Political science professor Laura Zanotti makes a quantum leap in the study of international relations
January 5, 2021
Laura Zanotti devoted a decade of her life to keeping the peace across the globe.
She served as an administrator and political officer for the United Nations in New York, and she worked in UN Peacekeeping operations in Croatia and Haiti.
Now a professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Political Science, Zanotti examines political and international relations through a different lens: quantum entanglement ontology.
Quantum entanglement suggests that all of the smallest things in the universe, such as subatomic particles, are connected no matter the distance between them, and that the apparatuses of observation we apply to study them produce different reality effects. From this perspective, Zanotti pursues research into global politics and peacekeeping.
She has emerged as a leading global expert in her field.
This fall, the Project Q initiative in the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney noted Zanotti’s research in its blog post, “Who’s Who in Quantum Social Science.” Her work, the author of the post wrote, “investigates how the adoption of a quantum entanglement ontology can open up different ways of looking at reality and enable us to explore how we are actors in the world and how we may change it.”
Quantum entanglement ontology beckoned to Zanotti when she realized a flaw in the efforts of global peacekeeping.
“We did not focus enough on the means to the end,” she said. “We worked with the assumption that by taking actions driven by standardized models, we would achieve good results such as democracy and peace. But far too often, we dismissed political failures as merely unintended consequences. We blamed the people we were supposed to help for being the cause of our failures.”
Zanotti's latest book argues that international relations scholars and practitioners alike presuppose that the world works according to the laws of Newtonian physics, which assume linear relations of cause and effect and the possibility to stand outside the phenomena it observes. Instead, quantum physics suggests that the apparatus of observation we adopt to engage with phenomena changes them. In addition, causal effects are the result of complex clusters of forces that cannot be reduced to simple linear push and pull.
“That apparatus makes us, and we make the world as we go,” said Zanotti. “The means to the end are fundamental. This is why we must rethink causality and the ways we understand relations of power and how we attempt to achieve political change.”
Zanotti was inspired by the work of feminist theorist Karen Barad, whose book “Meeting the Universe Halfway” views the world holistically rather than as a composition of individual social and natural realms. The book inspired Zanotti to think deeply about how the world’s ethical and political shortcomings connect to the ways in which people like to imagine how the world operates.
“For instance, if we imagine the social and political world as driven by linear relations of causality, we end up acting in the name of abstract, universal principles without putting at the center of our decision-making a careful assessment of the specific situation and of the means we use to achieve given ends,” said Zanotti.
“If I called the plumber to fix my sink, and the plumber came in with a fork instead of a pipe wrench, I would send the plumber home. The same thing happens in peacekeeping when we repeatedly choose the incorrect tool. We cannot simply wish reality into being without asking ‘how questions,’” said Zanotti.
“The universe manifests and unfolds in a way that is interactive,” she added. “We are entangled with one another, with the places where we were born and where we live, with everything around us.”
While Zanotti is a renowned scholar in critical political theory and international ethics, she’s quick to emphasize that she is not a physicist.
“I’m actually very bad at math,” said Zanotti, with a laugh. “What interests me is how the political and ontological imaginaries shape the way we look at ethics. Through quantum entanglement ontology, I’m looking for connections between ethics, ontology, and epistemology.”
Zanotti, who was born in Italy, joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2006. Her most recent book, “Ontological Entanglements, Agency and Ethics in International Relations: Exploring the Crossroads,” argues that an entangled ontological imaginary will lead to a reimagining of how people inhabit the world and to a reconsideration of ways of justifying ethics from abstract principles to responsible contextual evaluations.
Her first book, “Governing Disorder: United Nations Peace Operations, International Security, and Democratization in the Post-Cold War Era,” applies Foucauldian theoretical tools to address the political imaginary and shortcomings of peacekeeping.
She has coauthored two other books, “Peacekeeping through Community-based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities” and “Building Walls and Dissolving Border: The Challenge of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space” as well a numerous peer-reviewed journal articles.
— Written by Andrew Adkins