H-Diplo Review Essay 385- "Quantum Social Theory for Critical international Relations Scholars"

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Review Essay 385

3 November 2021

Michael Murphy.  Quantum Social Theory for Critical International Relations Scholars:  Quantizing Critique.  London:  Palgrave, 2021.  ISBN:  978-3-030-60110-2 (hardcover, $59.99).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Andrew Szarejko | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Christopher McIntosh, Bard College

Theories informed by quantum physics have experienced a well-overdue emergence within contemporary IR theory.  Laura Zanotti’s Ontological Entanglements and Alexander Wendt’s Quantum Social Science represent two of the major stand-alone books on the so-called “quantum turn” within IR.[1] Michael Murphy’s book, Quantum Social Theory, will rightfully be read alongside them, serving as both an introductory volume for those exploring the utility of quantum concepts, as well as representing a compelling argument for those invested in critical and post-structural theory to incorporate quantum understandings of the world in their work. This book is destined to be read alongside these others as part of the emerging intellectual foundation for IR’s long overdue turn to quantum concepts.

At its most basic level, quantum theories of sociality begin with a critique of Newtonianism—much of which is already familiar to an IR audience, as the positivist/post-positivist debate centers on Newtonian conceptions of the world.[2] Causality, the separability of subject and object, the possibility of objectivity, and the viability of determinate predictions all depend upon a philosophy of science that is Newtonian.  Yet, leaving aside the social/material debates of the past, even for one concerned only with material reality, physical reality itself does not subscribe to a Newtonian model of physics—something physics recognized over a century ago.

This is particularly true at the microscopic level, but for many theorists, quantum phenomena and characteristics wash out at the level of the macroscopic—for example, society, individuals, and social structures.  Physicists term this phenomenon “decoherence.”[3] Alternatively, some social theorists and philosophers contest this claim which Murphy builds upon to develop an alternative formulation of social life that employs quantum ontologies, rather than Newtonian.[4] The justification for this move is one of the central points of difference for quantum social theorists—both in IR specifically, as well as social science more broadly.  For those committed to scientific realism, the problem of decoherence is resolved through a physical claim about reality.  Wendt, for instance, solves this by asserting that human consciousness is quantum.  Given that sociality and its corresponding material practices are mediated/produced through human consciousness, it logically follows that this phenomena are therefore quantum as well.  For others like Zanotti and Murphy, who are more influenced by Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, the turn to quantum understandings of the world operates at the level of metaphor.[5]  It constitutes an imaginary by which we know and represent the world, and these scholars remain less interested in whether or not reality really is quantum.

What is most relevant for scholars in the second camp is the usefulness of the metaphor and whether it represents a better way of knowing reality, as well as its revelatory potential.  Authors like Murphy—along with Barad and Zanotti articulate a way of thinking that adopts quantum concepts within post-positivism, constituting a sort of a dualistic position with respect to science.  On one hand, there is a rejection of the claim that all of collective reality is ‘scientific’ in the specific way that positivists assert because of the constructed nature of subjects and objects in politics—ontology is processual and relational, not static and separable.  On the other, however, they can simultaneously claim to be more scientific than even positivists, as their imaginary reflects the most up to date understandings of reality.  Positivism is Newtonian, but not actually part of Newton’s physics.  Similarly, as Murphy argues, post-positivism can move in a quantum direction, but is not actually a branch of quantum physics itself.

What quantum offers, Murphy argues, “is an intuitive vocabulary for scholars of critical IR” that better enables us to interrogate the “Newtonian assumptions…embedded in social science” (3).  This move to “quantiz(e) critique” allows us to view the “new questions that open up,” enabling a better set of questions and approaches to emerge (3).  Two of those approaches, Murphy argues, are “translation” and “application,” both of which he concretizes in the book.  For him, “translation…focuses on identifying what we might call quantum-like concepts” and “seeks to explore how the language of quantum social theory can help explain, and expand the utility of, existing concepts in critical International Relations” (62).  Translation expands our fundamental understanding of the world—our baseline notions of what theory is and its limits—by replacing the Newtonian “physical imaginary” that currently limits our thinking.  Alternatively, application, “seeks not to complement but to complete and asks how shortcomings of an existing critical approach to International Relations might be addressed through quantizing the framework at a foundational level” (62).

The structure of the book is deliberately straightforward, part of a strategy to enable the book to operate at two levels.  Murphy writes, “I hope it will…be useful as a reference work and guidebook for readers seeking to understand the quantum conversations going on in International Relations theory,” while “for critical IR scholars open to the possibility of taking their own journey in quantum thinking, the book can serve as a toolbox, including two new tools, a review of existing ones, and concluding discussion pointing to emergent threads” (11).  The first half of the book lays out quantum mechanics and quantum social theory in general, while the second half “demonstrates” what these “two strategies of quantizing critique” could look like (9).  In these chapters, Murphy explains quantum mechanics and quantum social theory, focusing on three main areas: “wave/particle duality, the observer effect, and entanglement” (9).  He discusses these areas theoretically and in physical terms, offering a concise and approachable set of explanations for each, thereby obviating the need for specialized knowledge on the part of the reader.  The second half of the book deploys the methods of “translation and application” (10).  For translation, it begins this process for three areas of scholarship: critical border studies, autoethnography, and “entangled ontologies/assemblage-thinking in IR” (10).  Returning to the three concepts discussed in the first half, Murphy demonstrates that the border is a site of wave/particle duality (65), that incorporating the observer effect can enrich the value of autoethnography (70), and that entanglement adds some theoretical complexity missing from assemblage thinking (73).  In similar fashion, the book demonstrates application through a rereading of actor-network theory.

