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Conspiracy Theories as Extreme Beliefs – Jaron Harambam
Conspiracy Theories as Extreme Beliefs? Understanding the meaning and diversity of alternative knowledge claims
The Truth dominates many public discussions today. Conventional truths from established epistemic authorities about all sorts of issues, from climate change to terrorist attacks or the current corona crisis, are increasingly challenged by ordinary citizens and presidents alike. These alternative ideas about what is really going on are commonly framed as conspiracy theories: allegations of covert actions of a secret group pulling the strings behind the screen of everyday reality. While this category is not as straightforward as it seems since various labeling processes are at play, the common stereotype is that these ideas are irrational, farfetched, and dangerous. Similarly, conspiracy theorists are seen as overly paranoid people with militant minds. But are these stereotypical ideas about conspiracy theories/ists as “extreme beliefs/people” empirically grounded?
In this talk, I will draw on years of ethnographic research in the Dutch conspiracy milieu to elaborate on the question of what conspiracy theories are about, and who the people are that adhere to those. I explain why we need to stay sensitive to the everyday meanings of conspiracy theories and to the diversity of people and worldviews involved. I close off by opening the discussion on how and why conspiracy theories can be regarded as “extreme beliefs”, and to what purposes.
Jaron Harambam (PhD) is an interdisciplinary sociologist working on conspiracy theories, (social) media, and AI (content moderation, search/recommender systems). He currently is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship holder at the Institute for Media Studies (KU Leuven, Belgium). His monograph “Contemporary Conspiracy Culture: Truth and Knowledge in an Era of Epistemic Instability” is out at Routledge. He is editor-in-chief of the open-access Dutch-Belgian peer-reviewed journal Tijdschrift Sociologie, and member of the European network of scholars working on conspiracy theories, COST COMPACT.