If we want to understand why so many people are preoccupied with conspiracy theories, then we must not dismiss them as paranoid lunatics. This is what sociologist Jaron Harambam advocates in his dissertation on the culture of conspiracy theorists in the Netherlands. He will defend his dissertation on Thursday 26 October 2017 at Erasmus University Rotterdam. According to him, we need to study the meanings they (and others) attach to these theories.
Conspiracy theories - explanations claiming that clandestine acts or specific persons or groups of people are behind social phenomenon - are ubiquitous nowadays. Such stories about the ‘real’ truth behind terrorist attacks (such as the attacks on 9/11 or in Paris in 2015), or behind collective vaccination programmes (such as the swine flu virus and the HPV virus (cervical cancer) are pervasive everywhere in our Western societies. For many, they have become a normalised way of understanding what they believe is actually going on in our world.
Conspiracy theories are also frequently found in popular culture: films, books and TV series such as The Matrix, The Da Vinci Code or The X-files appeal to a massive audience. At any given party, one will always encounter someone who doesn’t believe what the authorities are telling us. Briefly put, conspiracy theories and those who subscribe to them are everywhere these days.
In spite of the fact that conspiracy theories have migrated to the fringes of the main stage of our society, a sociological understanding of this phenomenon is quite limited. The prevailing idea in both academia and the world at large is that conspiracy theories are paranoid delusions, irrational interpretations of what is the true reality. It follows that the people who believe in them are equally delusional.
But is the idea of an organised conspiracy at the root of important world events really so crazy, asks Jaron Harambam. Consider a government using wiretaps to monitor its citizens and conducting covert operations, or the illegal agreements between multinationals that are the order of the day. More importantly, and this has been his argument throughout his study: if we want to understand why so many people are preoccupied with conspiracy theories, then we must not dismiss them as paranoid lunatics. Research is needed into the meanings they (and others) attach to these theories.
The content of conspiracy theories
Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the world of Dutch conspiracy theorists, and using a cultural-sociological approach, Jaron Harambam conducted research into such meanings in his dissertation “The Truth Is Out There”: Conspiracy Culture in an Age of Epistemic Instability".
First of all, using a content analysis of seven important conspiracy theory websites, he reveals the content of what current conspiracy theories actually focus on. It turns out they focus on our own institutions such as the media, the government, banks and other companies - and how a global elite holds the reins controlling these institutions.
By showing the diversity found in the world of conspiracy theories, he also shatters the stereotypical image we have of the conspiracy theorist. Various subcultures exist, different types of conspiracy theorists who view the world differently and wish to see another kind of change. As opposed to asking why people believe in conspiracy theories, Harambam uses the life stories of these conspiracy theorists to show how they ended up in the world of conspiracy theories. This approach illustrates that the popularity of conspiracy theories cannot be viewed separately from various sociological transformations that have created uncertainty when it comes to the truth: secularisation, mediatisation, democratisation, and globalisation. Harambam concludes that it is this cultural climate of epistemic instability that allows conspiracy theories to thrive.
About Jaron Harambam
Jaron Harambam (Amsterdam, 1983) is obtaining his doctorate at the Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology (CROCUS), Department of Public Administration and Sociology (DPAS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam. The topic of his dissertation is the culture of conspiracy theorists in the Netherlands. He was a Visiting Fellow at Northwestern University near Chicago, USA (2015), and has published on this subject and other online worlds in international academic journals such as Cultural Sociology (2016), Public Understanding of Science (2015), Information, Communication and Society (2013) and European Journal of Cultural Studies (2011). He is the editor of the only Dutch Open Access journal for sociology, Sociology (AUP), and he co-edited a special edition on Actor-Network Theory (ANT). He is a founding member of COST Action COMPACT, a European network of scientists in the field of conspiracy theories. Harambam is primarily interested in sociological phenomena at the intersection of religion, popular culture, media, and science.