In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Quantum Social Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Philosophy of Science: Realism—Antirealism

International Relations Quantum Social Science
Katharina E. Höne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0203


Quantum social science is debated as an emerging field in international relations (IR) and, more broadly, the social sciences. Currently, no generally accepted criteria exist for mapping its borders. This article is an attempt to suggest a preliminary map of the field. It should be seen as an invitation for further dialogue on the relevance of the idea of quantum social science and its key themes. The following four points outline the scope of this article. First, a number of highly diverse contributions to quantum social science can be suggested based on their common interest in interdisciplinary dialogue in the form of exchanges between the social sciences and a particular area in physics called quantum theory or quantum mechanics. Quantum physics, as opposed to other areas in the physical sciences, is of interest because the “new physics,” most closely associated with theoretical advances and discoveries in quantum physics, that emerged at the turn of the 20th century led to fundamental revisions of Newtonian assumptions. Further, various interpretations of quantum physics, especially the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, call into question taken-for-granted ontological and epistemological assumptions regarding the nature of matter and the relation between the observer and the observed. Second, the aims of those scholars that can be included under the label “quantum social science” differ substantially. A first group of scholars seeks to provide better models of complex social relations by applying the mathematical formalisms of quantum physics. A second group draws on quantum theory to rethink social relations and taken-for-granted concepts that are steeped in Newtonian assumptions. Areas of focus include forms of government and democracy, diplomacy, and security studies. Another group of scholars takes the “strange” implications of certain interpretations of quantum theory as a starting point to rethink social ontology and epistemology—ultimately offering novel approaches to social, agency, and agentic relations. Third, various approaches in quantum social science grapple, explicitly or implicitly, with the relationship among their concepts, models, and theories and the world. From a philosophy of science perspective, quantum social science, much like the interpretations of quantum theory itself, faces a fundamental dividing line between realist and anti-realist approaches. Realist positions take the assumption that the social is quantum mechanical as the motivation to call for a fundamental rethinking of our social practices and approaches to, and theories of, the social. In contrast, instrumental accounts make use of mathematical formalisms, metaphors, and analogies, in order to offer more useful descriptions of the social without making ontological commitments. Fourth, quantum social science inevitably raises questions of disciplinary boundaries and the status, scope, and methods of IR and the social sciences. Such debates are sometimes framed as a decision between the extreme poles of the “hard” sciences, on the one hand, and the humanities, on the other hand, with the social sciences occupying an uneasy middle position. Yet, other approaches explicitly reject this very binary. For those scholars who use quantum ideas to rethink social relations and agency, quantum social science harbors the potential for a whole new way of doing social science.

General Overviews

The following book-length treatments of quantum social science, broadly understood, are cited in this general overview as they all share the aim of mapping the field and setting a future agenda. Wendt 2015 and Haven and Khrennikov 2013 are most explicit about making a contribution to what the authors call quantum social science and charting the course for a future agenda of the emerging field (Wendt 2015, p. 284; Haven and Khrennikov 2013, pp. xviii and 55). Within the discipline of IR, Wendt 2015 offers the only book-length account in quantum social science. Given that the explicit interest in quantum social science is a recent development, a lack of textbooks is, of course, unsurprising. Similarly, no introductory works suitable for the undergraduate level are available. While prior knowledge in science studies, philosophy of (social) science, and quantum theory (including its mathematical formalism) are not explicitly required for the monographs introduced here, each contribution presents a formidable challenge to those without prior knowledge. Each contribution selected here represents a particular position in quantum social science. Wendt 2015 aims at rethinking social ontology—regarding agency, agent-structure relations, and language—based on insights into quantum theory. The key to this work is its central argument that the social is quantum mechanical at bottom—a point that the author develops through the notion of quantum consciousness—and that, therefore, divisions between physical and social ontology do not hold. This, he argues, requires a fundamental rethinking of social concepts and relations. Haven and Khrennikov 2013 provides an overview that focuses on developing mathematical models for understanding social sciences “with the help of formal models and concepts used in quantum social science” (p. 55). In contrast to Wendt, the authors provide an instrumental account of quantum social science and maintain that their models do not build on a commitment that the social really is quantum mechanical or quantum-like (p. xviii). Further, Haven and Khrennikov uphold an explicit division between what they call “the exact sciences” and the social sciences (p. xviii). This binary is rejected in Barad 2007. This work is explicitly interdisciplinary in the sense that Barad highlights the mutual constitution of the “social” and the “physical.” Based on an in-depth discussion of Niels Bohr’s philosophy-physics, which is read alongside the works of post-structural and performative scholars, Barad develops the concept of agential realism. Agential realism explicitly rejects representationalism and makes a crucial contribution to new materialist and post-human scholarship. Barad’s work offers a fundamental rethinking of commonly accepted distinctions between world and things, nature and culture, and subject and object. She coins the terms onto-epistem-ology and ethico-onto-epistem-ology to capture this shift and highlight the inseparability of the three (pp. 89–90).

  • Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388128

    Barad develops the concept of agential realism based on a discussion of Niels Bohr’s philosophy-physics. Various chapters discuss technoscientific practices, the concept of intra-action, and the ethics of mattering.

  • Haven, Emmanuel, and Andrei Khrennikov. Quantum Social Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139003261

    The monograph develops mathematical formalisms for the application of quantum models to the social realm. The first two chapters offer an overview of the mathematical models of quantum theory. Chapter 3 engages in a discussion of quantum social science. Later chapters apply quantum models to psychology, economics, finance, and brain science.

  • Wendt, Alexander. Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316005163

    After an overview of key interpretations of quantum theory, Wendt uses the concept of quantum consciousness as the starting point from which to rethink concepts of agency and the social. The book aims to overcome the dual ontology of the physical and the social.

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