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The rise of “conspiracy theory”

This entry was posted in Current conspiracy theories on 17 November 2013 by

On the question of the use of the term “conspiracy theory” the trajectory over recent decades is pretty clear. It’s on the up.

This is just a search for “conspiracy theory” OR “conspiracy theories” in the title of articles on google scholar, excluding patents and citations. It’s only in the early 1950s that we find anything at all, with a slight increase from the mid-70s and a big increase from the 1990s up to today. There are a few spikes, but given the time it takes to research, write, review and publish a journal article, those spikes are probably less important than the general trend.

 

So scholarly interest in the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, it is safe to say, is on the up. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that conspiracy theorizing itself is rising. Uscinski’s and Parent’s claim (about which I’ve yet to see the details) is that most of the uses of the term “conspiracy theory” on the internet are in the context not of presenting a conspiracy theory, but rather mocking or debunking conspiracy theories and theorists.

A rise in the amount of scholarly research and general commentary on the phenomenon of conspiracy theories might be a sign of a rise in the phenomenon they claim to address. But it might not.

4 Comments

  • Andrei says:

    I don’t think that this graph is accurate. I really doubt that it means anything at all. Massive online databases, including academic databases, emerged only in the 1990s and 2000s. Add a great rise in new titles which appeared in those years and were incorporated in these databases. Add a low level of periodical archives, scanned books and historical conference proceedings available freely online and searched by google’s robots. And you will get the graph saying that we are living in a ‘conspiracy theory’ age.
    I think numbers should be more substantial.

  • Joe Uscinski says:

    Great post. I would be careful with the N gram data. According to the Ngram data in the other post, and to your google data figure, there are no conspiracy theories during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Does that make sense?

  • Ben says:

    This is a pretty strong trend, but it might be less so if you account for increasing academic output. I think you would see this kind of trend in a search of virtually any term (even if not all would be so dramatic), given that a lot more papers are being published today. For example, ‘population’ appears in titles 33,200 times in 2012, but only 580 times in 1950. ‘Politics’ appears 13,200 times in 2012, but only 288 in 1950. ‘War’ is 14,000:1,100, and ‘biology’ 7,420:542. (Apologies if you have already accounted for this).

  • Alfred Moore says:

    These are great comments. NGram gives a percentage of the published books, so the trend should be independent of the absolute number of publications.

    I agree that there is good reason to be wary of the google scholar numbers for the reason Ben suggests. But can the increase in use of the term “conspiracy theory” in scholarly journal articles be entirely accounted for by the rise in the number of published articles? The use of the term “conspiracy theory” (in journal article titles) seems to have gone up about tenfold in the last 20 years. Has the number of social science journals increased tenfold over the same period? I really don’t know, so if anybody has good sources on this, please do share them.

    Regarding Joe’s comment, the absence of hits around the time of the “red scare” doesn’t mean it wasn’t what we would call a conspiracy theory. It just means that scholars were not giving it the name “conspiracy theory” and writing articles about it.

    That is, the story told by the little graph of google scholar search results in this post is simply of an increase in scholarly articles treating “conspiracy theory” as an object of study. I haven’t looked at all the hits, but I would expect at least part of the increase to have something to do with research programmes on “conspiracy theory” in psychology and political science. And I would be surprised if ALL of the increase could be accounted for by the increase in the number of journal articles being churned out by academics.

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