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Can conspiracies be distinguished from other forms of collective action?

This entry was posted in Conspiracy and Democracy Project, Conspiracy Theories on 12 January 2016 by

Can conspiracies be distinguished from other forms of collective action?


Conspiracies are (at least partially) a subcategory of collective action. The terms covered by the collective action umbrella range from proximate categories which may, perhaps, be indistinguishable, to those that are completely distinct.

Unlike ‘conspiracy theory’, ‘conspiracy’ is easy to define: conspiracies are necessarily covert, and either illegal or at least aimed to deceive. Numerous forms of collective action are covert and legal. Protest marches, for one. Certain forms of collective action cannot be confused with conspiracies.

This is of course not a satisfactory answer; hopefully our discussion will dwell more on cases that, under certain circumstances, cannot be distinguished from conspiracies [It did – RF]. There are a number of forms of collective action that get close to being conspiracies, without fully qualifying. Alfred will have much to say about this, but any instance where elites’ interests align may produce outcomes that appear coordinated, even when produced by rational actors operating out of self interest.

Flipping the question around, the statement appears to imply that conspiracies are necessarily collective, and necessarily involve action. I’m not sure either must be true: when Andrew and I looked through the Hansard, we found the corpus was replete with popular phrases involving the term conspiracy. Apart from legal-technical usage, the most common usage saw the language of conspiracy applied to the failure or unwillingness to act, or even the structural conditions that prevent coordinated action. Take conspiracy of silence: here the conspiracy claim points to the absence of action. Or ‘events conspired’: this phrase points to an unfortunate sequence of uncoordinated events producing specific deleterious consequences. Finally, parliamentarians often talk about cases of ‘cockup rather than conspiracy’, i.e. any action (or inaction) took place without coordination, intention, and foresight. My point may be a pedantic one, and I’d concede that conspiracies do require a collective. But action? This is less clear cut.

In Venn diagram terms, most conspiracies are forms of collective action, though some cases might not be. In response to last week’s call, here’s is my minimalist visualisation of this idea: