September 26, 2007

The Sociology of Conspiracy

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

For the past six years, the anniversary of the September 11th attacks has brought introspection and examination into what happened on that terrible day. image 

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times charged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not have an adequate plan to deal with the threat of terrorism before the 2001 events. For those who read the 9-11 Commission Report, published in 2004, this new information should not be a big surprise. In all this, what remains hard to understand is how a band of timagehugs could penetrate the security of the world’s sole superpower.

Some people have such a hard time accepting this idea that they reject the notion that a terrorist cell was behind the attacks. Instead, they believe that both the devastation of that day and the explanation that followed was part of a grand conspiracy-- an American conspiracy.

The History Channel recently devoted two hours of programming to examine some of the claims of conspiracy buffs, many of whom passionately believe that the government was complicit in both the attacks and in a cover-up afterwards. Rather than discussing such claims (which have gotten more than enough attention on the Internet already), I find it more interesting to consider how common conspiracy theories are in popular culture. Why is this so?

Sociologists refer to conspiracy theories as a form of collective behavior, something that we engage in together that gains traction as it appeals to many people. Similar to urban legends, rumors, and panics, sociologists seek to understand how and why groups create meaning through claiming that conspiracies have taken place. 

The creation of the Internet has definitely helped grease the wheels of collective behavior. One of the most fascinating things about collective behavior is that it often starts from the grassroots level, from everyday people rather from those in positions of power. In fact, the very distance from the centers of power fuels conspiracy theories.

Let’s think about some other conspiracy theories: some people claim that the  Holocaust never happened; perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory is based on the premise that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the work of insiders.


The public’s willingness to entertain such theories differs tremendously. For most people, even questioning the reality that millions of civilians were murdered during World War II is incredibly offensive. But there’s something about Kennedy’s assassination that makes millions question the findings of the Warren Commission Report. Why does one conspiracy theory seem outlandish while another one seems plausible?

The imbalance of power is a key ingredient. It is not hard to believe that a powerful regime or dictator could slaughter a group of people with little or no social power, as sadly has happened over and over again in human history. 

But the opposite is much harder to believe: an individual or group with little power harming someone with significantly more power and status doesn’t make sense. It challenges what we think we know about the social order.

So the Kennedy assassination--apparently the work of a lone gunman who by all image reports was, to put it kindly, unsuccessful in his other ventures--seems hard to believe. That a charismatic, larger-than-life leader of the free world could be brought down by a “nobody” has fueled conspiracy theorists for over forty years. Although solid evidence refutes the idea of a conspiracy, I admit to entertaining this notion myself. I now see that I fell into the power imbalance trap too.

In my defense, I also grew up during the 1970s, when network television routinely featured programs about the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and other supernatural “secrets”. The Kennedy assassination was also a big topic during the decade that featured the Watergate cover-up and made many Americans question how much the government could be trusted. In the early 1970s, Skylab, a precursor to today’s international space image station, actually fell to earth (which is terrifying if you’re a kid!) and faith in the government fell as well. 

Flash forward more than 25 years, and you can see why people still might have trouble believing the government. The president's approval ratings have declined in recent years as the war in Iraq has become increasingly unpopular. Conspiracy claims make sense during a time when mistrust and anger toward the government run high.

And most of all, it is hard to accept that our powerful military could not protect us that September day. For some, it is easier to believe that our government is all-powerful (even if that power is abused) than it is to believe that the government is flawed. Our Cold War military build-up made us feel almost invincible, and September 11th challenged that assumption. In a strange way, conspiracy theories help prop up the belief in an all-powerful America. Perhaps clinging to this idea is less upsetting than facing what transpired that day.


