Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The recent focus on diasporas by policy-makers researchers has highlighted the rich potential of migrants as a force for shaping development activities in their countries of origin. The study of diasporas in development presents researchers a number of significant challenges. As Vertovec and Cohen suggest, ‘one of the major changes in migration patterns is the growth of populations anchored … neither at their places of origin nor at their places of destination’. The fluid, multi-sited and multi-generational nature of diaspora groupings poses considerable methodological challenges of definition, identification, location, sampling and interviewing.

As the nature of African diasporas are constantly in flux so too should the methodologies we use to study them. In practice, traditional approaches lead to the same methodological roadblocks. Census and immigration data (particularly from destination countries) can provide an overall picture of diaspora stocks, flows and locations. However, privacy issues generally preclude these sources from providing disaggregated data at the level of the individual migrant or migrant household. Surveys of diaspora members have therefore become the standard means of collecting information on diaspora characteristics, identities, activities and linkages. This immediately raises a set of problems and challenges. Census data can tell us the size of the population to sample but not who the individuals are, where they live and how to contact them. Without a sampling frame, researchers tend to rely instead on ‘snowball’, ‘purposive’ or ‘convenience’ sampling. This has produced a disproportionate number of studies that rely on key informant and focus group interviews in order to create a profile of diasporas and their development-related activities.

Diasporas are often geographically dispersed within a country and across different countries. Cost and time constraints and the bias of snowball and convenience sampling lead to a focus on sub-sets. Studies of diaspora members in particular cities or regions are especially common. While sample sizes vary considerably, there is a marked reliance on very small samples, which raises obvious questions about the representativeness and generalizability of the findings.

The mail-out survey is still the preferred method of reaching members of a geographically dispersed diaspora, although response rates remain stubbornly low. To contact members of the diaspora, mailing lists are compiled from organizations that keep, and are willing to share, membership lists (such as diaspora organizations, embassies, alumni associations, immigrant service agencies and religious organizations). However, this means an inherent sampling bias since data collected from these individuals and groups has the potential to be skewed towards diaspora members actively engaged with their origin country. This method of ‘accessing the diaspora through the diaspora’ is also unlikely to provide much information on ‘hidden’ members of a diaspora whose immigration status may be undocumented or uncertain and who are wary of disclosing personal information directly to researchers. Researchers have also noted that members of vulnerable populations such as asylum seekers and refugees might be reluctant to provide personal information due to fear and trust issues.

To identify and connect with larger numbers, different strategies need to be adopted. In this context, the potential of the internet has rarely been considered. Since the advent of the internet age, more than one billion people have become connected to the World Wide Web (WWW), creating seemingly limitless opportunities for communication. The past decade has also seen a major increase in the use of the internet by diaspora individuals and groupings. The internet has not only facilitated remittance transfers, but has increased communication among and between diasporas and influenced the formation of diasporic identities. In this context, the potential of web-based methodologies in diaspora research appears promising. The aim of this paper is twofold. First, we argue for supplementing conventional approaches with new methodologies that embrace the connectivity of diasporas, the emergence of social media and the potential of online surveys. Second, we illustrate the potential of this approach through discussion of the methods adopted in our current research on the African diaspora in Canada.