9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN31 Ethnic Relations, Racism and Antisemitism

2009-09-03 13:30:00 2009-09-03 15:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 13:30 - 15:00 Discursive Constructions Building II, C5.05

Conspiracy Theories as Worldviews: the Cognitive Appeal of Biased Constructions

Since 9/11 conspiracy theories are on the rise. Despite isolated attempts to explain this phenomenon, social science has treated conspiracy theories as an orphan. Research on this topic is fragmented and spread across several disciplines. Just a few authors offer theories to explain the presence and structuring of conspiracy theories, and, when they do, they offer partial perspectives or reify their own comparative categories. The generic term "conspiracy theory" is misunderstood as a subject. Instead of addressing prejudice which conspiracy theories express, the focus is on the causes and functions of conspiracy theories.
In my presentation I will show that conspiracy theories have to be understood as systematizations of prejudice. In particular, I will highlight conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic and anti-American contents. The data was collected from a conspricay-theoretical internet forum. Out of three threads with over 1.000 comments that I observed, I pick out twelve users. My goal is to explain the "temptation of conspiracy theories" with respect to the special role of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

I will analyze conspiracy theories at a generic level paying attention to their argumentative structure to show that their appeal consists not only in the freedom they grant to expressing felt prejudice but also their seeming cognitive or explanatory "capacity" - their ability to offer insight into a complex world. My findings suggest that a sense of deeply felt relief arises from identifying the conspirers and setting oneself apart from them - asserting a categorical difference between "them who are not I". Distantiating oneself from those involved in the conspiracy corresponds to the enactment of one's own victimhood or heroism - both of which open the door to further, more differentiated, definition of one's own identity.

For the twelve users whose contributions were analyzed in depth, four types of identity could be identified: the rebell, the renegate, the prophet, and the sceptic. The seven anit-Semitic Users stand out because their self-dramatisation is embedded in a much more dualistic worldview: their assertions that they have discovered the 'truth' is more aggressive. Moreover, their theories dehumanize the 'conspirators' who, in their view, struggle for world supremacy.