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Mrs. Sternheimer,
I am a senior at Perry High School in Perry, Michigan. On the off chance that you read these posts on a regular basis, I would appriciate it immensely if you could contact me to discuss the findings in this article. I'm currently composing a thesis on this very topic, and it seems you share my feelings concerning conspiracy theory. I would like to prove your exact point about collective behavior in my thesis, but original research (or resaerch at all for that matter), is very hard to find on this specific of a subject. Citing you as a source would undoubtedly provide an enoumous amount of support for my topic. Please contact me through my email address: [email protected], any information you could provide would be exceedingly helpful.

Thank you,
Zack Whaley

Everything seems reasonable but tell me - how can socilogists investigate conspiracies. It is obvious that people plan these from time to time. Your text seem to say that there are no conspiracies at all. Isn't it a part of social life - let me see - from the killing of Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 BC?? Do we (as a sociologists) have to close our eyes on important dimention of soc. life? If not what are your view on reaserching it?

Blogs are good for every one where we get lots of information for any topics nice job keep it up !!!

i just wrote down the same thing in my last hour class and just wanted to see if anyone thought of the samething as i did. Yah i think it has to do with securety of the people and how they dont like it violated, but i just dont feel one hundo % sure about it like it just doesnt feel like people would act that way, but it kind of makes sence. I said the same thing as you. I would like to track down and talk to who ever started the sites and see if they match any chercteristics like Live in a big city, See the goverment alot, they see the power they have, probably have been arrested or some other violation before, dont like the gov., idk just something i came up with last hour. I really wanna do some actual reserch on some of my ideas but just like that other chick im just in high school, i will be attending UWM in the fall and i will be learned in the way of a sociologist there so give me feed back if i can help on any thing or if you wanna hear some ideas. yah

oh sorry for calling you a chick zach i thought for some reason you were a girl, umm yah i REALLY WANNA DO SOMETHING reaserch like, i love sociology im gonna make it my life so contact me on my e-mail [email protected] PLEASE!!!!

What the hell this was 2 years ago

I would really like to know how you can prove a conspiracy theroy. It seems that they are worse than urban legends. I think that people feel the need to explain an event when the real reason they are given doesn't seem possible thus conspiracies.

I would also like to know if age has a factor into this. I see alot of younger people falling into theses stories. Their imagination is going wild. As for things like the economy, I remember the last two "small" recessions and how the conspiracies seem to increase during those times. It seems more relevent that if you have never lived though one, then you are more likely to believe these stories as a younger person.

To: Sternheimer
From: Gibbs

I am a senior at Aberdeen University, I'm currently composing a thesis on this very topic, but original research (or resaerch at all for that matter), is very hard to find on this specific of a subject. Please contact me through my email address: [email protected]

Blogs are good for every one where we get lots of information for any topics nice job keep it up !!!

Really nice work! Your article is unique, informative, interesting and is captivating attention of the readers. You have emphasized on a good point.

Nice and thought provoking post. This is a great help for one of my assignments and I thank you for sharing this on time:)

Conspiracy theories seem much less radical and kooky after explanation on sociological terms. Any experience that deviates from the norm, we try to rationalize. It was interesting to see that it applies also to collective behavior. If such an event occurs where there is also a perceived imbalance of power, it seems unnatural, and a even a group may tell a story that 'balances things out'. The best example of this is the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory - the thought process is that "no lone citizen could have such power, it had to be someone powerful, or a group of powerful people." Kennedy's status as an idol gave him more power than most public figures, so the simplicity of his death seemed peculiar, and had to be rationalized. The theory was popular because many people agreed that he could not have died so simply.

The 9-11 attack have allegedly believes an inside job or the CIA haven't plan for the prevention of the said terrorism. Media and Popular mechanics have rejected the idea of conspiracy theories on the 9-11 bombing. Another theories that have emerge is the growing criticism of the Iraq War and the presidency of President G. Bush.

Your theory about the balance of power affecting the "believibility" of conspiracy theories is really quite interesting. It makes sense that considerably less people believe in Holocaust conspiracies (an event about a powerful leader exerting power over a weak group) then they do about the Kennedy assassination (a weak person exerts power over a powerful individual) when this theory is taken into consideration.

