others have remarked of the migration and development debate.

Losing the plot?

Although they remain players of global significance, when you come to look at it, the achievements are somewhat limited – diasporas may sustain societies through their role as purveyors of transnational social security (remittances, relief  etc), and this is a vital bastion against the background of neoliberal globalisation’s predations (Van Hear 2002, Horst 2006, Lindley 2010).

But the record of changing society – in a progressive direction at least – is mixed to say the least. Arguably, diasporas are on the whole ‘small c’ conservatives rather than social transformers. This is not surprising perhaps, since few diasporas are motivated by the idea of social transformation – rather than shifting the balance of power among ethnic groups or other affinities.

Karl MarxTo borrow a formulation from Marxism (though incidentally one that Marx apparently did not explicitly use himself):

  • ‘Diaspora in itself’ has a somewhat shaky social formation.  Diasporas are usually riven with division – class, cohort, religious, ethnic, generational.
  • ‘Diaspora for itself’ is at best ephemeral, in evidence during just the high water marks of political activity.

So it is perhaps hard to make a case that diasporas are currently what in an earlier era some of us thought classes could be – vehicles of (progressive) change.  Maybe Robin’s critic in the 1990s was right after all….

The search for agents of change and the idea of changing the world for the better may now seem — and may well have been — misguided, quixotic or quaint. But at least some of us, like Robin, were and still are looking for some agents of change, wherever they may be found…

Acknowledgements: Nick Van Hear co-organised the Robinfest with Oliver Bakewell and Zoe Falk of IMI.   We are also grateful for the help of Sally Kingsborough and Ingrid Locatelli of IMI, not to mention all the speakers, chairs and many fascinating interventions from the floor that made the gathering so stimulating and enjoyable. The event was kindly hosted by the Oxford Martin School, and was supported by the International Migration Institute, the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany. Kellogg College hosted an excellent dinner.  We hope to make the presentations at the event available in due course.


Cohen, R. (1987) The New Helots: Migrants in the International Division of Labour, Gower: Aldershot.

Cohen, R. (1997, 2008) Global Diasporas: an Introduction, Abingdon: Routledge.

Horst, C. (2006) Transnational Nomads: How Somalis Cope with Refugee Life in the Dadaab Camps of Kenya,  Berghahn: Oxford.

Lindley, A. (2010) The Early Morning Phone Call: Somali Refugees’ Remittances. New York: Berghahn Books.

Pero, D. (2014) ‘Class Politics and Migrants: Collective Action among New Migrant Workers in Britain’, Sociology, published online March 13, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0038038514523519

Savage, M., F. Devine, N. Cunningham, M. Taylor, Yaojun L., J. Hjellbrekke, B. Le Roux, S. Friedman and A. Miles (2013) ‘A new model of social class: findings from the BBC’s Great British Class experiment’, Sociology, 47(2): 219-250.

Van Hear, N. (2002) ‘Sustaining societies under strain: remittances as a form of transnational exchange in Sri Lanka and Ghana’, in New approaches to migration: transnational communities and the transformation of home , edited by K Koser and N Al-Ali, London and New York: Routledge, 202–223.

Van Hear, N. (2014) ‘Reconsidering migration and class’, International Migration Review, 48. Special Issue: International Migration in the 21st Century: Advancing the Frontier of Scholarship and Knowledge, Volume 48, Issue Supplement s1.