Conspiracy Theory and Social Theory

Well, I went to the European Anthropology conference and it was really good. Smallish, with perhaps five hundred delegates- with plenary sessions and workshops, the latter being a kind of succession of panel , often with a continuity of themes participants, creating a different and more coherent experience than at the AAAs. And I kind of got the answer to the question I raised the other week, about the rationale for a specifically Europe focused association. The stated aim was for a professional association across the expanded Europe. Another aim, officially unstated but one mentioned in conversation by some delegates, was as an explicit alternative to the apparent American hegemony of the AAA. This was not unexpected. It was however intriguing, especially in relation to some of the topics which came up at the conference, which included conspiracy theories and our current favourite, neo-liberalism.

A presentation by Kathleen Reedy on popular conspiracy theories in Syria got me thinking. It emerged from the discussion that in many ways conspiracy theories are like social theory. They do the same things. And whether or not we categorize something as conspiracy theory or not is a matter of the politics of to what we are willing to accord credibility. This insight brings me back to neo-liberalism, or rather, to anthropological takes on it. We are very keen to accord neo-liberallism conspiratorial power to wholly re-form multiple world orders in its own image; indeed, the opening speech at the conference made this explicit claim.

The conference itself was partly informed brought into being in response to an American conspiracy. Strangely, this self conscious rejection of such hegemonic ordering does not seem to lead to radically divergent anthropologies.. The preoccupations of papers seem on a par with the range of offerings at a triple A meeting. Is this a victory for hegemony and evidence of the neo-liberal reach, creating, as Hardt and Negri might have it, the possibility for the replication globally of the same few core institutional forms? Or is it simply the reality that we comprise the same scholarly community within and outside Europe, that the boundary is not so much between European anthropology and the US axis but elsewhere, perhaps imposed by the de facto alliance of European and North American influenced anthropological forms? Which leads to another question: whether the apparent uniformity of the product and preoccupations of anthropology now are an indication of a crisis of the anthropological imagination, on both sides of the Atlantic?


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

5 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theory and Social Theory

  1. Well hell, I wouldn’t mind an alternative to AAA hegemony myself 🙂

    Doesn’t Joe Masco write on paranoia? As far as I can see, the only difference between conspiracy theory and social theory is institutional licensing. And often the conspiracy theorists write better.

  2. I misunderstood originally where this post was going; the idea that conspiracy theory and social theory were alike was brilliant. Before I get my productive misreading on my chest, however, let me essay an attempt to distinguish between social theory and conspiracy theory. I don’t understand at all why neoliberalism should qualify as a conspiracy theory to which we are willing to attribute conspiratorial power to it. I don’t know anyone who does that. I personally dislike the word neoliberalism; I prefer ‘wild capitalism,’ or ‘liberalism;’ I don’t understand the need for the neo.

    In so far as neoliberalism is a theory developed in the sphere of Marxist or pseudomarxist critiques, it must necessarily be the opposite of a conspiracy theory. After all, Marx spent much more time in Capital explaining the pressures under which capitalists like his buddy Engels lived to the workers, than the reverse. It’s just a social theory of power.

    So, given that, what distinguishes a conspiracy theory world view from a social theory seems to be that social theory is

    • purportedly based on a set of confirmable data, and
    • therefore falls into a broader range of acceptable arguments.

    [It is, of course more complicated than this – social theory often produces far too little actual confirmable data to prove its arguments, and conspiracy theory most often produces far too much confirmable data, strung together by intricate theories.]

    So perhaps a better way of distinguishing them is that (good) social theory explains why people do what they do on the basis of the society in which they live. It does this by building a theory of society, and keeps from turning into conspiracy theory through

    • attempts to limit the theory to the fewest possible facts and explanations
    • rejects associationism as a form plausible argument
    • seeks to limit the influence of individual intention in social explanation.

    In contrast, (bad) conspiracy theory

    • piles theory on top of theory, often in situations where one unproven theory is used to prove another
    • finds proof in association
    • and relies on the bad intentions of individual human beings or individual groups to explain society.

    I originally thought you were going somewhere else with the notion that conspiracy theory and social theory do the same work. I suppose I thought that you were saying that both theories

    • attempt to arrange ideas in such a way that facts make sense
    • and that they both do so by attempting to make (imagined or real) ‘secret’ facts ‘public ideas. (i.e., through revelation of the conspiracy, or through analysis of culture, economics, etc.).

    Sorry to ramble.

  3. Thank you Maia for the kind words about the conference and the workshop.

    For those of you interested in conspiracy theory –as this is dealt with by anthropologists– I have a few further suggestions; in addition to George Marcus that is…

    Harry G. West and Todd Sanders, Eds. Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

    K.S. Brown & D. Theodossopoulos, ‘The performance of anxiety: Greek narratives of the war at Kosovo’, Anthropology Today, 16(1), 2000, pp. 3-8.

    David Sutton, “‘The Foreign Finger:’ Chaos, Conspiracy Theory and Holistic Thought in Greece”, in K.S. Brown and Y. Hamilakis (eds.) The Usable Past: Greek Metahistories. Lanham MD: Lexington, 2003, pp.191-210.

  4. “Conspiracy” can connote the more or less abstract. Less abstract: neo-liberal capitalists rig international monetary schemes to line their pockets whilst onstensibly arguing that privatization and free trade will in fact enrich everyone. (They *know* that their rhetoric and their motives are not in accord; but maybe not — read the Economist.) More abstract: social reality is itself constituted through contrived misrecognition; the conspiracist (read: anthropologist) sees through the misrecognitions to what is ‘really’ going on. This used to be called, or perhaps still is, the hermeutics of suspicion. Cue Ricoeur.

    Or Faubion. For my money, the most challenging disquisition on the prevalence of the paranoid and its proximity to anthropological forms of investigation and knowing is the first chapter to his Shadows and Lights of Waco. Find it here:

    A sample: ‘the phenomenological proximity of social and paranoid experience does not merely suggest that paranoia is itself a social, not a psychological, phenomenon. It further suggests that each of the two modalities of experience implicates the other… Such skepticism, in turn, finds it readiest and perhaps most pure methological instrument in what might be called a semiotique du soupcon, a semiotics of (the) suspicion, of the inkling, the clue, or trace.’ (p. 13)

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