This article really sheds some light on the different kinds of collective behaviors there are. In my sociology class, we've been learning about rumors, urban legends, fads, fashions, etcetera, and it seems that a conspiracy theory would fit into a kind of rumor or legend. Also, it ties into hysteria and panic, as there have been some instances when ideas have become so believable that people actually take action specifically because of it, like the Y2K scare.

Conspiracy theory as a convenient rhetorical rebuttal has been culturally constructed as quick refutation of otherwise distasteful, never mind factual ideas by the elite. All social interventions that seek structural adjustment, adjustments that have not yet been institutionalized and made „automatic‟, involve some form of conspiracy, a coor- dinated intervention for structure maintenance.

I would say that “right-wing conspiracy theories” serve as a sort of poor man’s class conflict analysis, and I would defend them as having an advantage over Marxist in that they make history the realm of human action, where individuals and groups have goals and pursue them, rather than the realm of impersonal, abstract, and deterministic historical forces.

Please contact me through my email address: [email protected], any information you could provide would be exceedingly helpful.

I think another reason why some conspiracies become so popular could be due to almost a mob mentality type of thing. When something as large as 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination occurs, this leaves millions of people around the country feeling hurt and angered. Without any clear person to blame for any of these events, I believe that these hurt and angered people try to turn to alternative finger pointing. Together all of these people form to create their own "mobs" trying to convince everybody they know what caused this catastrophic events. I believe that most of these people know that what they are saying may not be completely truthful, but it is the mob mentality that is taking them over and telling them otherwise.

Comment:Other reasons that may explain conspiracies and their seemingly wide popularity in our culture could be due to almost a mob mentality or Contagion theory. When some event as 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, or the explosion of a space shuttle; it affects many people and most often leaves millions of people around the country feeling hurt, angered, and helpless. They are left to pick up the pieces and formulate their own conclusions, without any clear person to blame for any of these events. Even in situations of an accident humans need to put the blame in someone. This causes finger pointing and false interpretations of the evidence to become accepted by a large community with the same feeling. Together all of these people form to create their own "mob" trying to convince everybody they know what caused this such large scale and devastating events.

The collective behavior of conspiracy theories is a very interesting topic. I think that it's so fasinating that so many people will engage in them. I know it's hard to except facts that are devastating to all, but people really need to come to reality. The world changes and people die; it's how the world continues on.

It was interesting to see how the balance of power in society can affect something like the believability of a conspiracy theory. I would have never looked at it like that before.

There are different perspectives on things. The sociological one you portrait here is interesting.


The "new world order" is unfortunately not just a worthless theory not worth looking into, far from. The more you research it the more obvious it is. It's like having had a huge elephant in your living room all your life without being able to see it.

There's a sociology of neglect, being programmed not to ask questions, a core mindset that you must believe mainstream media no matter how stupid "it is".

And yes there are thousands of engineers, architects and pilots who find the official story on how building 7 collapsed impossible. You heard me right, impossible. Are they all stupid? Don't think so, some of them are reknowned for earlier work in their fields..

People have to wake up before US is yet a police state among others.

A good start might be to understand the esoteric messages in popular culture funded by the same elite who pay off politicians, who literally own media, big corporations, the military-complex, Google etc and use them like tools to push their authoritarian agenda forward. It's all quite obvious. But then again, you could also go with the 100% naive "Oh well..they're just having fun there at Bohemian grove, Skull & Bones..". Christians presidents attending pagan/luciferian rites, even filmed (see youtube).. Don't think so.

So I encourage you to spend 2 hours learning about the culture of death established incrementally for 50 years:

It seems crazy to me that people can think things like 9/11 and the Holocaust are completely made up. To me I feel like that is similar to believing an urban legend about an alligator living in the sewer system.

After reading about collective behavior in my sociology text book and the mentioning of collective behavior in your blog I was able to make a connection. With all the people watching the news the day of 9-11, we all reacted spontaneously to a similar stimuli. This is an example of collective behavior.

