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Hunting for Conspiracy Theories, Part One

This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories on 17 June 2013 by

Hunting for Conspiracy Theories, Part One

In the draft version of their paper which circulated on the internet and was simply titled “Conspiracy Theories,” the American legal scholars Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule surveyed the field of research and in light of this came to a simple quantitative conclusion: “The academic literature on conspiracy theories is thin …” In much of the older literature one can find similar statements. Thus, when Norman Cohn submitted to the TLS a review of Johannes Rogalla von Bieberstein’s Die These von der Verschwörung, a work which despite its flaws still provides the most comprehensive synopsis of the conservative European tradition in conspiracy theories, Cohn spoke of an “area of which, even today, academic historians tend to fight shy.”

That was in 1977. In the subsequent years, the state of comparative neglect continued. When a second edition of Bieberstein’s work was issued in 1992, the author left the book in its original state. As he explained, new insights which otherwise would have necessitated a re-working of the text had not been forthcoming. Already in the first edition of his work, Bieberstein had proffered one major reason for the hands-off attitude adopted by scholars; there was, according to him, a slightly disreputable air surrounding the topic. It was as if by directing scholarly attention in their direction one might inadvertently dignify conspiracy theories with a specious veneer of respectability, or, even worse, as if by studying them a researcher ran the risk of losing respect in the eyes of colleagues.

Obviously the first scholar to venture into uncharted waters is entitled to note the pioneering character of his or her work. And the second and third scholars might also feel compelled to point out the newness of their research. But eventually a stage is reached when scholars have to abandon any pretence that they are dealing with a phenomenon hitherto ignored or neglected by the research community. It is therefore interesting that Sunstein and Vermeule dropped their quantitative assessment of the research situation from the version of the paper which was published in 2009 in The Journal of Political Philosophy. One can only presume that the authors once more took stock of the field and decided that, in actual fact, a sizeable amount of research literature had accumulated since conspiracy theories had first been recognized and discovered by academics. There seems to be something prescient about the way Sunstein and Vermeule revised their assessment. In the years since then, there has been a ground swell of literature on the topic.

This means firstly that conspiracy theories are now taken seriously as an object of inquiry; there are no longer any grounds for feeling embarrassment about devoting research time to them. At least that is what I would like to think as someone involved in a long-term project devoted to their study. But another consequence of the fast growing body of research is the sense of vertigo it is beginning to induce. Academics in more established fields know the slight anxiety associated with the question: how will I keep up with all this? Perhaps we are not exactly there yet, but all signs indicate that in the field of conspiracy studies the problems posed by the challenge of keeping up with new research are not too far off. In recent weeks I have been trying to catch up on some of the research literature, and I have started to think that this “catching-up” could go on for days. And the days become weeks, and the weeks become months … and this could all continue without ever coming into contact with a real, actual, genuine conspiracy theory.

And that is the prospect which induces, if not vertigo, then certainly apprehension. Because of a conscientious yearning for contact with the empirical realities of what we are studying, I, like the rest of us, don’t feel comfortable about the idea of becoming entirely sequestered within the secondary research. Such a prospect gives rise to an impatience, akin to that of the young boy whose father takes the time to instruct him in the basics of hunting: how do we use the gun, what rules of safety have to be observed, etc., etc., … and all the while all you want to do is go out and shoot something.

So let me therefore treat the foregoing as a rather long-winded preamble leading to the question I will address in the next blog: if we go hunting for conspiracy theories, where should we look? And more particularly: what are the actual beasts we can expect to encounter?