Imagining Im/migrant Futures: Potentiality in Im/migration Studies

Format: Roundtable

Organizer: Jennifer A. Cook, Postdoctoral Fellow, Southern Methodist University


“Potentiality” refers to “the ability to develop or come into existence,”[i] or the “latent or inherent capacity or ability for growth, [or] fulfilment.”[ii] The concept refers to something which is possible but has not yet been realized. Importantly, in contrast to similar concepts like risk and precarity, potentiality can have either positive or negative connotations.

Broadly, the concept of potentiality enables scholars to consider how people orient themselves temporally. How do human beings conceive of the future? How do we conceive of the present when the future is uncertain? How do anticipated futures impact the way we lead our lives in the present?

In anthropology, potentiality has been applied primarily to the study of biomedicine and humanness.[iii] Scholars have considered the discursive impact of the concept in Catholic anti-abortion activism (re: the protection of embryos as “potential” humans); [iv] genomic mapping (research that has the potential to transform our understanding of humanness); [v] and pregnancy care[vi] and maternal[vii] and newborn[viii] screening (avoiding potential risks), among other topics. Potentiality has also been used to analyze the way people respond to the “negative potentiality” of anticipated violence in politically unstable regions.[ix]

Potentiality is also a central theme in im/migration studies, though it is rarely foregrounded as an analytical concept. For instance, Coutin and Abarca[x] discuss the “document saving” practices of undocumented immigrants who anticipate future immigration law reform that would enable them to potentially legalize their status. Gallo[xi] focuses on the way in which mixed status im/migrant families prepare for potential future deportations of undocumented family members, and Boehm[xii] analyzes the the “imagined futures of deportees.” Potentiality is also highly relevant to current public discourse around im/migration reform, which focuses on the “wasted” potential undocumented children and U.S. citizen children deported with parents; the potential contributions of “DACA”mented youth;  the potentiality of border danger for migrants and the potential threat posed by undocumented im/migrants entering the country clandestinely; the potential (or lack thereof) of certain immigrant groups to assimilate; the potential impact of demographic change on U.S. politics; and the potential for and anticipated impact of immigration law reform (whether progressive or restrictionist).

This roundtable will explore the possibility of applying potentiality systematically to a variety of topics in im/migration studies. Specifically, the session will address the following question: (How) can an explicit focus on potentiality illuminate im/migrant lived experiences in ways that might otherwise be overlooked by other frameworks (risk, precarity)?

Presenters will be asked to apply the concept of potentiality to their work, and to comment on the relevance of the concept to im/migration studies. The session will begin with a brief 5-10 minute introduction from each presenter, and the remainder of the session will consist of a moderated panel discussion. The key questions this panel will explore include, but are not limited to:

  1. How does the act of migration itself produce, shape, or constrict potentiality? How is potentiality articulated in contexts of im/migration?
  2. How do the legal and policy structures governing migration impact potentiality?
  3. What is the impact of potentiality in im/migration policy reform discourse?
  4. What role does potentiality (or a lack thereof) play in the way im/migrants envision their futures?
  5. How do migrants and their family/community members understand potentiality? (For themselves/for others?) What is the impact of conceptions of/narratives of potentiality on social relations and subjectivity in im/migrant communities?
  6. How do others (nonmigrant community members, policymakers, etc.) understand migrants’ potentiality, and to what effect?
  7. What is the significance of the absence of potentiality in the context of im/migration? What is the significance of potentiality in contexts where structural factors would seem to restrict potentiality (ie. undocumented immigrant status)?
  8. What is the interplay between structure and agency in the articulation of potentiality in contexts of im/migration?

Submission: To apply to be considered as a presenter in this panel, please submit a 150-word abstract discussing how you would connect your research to the theme of potentiality to by April 9th, 2018. Applications from scholars engaging in work on im/migration, broadly defined, in any regional context are eligible. Applicants will be notified of acceptance by April 12th.



[iii] Karen-Sue Taussig, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich, “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction to Supplement 7,” Current Anthropology 54, no. S7 (October 2013): S3-S14. ;

[iv] Morgan, Lynn M. “The potentiality principle from Aristotle to abortion.” Current Anthropology 54.S7 (2013): S15-S25.

[v] Gibbon, Sahra. “Ancestry, temporality, and potentiality: Engaging cancer genetics in southern Brazil.” Current anthropology 54.S7 (2013): S107-S117.

[vi] Gammeltoft, Tine M. “Potentiality and human temporality: haunting futures in Vietnamese pregnancy care.” Current Anthropology 54.S7 (2013): S159-S171; Zhu, Jianfeng.

[vii] “Projecting potentiality: understanding maternal serum screening in contemporary China.” Current Anthropology 54.S7 (2013): S36-S44;

[viii] Timmermans, Stefan, and Mara Buchbinder. “Potentializing newborn screening.” Current Anthropology 54.S7 (2013): S26-S35.

[ix] Vigh, Henrik. “Vigilance: on conflict, social invisibility, and negative potentiality.” Social Analysis 55.3 (2011): 93.

[x] Abarca, Gray Albert, and Susan Bibler Coutin. “Sovereign intimacies: The lives of documents within US state‐noncitizen relationships.” American Ethnologist 45.1 (2018): 7-19.

[xi] Gallo, Sarah. “Humor in Father–Daughter Immigration Narratives of Resistance.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 47.3 (2016): 279-296.

[xii] Boehm, Deborah A. “”¿Quien Sabe?”: Deportation and Temporality Among Transnational Mexicans.” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development (2009): 345-374.