This interesting and surprisingly relevant to the topic of my sociology class; not only am I looking at collective behavior, but I am also working on ways the internet has effected society and American culture. I think that because more and more people are getting access to the internet things like conspiracy theories can become very popular. It seems common now that people are skeptical of their governments. This may be spreading because a lot of people are just mirrors for what they read, and if something is outrageous enough it will get coverage, ridiculous or not.

With collective behavior involving spontaneous socail interaction in which loosely connected participants influence behavior, it doesn't take someone high in power to make a person believe the same ridiculous conspiracy as another person believes. I think conspiracy is a result of all the major collective behavior in sociology, rumors, legends, fads, mass hysteria, and panics. All it takes is a rumore, a widely circulating piece of information that is not verified as being ture of false to get people's minds turning and not believing much of what they hear. Hearing a legend will just fuel a conspiracy, it will "verify" people's biggest fears. And when one person believes something it will generally spread rapidly and disappear quickly, just like a fad. With the conspiracys that have to do with 911 and the assassination of Kennedy, the greatest influences were mass hysteria and panics. The mass hysteria, a collective anxiety created by the acceptance of one or more false beliefs, was huge when the attack of 911 happened. It was not at all expected, and shocked the whole world. Panic, reaction to a real threat in fearful, anxious, and often self damaging ways, set in after the attack and had our country in an uproar. People will grasp to any possible idea that comforts and makes sense to them.

This article was very interesting to read. There are some ways that groups create meaning by claiming that conspiracies have taken place such as spreading rumors until people believe that it has happened and also urban legands. A reason that one conspiracy theory might seem outlandish while another one might seem plausible is by the imbalance of power. Another reason why a conspiracy might seem outlandish while another theory might seem plausible is because the things we believe are the ideas that we think is possible to happen.

I think people create conspiracy theories against the government is because the government itself has an image to attain which is a powerful force that should ultimately protect it's civilians from any harm. So whenever events like the assassination of Kennedy and 9/11 happen, people may question the government on how can something like that happen to a highly protected country, therefore, leading people to believe it was an inside job. Very interesting article, though.

It is interesting to think about all the different conspiracy theories that are floating around out there. As the article points out events such as 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination are popular topics that people like to explore and see if they can uncover a true story that differs from the accepted truth. I think that conspiracy theories become more believable if they are plausible, naturally. The groups of people that come up with these theories make sure that they make sense so that people do buy into them, whether their theory is true or not. Most of these theories become plausible through research and background checks. That is the only way that the person who comes up with the theory can make sure that all the pieces to their story add up.

Conspiracy theories, in my opinion, will always be around because it creates a thought of not being secure. Like the author said conspiracy theories are like rumors. Some rumors may be true but most of the time they are not correct. Conspiracy theories are made up to question why certain things occur. Now that we are so technologically advanced it is very easy to start a conspiracy of anything really. The fact that people have a hard time believing in events, like September 11, explain why conspiracies start. After all, we cant really do anything to stop them from coming out. Conspiracies will always be out there questioning things.

Love this topic enjoy reading things like this involves sociology in every way because it shows the perspective of others and the way every other person things or judges this type of situAtion.

