Course code:



A - Advanced

Class size limit:


Meets the following requirements:

  • HS - Human Studies

Typically offered:

Upon occasion

The fear of the “hidden” enemy that lurks behind the curtain, controlling events from the shadows, is a narrative topos that continually seems to raise its conspiratorial head in all kinds of spaces and venues: from politics to pop culture, movies, novels, music, political speeches, etc. Yet, there is also evidence to suggest that widespread acceptance of these conspiracy “theories” has the potential to cultivate and propagate inherently antidemocratic, divisive, and dangerous beliefs. Those who posit the existence of conspiracies, or at least certain ones, are often dismissed outright as irrational, without any consideration made as to the substance of their claims. Belief in conspiracies, or at least certain ones, is taken as a sign of faulty logic or reason. Yet, despite this, conspiratorial explanations of various phenomenon actually have a long and vibrant history of popular acceptance in US political culture (as well as in other parts of the world). Some have gone so far as to suggest that narratives of conspiracy, as alternative or resistant explanatory frames, are actually a necessary component of democratic political life. After all we know that conspiracies, political and otherwise, have existed in the past, and may exist again in the future. How do we make sense of this tension? If conspiracy theory as a mode of explanation is inherently “irrational,” what does this mean for its enduring presence in our political discourse? Is the only difference between a “reasonable” claim rooted in fear and what we consider the paranoid ramblings of “kooks” and “nutjobs” simply a matter of which one is “correct?” Is there a silver bullet theory or magic wand that would allow us to differentiate the supposed good from the bad? Is the very act of labeling something a conspiracy theory itself a form of political hegemony? Even if conspiracies might exist, is it better to live in a world in which we assume they don’t? What do we actually mean by conspiracy theory in the first place? This seminar will explore a variety of topics related directly to how threats of conspiracy become manifest in public discourse. Readings will focus on secondary research that examines the role of conspiracy theories in political and social life, both in the United States and abroad. We will also supplement this with primary “artifacts” such as pamphlets, social media postings, videos, speeches, etc. Along the way we will also use this as an opportunity to reflect on what inter and trans disciplinary research actually looks like. The study of conspiracy narratives is an ideal example that helps us think about how different fields attempt to make sense of a phenomenon. We will survey, compare, and attempt to synthesize research from a wide range of fields, disciplines and methodologies including those from historians, anthropologists, political scientists, legal scholars, literary critics, psychologists, and others. This is an advanced seminar and students should expect to encounter readings that are rooted in disciplinary perspectives they are not familiar with. Students will need to adapt to shifting perspectives in order to both the various texts in conversation with each other. Evaluation will be based on in-class discussion as well as individual student writing assignments. Students will produce several short length essay assignments during the term as well as a longer research paper at the end of the term. Weekly lab sessions will be used for screenings of primary material and students may also be responsible for at least one primary source presentation during these sessions. This class is open to students of all interests regardless of their experience with politics, government, or social theory.



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