EUR researcher: ‘Don’t call conspiracy theorists crazy paranoids’

9/11, ‘chemtrails’, John F. Kennedy’s death: everyone has probably met at least one person who doubts the official story the authorities tell us about a certain phenomenon – or has seen a movie that’s based on an alternative explanation of it. Still we often believe conspiracy theories to be paranoid delusions and the people who believe in them crazy. Wrong, says sociologist Jaron Harambam in his dissertation.

Even though there are countless conspiracy theories everywhere around us, our sociological understanding of them is limited. If we want to know why so many people are interested in them, Harambam states, we shouldn’t look at the conspiracy theorists as if they are crazy paranoids. Besides, he argues, governments do actually eavesdrop on their subjects and carry out secret operations. Big companies make illegal agreements all the time. Is the idea of an organised conspiracy behind important global events really that crazy?

Mistrust in institutions
Harambam researched Dutch conspiracy culture and the meaning people part of that attach to conspiracy theories. In his thesis about the subject, The Truth Is Out There: Conspiracy Culture in an Age of Epistemic Instability, he shows that the conspiracy theories of today are mostly about institutions like the media, government, banks and other companies, and about the global elite that’s supposedly behind them.

Conspiratorial diversity
Moreover, he deconstructs the stereotypical image we have of conspiracy theorists by showing the diversity that exists within the conspiracy culture. There are different subcultures, and various types of conspiracy theorists that look at the world in different ways. By telling their life stories, Harambam shows how these people ended up in the world of conspiracy theories.

A good time to conspire
Haramban concludes the popularity of conspiracy culture can’t be detached from several sociologic transformations that have rattled our idea of one truth: secularisation, mediatisation, democratisation and globalisation. According to him conspiracy theories thrive well in our current cultural climate of epistemic instability, and he suggests we start investigating the significance people attach to them.

Want to know more? Watch this Studio Erasmus interview with Jaron Harambam (in Dutch).