Although sometimes seen as harmless entertainment, conspiracy theories all have one thing in common: they are surrounded by all manner of speculation and rumours. They can contribute to extremism within particular regions, as well as fuelling tensions between nations, and they can erode trust in democratic institutions and the media.

Research on conspiracy theories has largely been conducted on single theories in individual countries. The research network Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theory aims to discover the origins and mechanisms of conspiracy theories in the European sphere. Some 60 researchers from the humanities, political science, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and psychology in more than 30 countries take part in the network coordinated by Professor Michael Butter (University of Tübingen) and sponsored by the EU platform Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST).

Annika Rabo
Annika Rabo

Annika Rabo, Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology, is one of the participating researchers. In her book chapter “It has all been planned”: Talking about us and powerful others in contemporary Syria (published in Conspiracy theories in the United States and the Middle East: A comparative approach, edited by Michael Butter and Maurus Reinkowski) she examines the role of conspiracy talk in everyday discourse in Syria before 2011.

Jaron Harambam, PhD candidate at the Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, is also a member of the COST network. Earlier this month he visited the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. His research focuses on the Dutch conspiracy milieu and aims at explaining what contemporary conspiracy theories are about, who is involved, what people believe in and what people actually do with these ideas in their everyday lives.

– The question is not whether conspiracy theories are right or wrong, rational or delusional, good or bad. I want to explore the meaning these forms of knowledge have for those concerned, and how they influence our societies at large, says Jaron Harambam.

– Discarding conspiracy theories as illusory, paranoid and dangerous does not help to understand the huge appeal they have for many people today, he continues.

What are contemporary conspiracy theories about? Who actually follows them, and for what reasons?

Conspiracy theories in the Dutch context are diverse and covers a wide variety of areas: from secret societies like the Illuminati (believed to control the music and film industry), UFOs and aliens (their existence believed to be covered up by states and governments), and the pharmaceutical industry (believed to be able to cure illnesses but instead prefer to keep people sick) to theories about the actual causes of the 9/11 attacks and how various banking and financial institutions actually profit.

Jaron Harambam
Jaron Harambam

– People who believe in these conspiracy theories come from all walks of life, says Jaron Harambam. Some are well-educated, others have little education, they are both male and female. Certain theories attract certain kind of people. The young tend to be interested in theories about the Illuminati for example.

– A belief in a specific conspiracy theory often influences the daily lives for these people. They chose not to consume mainstream media or perhaps they refuse to follow national immunisation programmes, says Jaron Harambam.

In order to come into contact with conspiracy theorists and people who believe in such theories, Jaron Harambam began to follow numerous websites and online communities but he also visited gatherings in the real world to meet and talk to people about what they believe are hidden truths.

– I wanted to give these people a voice to expand our understanding of conspiracy theories beyond the stereotypical, he says. To understand the appeal of conspiracy theories one cannot discard them or their followers as paranoid or dangerous. Rather one has to examine what they think and do, and take seriously people’s own understandings of the world.

– What amazed me when doing my fieldwork and research was how broad and how many different topics that conspiracy theories cover, and how numerous alternative positions these theories contain, he says.

Jaron Harambam defends his thesis “The Truth is Out There” on October 26 at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Jaron Harambam defends his thesis “The Truth is Out There” on October 26 at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

In his thesis, Jaron Harambam argues that what is needed in conspiracy theory research is an approach that is sensitive to the empirical richness of everyday life. One has to study the variety of people, meanings, practices and experiences that can be expected to exist in the conspiracy milieu, let alone the disagreement, opposition and conflict within that subcultural world itself.

Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theory – the aims of the research network

Despite the increasing prominence of conspiracy theories in the age of the internet, there has been little systematic research on where they come from or how they work. Therefore, the research network aims to develop an interdisciplinary and international network to provide a comprehensive understanding of conspiracy theories.

Existing research has tended to concentrate on specific national traditions, and is often confined to the perspective of a single discipline. In contrast the network has adopted a comparative approach, investigating the causes, manifestations and effects of conspiracy theories in different regions and times, and drawing on insights from different academic disciplines. The network pursues the inquiry in three broad areas: the manifestations and modes of transmission of conspiracy theory in different historical and cultural contexts; the variety of actors and audiences involved in the production and consumption of conspiracy theories; and the psychological and cultural causes and political consequences of belief in conspiracy.

– I have learnt a lot from participating in the network. We come from different disciplines which has helped me to look at my own research in new ways. We have shared ideas and learnt from each other. The network has also demonstrated the differences in conspiracy theories and believes that exist both within Europe and in the neighbouring regions, says Jaron Harambam.

Further information

Jaron Harambam will present his research in a seminar on October 9 (the Department of Social Anthropology, B600) titled ‘The Truth is Out There’: Conspiracy Theories in an Age of Epistemic Instability.

Read and download Conspiracy theories in the United States and the Middle East: A comparative approach, edited by Michael Butter and Maurus Reinkowski (access via Stockholm University Library).

Learn more about the network.

Learn more about Jaron Harambam’s research.

Learn more about Annika Rabo’s research.