The discussion of entanglement is particularly useful as Murphy argues that “quantum social theory’s explanation of the entanglement of the observer with the measurement apparatus offers a clear response…whether in physical or human sciences intervention into a system enacts irreversible change and researchers must recognize their important role in the creation and production of knowledge” (72).  Recognizing these inevitable linkages creates a worldview that necessitates care and consideration for the effects of any intervention—political, theoretical, or otherwise—as it necessarily has both unintended and significant potential impacts on the future.  The final chapter, appropriately, looks to the future, but remains notably attuned to its indeterminacy by remaining brief.  There is a humility to the final chapter that mirrors Barad, Wendt, and Zanotti’s conclusions in substance as well as in form.  It creatively reflects the indeterminacy of quantum thinking by exploring “potential future threads” without indulging in the desire to resolve them (page citation).

If one is willing to entertain the theoretical moves Murphy makes and doesn’t dismiss quantum thinking out of hand, there is little to disagree with in the text itself.  There are a couple of areas, however, where the arguments could have been somewhat more developed.  One is the final chapter itself, which is intentionally brief; yet, rather than being a drawback, I would argue that it is a strength.  Demonstrating a willingness to engage in self-limited theoretical sketches is an intellectual move that illustrates the quantum emphasis on potentiality rather than outcome.  Employing scholarship as a research apparatus raises as many questions as it answers, but these questions are novel and worth pursuing, not something that needs resolution.  Murphy could also have focused more on the distinctions between what he refers to as Wendt’s quantum realism and the metaphorical approach he and others employ.  In one sense, this is reasonable.  Given the intellectual history of IR, critical IR scholars are going to need some convincing that scientific concepts are worth engaging at all.  This is where I think the idea of the “Newtonian physical imaginary” is particularly valuable, because it shows how even a theoretical edifice that is “anti-science” remains conceptually bound to the way of knowing and physical ontology it represents.  Murphy writes that “epistemologically, as Wendt … has argued, social sciences have long been bound by the causal closure of physics.  He remarks that regardless of how far their specific methodologies may travel from positivism, he ‘know[s] of no interpretivist, post-modernist, or other critic of naturalistic social science who says that social phenomena can violate the laws of physics” (7).[6] So for Murphy, “the full promise of quantizing critique is that it allows us to move beyond a Newtonian physical imaginary” which represents “a boundary of the infinite, limiting the space within which all things are possible” (8). In this way, he builds on similar claims Zanotti advances in Ontological Entanglements.

Finally, there could be more emphasis on some of the novel understandings of the materiality that quantum creates.  Quantum thinking encourages us to relax anthropocentric conceptions of the world—including our existing ideas that center human notions of agency, choice, and action.  In a quantum world, materials ‘act’ and ‘choose’ just as much as humans ‘choose’ or ‘act.’ In this way, the quantum move is commensurate with New Materialist approaches and those that are theoretically adjacent.[7] As climate change becomes increasingly central to our world, ecological thought will impact not only the substance of international relations, but also the means by which we study it.  This will inevitably include non-anthropocentric conceptual and ontological assumptions.  Murphy’s work is well placed to provide support for these moves in the future.


Christopher McIntosh is an Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College with research interests in international relations theory and security studies.  His work focuses on time/temporality in IR theory and practice; the relationship between the concepts of war and sovereignty in the contemporary practice of political violence; quantum social theory, U.S. strategy in the war on terror; and the likelihood of nuclear terrorism.  His work has been published in International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Global Security Studies, International Theory, Millennium, and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, as well as other outlets.  He is currently completing a book project on the ways that the concept of time informs global politics and IR scholarship.


[1] Laura Zanotti, Ontological Entanglements, Agency, and Ethics in International Relations: Exploring the Crossroads (New York: Routledge, 2019); Alexander Wendt, Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Political and Social Ontology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[2] Yosef Lapid, “The Third Debate: On the Prospects of International Theory in a Post-Positivist Era,” International Studies Quarterly 33:2 (1989): 235-254; Yong-Soo Eun, “To What Extent is Post-Positivism Practiced in International Relations: Evidence from China and the USA,” International Political Science Review 38:5 (2017): 593-607.

[3] James Der Derian and Alexander Wendt, “Quantizing International Relations: The Case for Quantum Approaches to International Theory and Security Practice,” Security Dialogue 51:5 (2020): 407.

[4] Der Derian and Wendt, 407.

[5] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[6] The author cites Wendt 2015, 10.

[7] See, for example, William Connolly, “The New Materialism and the Fragility of Things,” Millennium 41:3 (2013): 399-412.