Strategy and Identity in the “Conspiracy Milieu”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 9:00 AM
Room: 315
Oral Presentation
Jaron HARAMBAM , Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Strategy and Identity in the “Conspiracy Milieu”

Conspiracy theories have in recent decades become a popular cultural phenomenon, and its discourse is now an increasingly normalized idiom for many people to account for the occurrence of (seemingly ungraspable) phenomena in contemporary societies. The social sciences have nevertheless conceived of “conspiracy theorists” in rather aberrant terms: they are paranoid believers of an outdated worldview and endanger the body politic. Although the moralism in these studies is already problematic for the sociological understanding of who these people are, what I challenge in this paper is the uniform identity these scholars construct of conspiracy theorists. I draw here on ethnographic research in the Dutch “conspiracy milieu” to explore what differences in beliefs and practices can be found and how they are related to dynamics of identity formation. While a communality can be found in the societal change all conspiracy theorists want to bring about, I dissect three different strategies with which people think these changes should be accomplished: withdrawal, activism and mediation. Strongly influenced by New Age beliefs, adherents of the first strategy assume change is to come from within: by changing oneself, the world will change accordingly. The activist strategy is informed by the notion that a different world can only be established by overthrowing the old order, practices therefore take place on the barricades. The mediators at last argue that societal change can only be achieved in cooperation, adherents therefore want to bring people together by making visible societal and political problems. I conclude by showing how the identity of conspiracy theorists is much more complex and dynamic than social scientists generally assume: it is multiple and formed in relation to the general public and other conspiracy theorists alike.