Revisiting the concept of “imagined affordances”: (Re)presentation of irregular migrants in the digital age

By Wael Nasser

The lectures and discussions we had in the summer school particularly around the (re)presentation of refugees in research have allowed me to revisit the concept of “imagined affordances”, and how this concept could be utilized in the context of digital migration research as a way to (re)present people on the move.

The Concept of Imagined Affordance
Gibson (1979) introduced the term “affordance” to the English language to describe the possibilities for action that an environment or artifact (object) offers a living being (Gibson, 1979, p. 127). Gibson defines “affordances of the environment” as “what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (p. 127); Affordances are “bestowed upon an object by a need of an observer and …[their] act of perceiving it” (p. 139). Affordances of technologies are “[forms of power]” (Jordan, 2008, p. 139) that can reveal much about “who has the power to define how technologies should be used” and “what counts as a dominant, negotiated or oppositional use” in relation to them (Shaw, 2015, p. 5). Moreover, Kammer (2018) illustrates that “the relational character” of affordance shows how the properties of a technology can dedicate the motivations to use it (p. 3). The state’s power to control the border and exclude people can be exercised (in)visibly and realized through the imagined affordances of technologies.

Several digital migration studies scholars adopt the concept of imagined affordances (Gillespie et al., 2018; Witteborn, 2018) as a way to empower irregular migrants against the “non-human agency” (Kuus, 2019, p. 166), or what can be termed as “the agency of materials” which can be presented by digital technologies used by the state (Barry, 2013, p. 2). This agency of materials can be challenged by irregular migrants as their migration practices on the move can sometimes overcome migration and border control policies. The communicative and safety affordances of smartphones let Syrian migrants on the move stay connected and safe through the sea and land routes to Europe (Gillespie et al., 2018). This (re)presentation of irregular migrants in digital migration research is an unprecedented opportunity as it provides a platform for irregular migrants to share their migration journeys and shape the dynamics of power relations in the digital age (Gillespie et al., 2018; Newell et al., 2016; Witteborn, 2018)
I believe that (re)presentation of irregular migrants in the digital age can be a challenge due to the complex socio-technical, and political dimensions of power which can influence this (re)presentation. To overcome this challenge, I think there is a need to establish foundations to generate and utilize new creative methods and theories to (re)present people on the move in order to create new understanding and knowledge. The creation of such knowledge can tell the stories and journeys of irregular migrants from their own positionality as opposed to the dominant ‘often damaging’ narrative we discussed last week. Researchers need to imagine how the affordances of technologies can also be utilized in a way that empowers and (re)present people on the move.

Barry, A. (2013). Material politics: disputes along the pipeline. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.

Gibson, J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gillespie, M. (2017). Phones crucial to survival for refugees on the perilous route to Europe (2017). The Conversation. Retrieved from

Gillespie, M., Osseiran, S., & Cheesman, M. (2018). Syrian Refugees and the Digital Passage to Europe: Smartphone Infrastructures and Affordances. Social Media + Society, 4(1), 205630511876444. doi:10.1177/2056305118764440

Jordan, T. (2008). Hacking: digital media and technological determinism. Cambridge, UK;Malden, MA;: Polity Press.

Kammer, A. (2018). Researching Affordances. In J. Hunsinger, L. Klastrup, & M. M. Allen (Eds.), Second International Handbook of Internet Research (pp. 1-13). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Kuus, M. (2019). Political geography I: Agency. Progress in Human Geography, 43(1), 163-171. doi:10.1177/0309132517734337

Newell, B. C., Gomez, R., & Guajardo, V. E. (2016). Information seeking, technology use, and vulnerability among migrants at the United States-Mexico border. The Information Society, 32(3), 176-191. doi:10.1080/01972243.2016.1153013

Shaw, A. (2015). Dialectics of Affordances: Stuart Hall and the Future of New Media Studies. Retrieved from

Witteborn, S. (2018). The digital force in forced migration: Imagined affordances and gendered practices. Popular Communication, 16(1), 21-31. doi:10.1080/15405702.2017.1412442

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