AAA/CASCA Late-Breaking Review Committee
Late Breaking Session - Roundtable
It was hard to miss in the last months how conspiracy theories moved from the margins of public discourse towards the centers. These concern topics ranging from measles outbreaks, Area 51 raids, mass-shootings inspired by “Great Replacement” theories, through intensified political discussions about the collusion of Russia in national politics of numerous countries, Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide and elite pedophile networks, and rising societal conflicts over climate change. Many people nowadays deploy conspiracy theories to make sense of the changing world, to contest dominant authorities, some even for entertainment. In spite of earlier assertions that conspiratorial thinking is a prerogative of niche groups, it becomes more evident that everybody can potentially engage with conspiracy theories.
This widespread popularity of conspiracy theories has spurred increased interest from anthropologists, who have predominantly focused on analyzing how the distrust in officially sanctioned knowledge can be explained. Yet, among the public and policy makers there seems to be an assumed expectation for researchers to arbitrate the truth and engage with conspiracy beliefs by debunking them. In this panel we want to open up the discussion about the potential role of anthropologists in dealing with conspiracy theories: is debunking appropriate? If so, why, how and in what contexts?
To some extent, this round-table builds on historical debates about the public role of anthropology. While previous discussions were mostly concerned with the ethics and applicability of anthropological endeavors, the issue of what to do with conspiracy theories brings to the center matters of truth, veracity and evidence. As such, our round-table has a potential of reorienting our thinking about the discipline, our methodologies, ethics and the theories we generate: do we move away from relativism and intervene in truth matters?
Since (some) conspiracy theories have real world consequences, asking whether the retreat to relativism is a coward’s dodge is not ’merely academic’. Indeed, the question of what to do with conspiracy theories, and how to engage with people who propagate them takes on much societal urgency. Can and should we, as anthropologists, stay “neutral” in these discussions and simply focus on representation, should we perhaps investigate their truth values, or do we have a responsibility to debunk conspiracy theories and actively work towards diminishing their popularity?
To begin to answer such questions, we bring together researchers for whom conspiracy theories are increasingly central to their work on health, political movements, governance, climate change, conflicts and global political economy. We wish to open up a discussion about the following issues: How does our discipline influence our approach to debunking? How is debunking related to disciplinary ethics and the question to whom anthropologists are responsible (informants, their larger communities, societies)? How does this influence our methodologies? Does the (political, economic, social, historical, cultural) context in which conspiracy theories operate, or their topic, matter? What role should anthropologists play in the ongoing public debates about conspiracy theories, post-truth and fake news? Can we offer any new strategies to deal with conspiracy theorists? Is that even our role?