Immigrants from the Indian subcontinent have arrived to the US in increasing numbers since the 1965 immigration reform. This population is quite diverse, speaking many different languages, originating in both northern and southern Indian states (as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka), and including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Christians. While the early immigrants were generally highly educated and fluent English speakers and entered the middle and upper socio-economic brackets, ongoing immigration has considerably widened the socio-economic spectrum. Further, new immigration continues even as earlier immigrants have settled and raised a generation of American-born Indian Americans.

Our Spring 2009 course, “Lived Religion and Intergroup Relations in the South Asian Diaspora Communities of the U.S.,” closely examined issues of identity and acculturation among South Asian (primarily Indian) populations in the U.S.  Religion was a significant focus within this course, particularly as the Indian populations in the U.S. have self-organized as religious communities. Within this exploration of religion, we focused on lived religion, which considers religion as more than a set of fixed beliefs and normative practices.  Instead, lived religion explores religion as behavior and belief embedded in particular social-historical contexts and social relationships. The study of lived religion seeks to understand multiple viewpoints and motivations within a self-identified community, including but not privileging the religious elites/authorities.

Today’s immigrants create transnational identities, bringing with them and often maintaining a home-based context for social identity, and yet also finding that the U.S.  creates new contexts and new identities. In this sense, the examination of identity and acculturation leads to a consideration of not only defining a Self, but doing so in social relationship with an Other (or indeed Others). Our course explored this dimension of enacted identities through a second theme: inter-group relations.

Inter-group relations in India itself evokes images of Gandhian non-violent resistance on the one hand, and brutal and ongoing communitarian violence on the other. To what extent are these memories and patterns of social relationships embedded in the U.S. diasporic communities? How do the memories of communal tension and violence shape new relationships in the U.S., across a broad spectrum of racial, ethnic, and religious groups? These were among the questions our students were interested in exploring, even as we also explored Indian immigrants moving into new experiences as racial and religious minorities in the US.

Susan Rose, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology and Director, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College

Shalom Staub, Assistant Provost, Dickinson College