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A Year in the Life of Conspiracy & Democracy

This entry was posted in Conspiracy and Democracy Project on 22 April 2014 by

A Year in the Life of Conspiracy & Democracy


The Conspiracy and Democracy (C&D) Project, housed by the remarkable Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) began on January 1, 2013 with the generous support of the Leverhulme Trust. Now well into the project, we look back at the year that was.

Research Agenda

The central question of the relationship between conspiracy and democracy that this project is investigating requires a robust and creative inter-disciplinary study that will touch upon different demarcated facets. With this in mind, we have set up the following ‘research strands’ to address certain discipline-specific questions and to allow for an innovative inter-disciplinary conversation between us.

Firstly, we want to examine conspiracy theories and conspiracies over time and in relation to one another, particularly since the 18th century, in Britain, Europe and the USA. A History research track asks whether the expanding public sphere and the rise of mass democracy since the 18th century has encouraged a shift from government suspicion of popular conspiracies to popular suspicion of government conspiracies, and, if so, why. Included in this are the Principal Investigator (PI) Professor Sir Richard Evans and our postdoctoral researchers, Dr Rachel G. Hoffman and Dr Andrew McKenzie-McHarg.

Secondly, we ask whether conspiracy theories are, in principle, philosophically indefensible. A Political Theory research track looks at the contribution philosophers have made to the analysis of conspiracy theories and their relationship to democracy. Included in this are the co-Director of C&D Professor David Runciman and our postdoctoral researchers, Dr Alfred Moore and Dr Hugo Drochon.

Thirdly, we look at the influence of the Internet on conspiracy theories. The Internet Theory research track asks whether the internet is, in fact, uncontrollable and is exponentially expanding/removing all checks on the proliferation of conspiracy theories. If this is the case, and we still don’t know whether it is, then who are the actors involved and how do conspiracy theories spread on the online world? Included in this are our co-Director Professor John Naughton and postdoctoral researcher Dr Theodore Hong.

Fourthly, we ask what can we learn from a detailed ethnography of specific conspiracy theories operating in the contemporary period. The Social Anthropology research track aims to broaden the geographical scope of C&D as well as add to its repertoire of methodological approaches. Included in this is our postdoctoral researcher Dr Nayanika Mathur who is studying conspiracy theories arising from the introduction of national IDs in India and the UK.

Weekly Reading Groups

All 9 researchers meet every Wednesday mornings during term time. In these intense discussion sessions we have read widely from the extant academic corpus on conspiracy, conspiracy theories, and democracy. These readings are drawn from a wide range of Humanities and Social Science disciplines and are not constrained by the disciplinary specialisations of the research group. In addition, we often invite authors or research scholars to these closed-door Wednesday sessions. Over the past year we have had {list of names here?} come speak to us. The animated discussions always spill over into an extended lunch at Wolfson College.

 Public Events

During this first year the project began its series of public events, including lectures by speakers invited and hosted by the project. The lectures were widely publicized, and have attracted a diverse audience of undergraduates, graduates, post-docs and professors, as well as members of the public. The lectures are followed by a short response from one of the post-docs on the project and a general discussion. A list of talks held thus far can be found on our events page.

Public Engagement.

Even in its early days, C&D has attracted enormous attention from academics, the media, and the general public. Our directors have been invited to a range of public outreach events to discuss our project. This includes Richard Evans talking on Night Waves on BBC Radio 3, John Naughton doing a special introduction for “We Steal Secrets: the story of Wikileaks” at the Arts Picturehouse Cinema, and all three of our Directors presenting our project at The Festival of Ideas in November 2013. All these public engagement activities have provoked widespread interest, such as this story on the BBC that provoked 1508 comments before the network cut-off the online commenting facility. {} We have also had our fair share of bizarre interactions ranging from commentaries on our work by bonafide conspiracy theorists {} to invites to TV shows that are focused on aliens during the Nazi regime to even being dubbed conspiracy theorists ourselves!

Visiting Fellowships

Given our interest in setting up collaborations with academics working on the central theme of conspiracy and democracy, we established a visiting fellows program in 2013. Our call for applications for short term (2-4 weeks) and long term (one Cambridge term) visiting fellows attracted some spectacular applications. The successful participants have given public lectures, participated in our Wednesday reading groups, and workout of our CRASSH office for the duration of their stay.

In other news, David Runciman’s much awaited The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War 1 to the Present came out in 2013 with Princeton University Press and Richard Evans’s Altered Past: Counterfactuals in History has also just been released by Little, Brown.

You can keep up to date with the other events planned by C&D over the coming years on the events page of the website and also follow our various research musings on here our blog.