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The Anthropology of Potentiality: Exploring the Productivity of the Undefined and Its Interplay with Notions of Humanness in New Medical Practices

Symposium 144 Participants

Wenner-Gren Symposium #144
28 October-4 November 2011
Hotel Rosa dos Ventos
Teresopolis, Brazil

PUBLICATION: "Potentiality and Humaness: Revisiting the Anthropological Object in Contemporary Biomedicine." Current Anthropology (54), Supplement 7, October 2013.Current Anthropology Symposium Series Cover


Carrie Friese (London School of Economics, UK)
Tine Gammeltoft (University of Copenhagen, DENMARK)
Sahra Gibbon (University College London, UK)
Stefan Helmreich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)
Klaus Hoeyer, organizer (University of Copenhagen, DENMARK)
Sharon R. Kaufman (University of California, San Francisco, USA)
Sandra Soo-Jin Lee (Stanford University Medical School, USA)
Emily Martin (New York University, USA)
Michael J. Montoya (University of California, Irvine, USA)
Sebastian Mohr, monitor (University of Copenhagen, DENMARK)
Lynn M. Morgan (Mount Holyoke College, USA)
Andriana Petryna (University of Pennsylvania, USA)
Robert Simpson (Durham University, UK)
Mette N. Svendsen (University of Copenhagen, DENMARK)
Karen-Sue Taussig, organizer (University of Minnesota, USA)
Stefan Timmermans (University of California, Los Angeles, USA)
Kalindi Vora (University of California San Diego, USA)
Jianfeng Zhu (Fudan University, CHINA)

Organizers' Statement:

This symposium was convened to discuss humanness and potentiality in the context of new medical practices. At the beginning of the 21st century potentiality serves as a central concept in the life sciences and medical practices.  We see the constant reiteration of utopic and dystopic visions of the future of humanness; a burgeoning market for molecular biology and pharmaceuticals marketed as delivering control of individual futures; and multiple and often conflicting scientific representations of humanness through the prisms of genetics, proteonomics, epigenetics, microbiomics, etc.  Everything and everybody seem to be discussed in terms of potential.  In public representations and contemporary scientific research gene therapy has the potential to intervene in genetic conditions; genetic testing the potential to reveal aspects of individual pasts and futures; stem cell research has the potential to regenerate human tissue to treat spinal cord injuries, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease; pharmcogenomics has the potential to use new knowledge of human biological variation to develop personalized medicine tailored to the specific susceptibilities of particular individuals; not yet identified organisms have the potential to yield novel and useful genetic sequences.  Potentiality appears to suffuse conceptualizations of life everywhere in the life sciences:  In the lab, in the clinic, in social policy, and in the public at large.  Other medical practices, such as transplantation medicine and ultrasound scanning similarly involve engagement with potentials, and here the focus is as much on limiting as on realizing potentials.  To the extent that it is established practice in anthropology to develop our theoretical concepts based on empirically grounded phenomena and articulations in the field, the notion of potentiality is peculiarly under-theorized in relation to contemporary social life.  We wished to promote an anthropological theorization of what all this talk of potentiality does and how it relates to human engagement with the uncertain and undefined in a more general sense.  How does ‘potentiality’—whether desired or feared—interact with or reconfigure notions of human life?

A Theoretical Ambition

Potentiality frequently appears as a state of being undefined; of being potent and not yet present; of being plastic and uncertain; in between known states and categories.  It contains both hopes and fears.  What then are the implications of being uncertain and undefined? How do people establish epistemological claims about that which is not yet (or no longer) there except as a ‘potential’? These issues were at the center of our symposium.

Anthropology, with its long history of examining questions of nature/culture, materiality, kinship and the social character of knowledge, has much to contribute to understandings of the productivity of the undefined. 

We took as our point of departure the observation that the concept of potentiality appears to be used with at least three quite different meanings.  In some contexts articulations of potentiality denotes a hidden force determined to manifest itself—something that with or without intervention has its future built into it.  In other contexts potentiality refers to genuine plasticity in the sense of an ability to transmute into something completely different.  Finally, there are contexts in which potentiality works as a choice, so that given the choice of particular actors an object or a subject can become something else.  These different articulations of potentiality frame and inform diverse material practices in ways that may profoundly transform the social world.  By being attentive to such differences and by perhaps even elaborating a typology of potentiality concepts, anthropology can offer important insights into the implications of these transformations.  Further, such an effort may help illuminate the productive misunderstandings caused when the same word is used with different meanings. We also noticed, how potentiality has a tendency to leap across scales. Greater awareness of the multiple understandings of potentiality can serve important purposes for social scientists as they portray medical practices where they often end up re-circulating scientific claims about the potential of, for example, stem cells.

We are intrigued by the way medical practices are simultaneously engaged in promoting potentials, exploring potentials and/or limiting potentials.  Potential can be seen as relating to the molecular level, the cell, the body, and social relations.  Regardless of how potentiality is conceptualized and deployed, when used in relation to human bodies and lives it always has a moral dimension as illustrated in the extensive work on bioethics, biopolitics and governmentality.  In particular, we discussed how employing potentiality in imagining the past and future through medical technologies itself invokes ideas about what constitutes appropriate human life. 

Objectives of the Symposium

A theorization of potentiality offers an opportunity to enhance anthropology's contribution to pressing issues about human health and well being faced today by people as individuals, policy-makers, scientists, and physicians.  As developments in the life sciences disturb boundaries and create new relations of nature, culture and technology, a number of regulatory and ethical issues emerge. 

The symposium explored how anthropology can develop our understandings of the medical practices where potentiality is articulated and how such articulations interact with moral notions of humanness.  Specifically, we examined questions such as the following:

How do practices in reproductive medicine deal with the uncertainty and indeterminacy of life?

  • How do genetic testing practices deal with unknown pasts and/or futures? 
  • How do practices in gamete donation, transplant medicine, and surrogacy, deal with entities moving in and out of human bodies and what does their ambiguous status imply for their exchange? 
  • How do practices associated with transpecies research engage with the status of some things as human, some as non-human, and some as ambiguous? 

The Symposium

The symposium was filled with lively, generous, and productive discussion, examining the concept of potentiality both as an analytic category and as an ethnographic object operating in diverse fieldsites.  One participant described the symposium as a “truly memorable experience and intellectual engagement.”  Participants are now at work revising their papers for publication based on the conversations in Teresópolis.