26. Conspiracy theories/conspiracy practices

In recent years, conspiracy theories seem to have gained a great deal of media limelight. Although conspiracy theories have been almost always around, it seems undeniable that social media has made them more popular, or at least more easily accessible to people who probably would not have come into contact with them. From 9/11 conspiracy theories to those related to the Covid-19 epidemic, the past two decades undermine faith in the possibility of accurate representations of a shared social reality. In particular, the outbreak of Covid-19 seems to have accelerated the process of creating and spreading conspiracy theories, in many cases mixing theories from right-wing and left-wing backgrounds. Even though conspiracy theorists are often portrayed as borderline people who cling to these theories to make sense of their otherwise empty lives, we have seen how conspiracy theories can be believed and/or used even by highly successful people. In addition, the great proliferation of conspiracy theories has also resulted in the proliferation of the practice of labeling as conspiracy theories any theories of contestation toward official power. 

Despite this, our knowledge of the main mechanisms of these theories, and especially of the people who follow them, is still lacking. Many of the works devoted to conspiracy theories assume that the people who follow them are always disturbed and try to interpret this phenomenon by pathologizing it.

We would like to take a different perspective to the subject of conspiracy, adopting an ethnographic approach that sheds light on how social conditions allow these theories to be generated and proliferate. Our panel aims to understand ethnographic practices labelled as conspiracist.  We would like to invite papers related to the role of conspiracy theory in different domains of culture, assembling scholars from different disciplinary perspectives to offer conceptual reflections, methodological advances, and in-depth discussions. The panel would welcome ethnographies drawing on a wide variety of empirical sources that shows what conspiracy theories are about, which people are involved, what digital platforms they use, how they see themselves, and what they practically do with these ideas in their everyday lives.

Open questions
– What is a conspiracy theory and is it possible to distinguish it from other kinds of causal explanation? 
– Which visions of agency, economy, power relationships and geopolitics lay behind the narratives of contemporary conspiracy theory? How do the conspiracy’s narratives imagine the agency that could foil the conspiracy? Which are the epistemological criteria of truth of the conspiracy discourse? 
– What conceptual and theoretical approaches are needed to analyze conspiracy theories?
– In what ways has labeling a theory as a conspiracy theory been a means of power to discredit a political contestation?
– How do platform affordances influence conspiracy theories in digital environments?
– How much space do conspiracy theories take in the lives of their adherents? Is it possible to experience them even in an ironic way?
– Is the proliferation of conspiracy theories possible without social media being responsible?
– What are the main differences and similarities between right-wing and left-wing conspiracy theories? What plots and groups of conspirators do they focus on? Does the tendency to conspiracy theorizing cut across the left/right distinction?
– How do conspiracies function as ways through which individuals and communities might demand accountability outside of legal frameworks?

Topics (may include but are not limited to):
Conspiracy theories and platform affordances
Conspiracy theories outside social media
Conspiracy theories and humor
Vernacular aspects of conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories, memes and virality
The pleasures of conspiracy theories
Political extremism and conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories and food
Conspiracy theories and health
Conspiracy theory/thinking as stigmatized knowledge

Conspiracy theories, Social media, Digital culture, Social construction of knowledge, Stigmatization.

Fields of Study
Sociology of media and digital culture, Cultural anthropology, Sociology of Knowledge, Sociology of culture, Epistemology.

Boltansky, L. (2014) Mysteries and conspiracy. Detective stories, spy novels and the making of modern society, Polity, Cambridge.

Butler, M. Knight, P. (2020) Handbook of conspiracy theories, Routledge, New York.

Forberg, P. (2022) From the fringe to the fore: an algorithmic ethnography of the far right conspiracy theory group QAnon, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 51 (3), 291-317.

Harambam, J. Aupers, S. (2015) Contesting epistemic authority: Conspiracy theories on the boundaries of science, Public Understanding of Science, 24(4) 466–480.

Rakopoulos, T.  (2022) Of Fascists and Dreamers. Conspiracy Theory and Anthropology, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 30 (1), 45–62.

Schwaiger, L. Schneider, J. Rauchfleish, A. Eisenegger, M. (2022) Mindsets of conspiracy: A typology of affinities towards conspiracy myths in digital environments, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, O, 1-23.

Venturini, T. (2022) Online Conspiracy Theories, Digital platforms and secondary orality: towards a sociology of online monsters, Theory, Culture and Society, 1-20.

Short bios
Massimiliano Guareschi teaches Aestethics at Nuova accademia di belle arti (Naba) of Milano. His main works are Gilles Deleuze popfilosofo; I volti di Marte. Raymond Aron sociologo e teorico della guerra; and, with Federico Rahola, Chi decide? Critica della ragione eccezionalista and Forme della città. Sociologia dell’urbanizzazione. He edited the Italian translation of works of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Pierre Bourdieu and Georg Simmel and regularly collaborates with the newspapers “il manifesto “ and “Il foglio”. massimiliano.guareschi@unimib.it

Oscar Ricci teaches Digital media research at University of Milano- Bicocca. He has been visiting Scholar at the New York University, Department of Sociology. His main interests are sociology of media, technology and digital culture. He has authored papers in these areas for Public Understanding of Science, Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture, Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes and Frontiers in Sociology. oscar.ricci@unimib.it

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