In Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe in Them, Joseph Uscinski presents a collection that brings together contributors to offer an wide-ranging take on conspiracy theories, examining them as historical phenomena, psychological quirks, expressions of power relations and political instruments. While this is an interesting and expansive volume, writes Max Budra, it overlooks the conundrum posed by conspiracy theories that succeed in capturing the epistemological authorities. 

Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe in Them. Joseph Uscinski (ed.). Oxford University Press. 2018.

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The greatest challenge in studying conspiracy theories—a task likened to trying to housebreak a chicken in a recent New Yorker article—may well be simply defining what a ‘conspiracy theory’ is in the first place. The term encompasses a dizzying array of phenomena, from contrails to Elvis Presley’s mortality, and cuts across several academic disciplines. No surprise, then, that Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe in Them, a recently published collection of essays edited by Joseph Uscinski, takes an expansive view of the topic. The essays examine conspiracy theories as historical phenomena, psychological quirks, expressions of power relations and as political instruments. Understandably, many of the essays fall back on simple description—the authors’ incredulity can be read between the lines.

In what may be a sign of the difficulty of the task, a definition of ‘conspiracy theory’ is only offered by Uscinski roughly 50 pages into the book. A conspiracy theory is, as he defines it:

an explanation of past, ongoing, or future events or circumstances that cites as a main causal factor a small group of powerful persons […] acting in secret for their own benefit and against the common good (48).

Crucially, Uscinski and many of his contributors then go on to note that such theories usually conflict with the account of the so-called epistemological authorities (48, see also Juha Raikka and Lee Basham, 179). Conspiracy theories are thus framed by Matthew D. Atkinson and Darin Dewett as fringe phenomena, ‘tools for the weak’ (122).

This makes intuitive sense. The typical picture of a conspiracy theorist is of a marginal figure engaged in some kind of hopeless protest, waving a homemade sign and shouting incoherent warnings outside the White House. Conspiracy theorists are seen as powerless, and this perception shapes how conspiracy theories are studied. Indeed, it seems to have led to a situation in which conspiracy theorists are seen as powerless by definition. This thinking underpins the arguments in this collection that treat conspiracy theories as a kind of folk knowledge, or as a mutation of the common person’s democratic vigilance, as found in the chapters by Alfred Moore (119), Steven M. Smallpage (192) and Michael J. Wood and Karen M. Douglas (251).

The consequence of defining conspiracy theorists as powerless is that doing so distorts the entire study of conspiracy theories. Since conspiracy theorists and their theories exist on the fringes of power, the threat they pose, according to several contributors to Conspiracy Theories, is that they can corrode societal trust and governmental capacity, and that they can be used to upend the status quo by a system’s ‘losers’ (Atkinson and Dewett, 125).

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This may be true, but it leaves the reader with the uncomfortable feeling that something is being missed: that only half the problem is being examined. Conspiracy theories are not just for the powerless. Joseph Stalin, for instance, may not have believed the rationale behind the terror he unleashed in the 1930s, but most good Bolsheviks did, at least initially. In the United States, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI genuinely seem to have believed that civil rights activists were the tools of the Communist International. Both cases are textbook examples of conspiracy theorising, according to Uscinski’s own definition.

Yet despite its wide range, Conspiracy Theories never discusses either case. This despite the fact that the respective impacts of both were somewhat greater than, say, the impact of the debate over water fluoridation in Portland, Oregon, which is discussed by Uscinski (11). A counterfactual might explain why neither case, or indeed any similar case, is analysed. What if, instead of Hoover and the FBI imagining that African Americans were engaged in conspiracy, it was the other way around? Luckily, you don’t have to imagine: an essay in Conspiracy Theories by Martin Orr and Ginna Husting looks at how African American concerns over the actions of the American government are routinely dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’ (85-89). One is left with the impression that if the powerful are doing it, it’s not conspiracy theorising.

As such, while Conspiracy Theories is an interesting, expansive study of conspiracy theories, it is ultimately incomplete. It is akin to a book on revolutions that only studies revolutions that never got off the ground. In seeking to explain conspiracy theories, only the failed instances are analysed. Those conspiracy theories that truly succeed—that capture the epistemological authorities—are never even mentioned, because as soon as they succeed, they are no longer treated as conspiracy theories. We are thus left with no tools with which to analyse that success, despite its potentially grave consequences.

Hopefully this oversight will be corrected in future editions, and will become more of a focus for the entire field of conspiracy theory studies. There is good reason to believe this may happen soon. After all, the conspiracy theorist has made it past the White House fence. He now sits in the Oval Office.

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Note: This review was first published on LSE Review of Books blog

Max Budra is a graduate of the LSE Department of International Relations, and holds an MSc in International Relations, as well as a BA in Political Science from Simon Fraser University. His main research interest is the ideology of American foreign policy. Max currently works in the alternative investment management industry; the views expressed in this article are his own.

 

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