The social construction of conspiracy theories

Alternative title: Conspiracy theories, discourse, and power

Note: This is my ninth blog post in a multi-part series on conspiracy theories

I sincerely apologize in advance for this blog post. Personally, I am not a big fan of sociology or of “social constructionism.” Nevertheless, that said, for purposes of completeness–of leaving no conspiracy-theory stone unturned, so to speak–I am going to put on my post-modern social construction hat today. More to the point, I will argue that many, if not most, conspiracy theories, especially far-fetched ones, are social constructs. That is to say, the secret machinations and alternate realities that these theories purport to describe don’t really exist, except in the minds of the conspiracy theorists themselves. Accordingly, what if we were to extend discourse theory or “Foucauldian discourse analysis” to conspiracy theories?

Discourse theory refers to an entire family of research techniques and qualitative methods of linguistic analysis. (See bottom image by Susan Herring.) In summary, however, it suffices to say that the central focus of discourse theory, as developed by such intellectual giants as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (both of whom are also pictured below), is on the non-linear relationships between language, knowledge, and power. To oversimplify, for Foucault, Derrida, and their post-modern followers the term “discourse” refers to the many different ways in which we express knowledge and embody power relationships. On this Foucauldian view, then, conspiracy theories are just a special type of socially constructed discourse: a subversive form of social knowledge existing alongside many other competing forms of knowledge.

Further, this Foucauldian view of conspiracy theories contains an epistemologically novel and revolutionary insight, one that is especially relevant to the murky and shadowy world of secret plots and concealed cabals: truth is a subjective and contested concept. That is, “truth” is rarely, if ever, an absolute value; the truth is always up for grabs. (Compare the notion, which is popular today, of “my truth.”) The focus of discourse theory is thus on who is doing the speaking because a given “truth” (my truth or yours?) will often depend on who the speaker is, not just on what he is saying. On this Foucauldian view, the shadowy and subversive nature of most conspiracy theories are features, not bugs.

More importantly, given the subjective and contested nature of truth, the probability or truth value of any given conspiracy theory is beside the point. What really matters is the identity of the people or social groups who happen to believe in that theory as well as the reasons for their subjective beliefs, however fanciful or far-fetched those beliefs are. In other words, instead of asking, Is X Conspiracy Theory true?, we should be asking an entirely different set of questions:

  • Which individuals or groups believe in X Conspiracy Theory?
  • What are the reasons for or logical structure of these subjective beliefs?
  • And, most importantly, what power relationships do these beliefs embody?

Although these types of research questions are certainly fruitful ones, post-modern discourse analysis and social constructionism generally share a fatal flaw: they are self-refuting! After all, if truth and reality are socially constructed, mere forms of discourse, then so too are the results of discourse analysis and social construction theory! In my next post, I will introduce and discuss another way out of this trap: the idea of a Sprachspiel or “language-game,” a concept that appears many times in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s seminal work, Philosophical Investigations.

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Five discourse analysis paradigms Issues Phenomena Procedures | Download  Table

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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