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Theory and secrets

A post on Savage Minds (here) recently commented that they were struck by the similarity between Conspiracy Theory and Social Theory. I thought the author was going somewhere really interesting with it, but (and let’s be fair, it was a ‘observational’ post, not an analytic set piece or anything) instead I felt they reached for an easy out by simply using the similarities to denigrate social theory with the taint of conspiracy theory. On the other hand, one of the commenters to that post went farther and jokingly asserted the only differences were institutional license and the quality of writing (conspiracy theorists write better). All of this was exemplified by anthropology’s current theoretical love affair with the idea of neo-liberalism, which the poster felt was akin to embracing a conspiracy theory.

I commented my own response here, to two things: The first was an attempt to distinguish between Conspiracy Theory and Social Theory (you can see my recent re-reading of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum in the piece. The second, tacked onto the end, is the thought that was inspired in me by the poster’s assertion of similarity. The original is here. I’ve reposted my own comment below:

I misunderstood originally where this post was going; the idea that conspiracy theory and social theory were alike was brilliant. Before I get my productive misreading on my chest, however, let me essay an attempt to distinguish between social theory and conspiracy theory. I don’t understand at all why neoliberalism should qualify as a conspiracy theory to which we are willing to attribute conspiratorial power to it. I don’t know anyone who does that. I personally dislike the word neoliberalism; I prefer ‘wild capitalism,’ or ‘liberalism;’ I don’t understand the need for the ‘neo.’

In so far as neoliberalism is a theory developed in the sphere of Marxist or pseudomarxist critiques, it must necessarily be the opposite of a conspiracy theory. After all, Marx spent much more time in Capital explaining the pressures under which capitalists like his buddy Engels lived to the workers, than the reverse. It’s just a social theory of power.

So, given that, what distinguishes a conspiracy theory world view from a social theory seems to be that social theory is

  • purportedly based on a set of confirmable data, and
  • therefore falls into a broader range of acceptable arguments.

[It is, of course more complicated than this – social theory often produces far too little actual confirmable data to prove its arguments, and conspiracy theory most often produces far too much confirmable data, strung together by intricate theories.]

So perhaps a better way of distinguishing them is that (good) social theory explains why people do what they do on the basis of the society in which they live. It does this by building a theory of society, and keeps from turning into conspiracy theory through

  • attempts to limit the theory to the fewest possible facts and explanations
  • rejects associationism as a form plausible argument
  • seeks to limit the influence of individual intention in social explanation.

In contrast, (bad) conspiracy theory

  • piles theory on top of theory, often in situations where one unproven theory is used to prove another
  • finds proof in association
  • and relies on the bad intentions of individual human beings or individual groups to explain society.

I originally thought you were going somewhere else with the notion that conspiracy theory and social theory do the same work. I suppose I thought that you were saying that both theories

  • attempt to arrange ideas in such a way that facts make sense, and
  • that they both do so by attempting to make (imagined or real) ‘secret’ facts ‘public ideas. (i.e., through revelation of the conspiracy, or through analysis of culture, economics, etc.).
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