I admit that I have let conspiracy theories change my views on topics that I once believed in, for example, the fact that 9/11 was a catastrophic event planned out and plotted by terrorists. It was my cousin who got me on this kick. He told me that the government couldn't be trusted, that they hide things from American citizens everyday, things that are vital to the public, all for their personal gain and image. I believe that conspiracy theorists create meaning by using plausible evidence. This evidence gains attention from people and the more people who take notice to it, the more it grows. For example, the idea that 9/11 was in fact an inside job plotted by the American government makes sense to me because if you look at statistics and evidence conducted by scientists, there is no way that the twin towers could've fallen by way of an airplane. Gravity and science proves that it was in fact created by a bomb or explosive. What about the people who claim that files regarding the attack were destroyed? This all makes sense. Since the beginning of American history, money has been the root of all evil. Bombing the twin towers and creating war in the Middle East would be beneficial to heads of the American government because it would make their pockets fatter. In their minds, the 3,000 some odd people who died were non-factors. Many people don't believe that the attacks were an inside job because many people believe in the American government and believe that we live in a safe country where citizens come first. However, people must have a slight pessimistic approach to all matters. If America wants to stay on top as the number one country in the world, we have to create a sense of fear in other countries in order to boost our power. The 9/11 attacks did just that. While some conspiracy theories seem absurd, many are believable, and in my opinion, critical. Without them, citizens will continue to have a euphoric state of mind about the world in which we live. On the other hand, it is vital to think critically about situations and realize that everything that glitters isn't gold.

Where the theory originates from is a key factor in the plausibility of them. I believe the size of the group determines the "truth". Well, it certainly is much easier to believe a larger group of people saying one thing than a smaller one saying something totally different. That has to do with how many other people agree and support the idea. It's also like religion, not saying one is above all others, but that it has relevance. It is a matter of who and what YOU want to trust.

I like conspiracy theories. I don't know if I believe in them, but I like the idea of them. I think people believe in conspiracy theories because it gives them an explanation of something they otherwise could not explain. Like with 9/11, people were so shocked with what happened that they needed to believe the government allowed it to happen instead of a blind hit. Conspiracy theories will always be outlandish to the majority and make sense to the small groups that believe in them.

Groups create meaning by engaging and creating bonds with others that feel that a conspiracy has taken place. Some conspiracy theories might seem outlandish while others might seem plausible because there is not enough or any substantial evidence supporting one theory over the other. I believe the public refuses to believe in aliens, Loch Ness Monster, or Big Foot Conspiracies because any proof of these creatures is blurred or and hard to make out in video. Conspiracy theories may seem outlandish to some because he or she cannot believe we were so unprepared for the events that transpired on September 11. Others may be more willing to believe in conspiracies similar to Kennedy’s assassination because previous events made the public question whether the government could be trusted.

The article is informative and interesting to read.What I think is that how can people prove a conspiracy theory.However, the article was very informative, insightful and very educative.

Groups create meaning to these catastrophic events throughout history by connecting and discussing the possibility that conspiracies have taken place. People fear what they can't seem to understand, and they therefore, look to understand the conspiracies that have been created. Some conspiracy theories seem outlandish while others seem plausible. This is because some events in history have such a great deal of proof that it seems ridiculous to believe anything other than what you are told happened. Other events are less obvious and there is less evidence to support what is being told, so it seems possible that there could be a different explanations.

To Profferer Key Pih.

The society some times making the the problems bigger and create different stories behind the original one. While I'm reading this article I read about 9/11 and Jk. This article explained to me many things it was not clear for me.

To Professor Pih,

I loved this article! I have been on this on going debate about the 9/11 conspiracy for many years. I do believe in a way it is a conspiracy, I am not anti-government but many times i have failed to believe in the government. The attack of 9/11 I believe is a conspiracy. If we can land a man on the moon then we have to technology to monitor every plane and where it is going. The attack of 9/11 was a wake up call for our society. Maybe our government is playing games with its citizens, or maybe it is a test. There are numerous opinions on this conspiracy and which way it went but, I do believe that it was no accident.

I have mixed feelings about conspiracies. Part of me wants to find an explanation of why certain things occur in our imperfect world and therefore by thining that it was planned or whatnot, it is easier to digest. However another part of me understands that sometimes drastic things just happen. Though it is sad to know that some people do not believe in the Holocaust and the like, I understand their perspective. Sometimes it is like "what? How can one person have so much power? Why didn't people speak up?" Some conspiracy theories seem more outlandish than others because the light in which they are presented borderline a fantasy. 9/11 which occured 11 years ago today, is a controversial topic because how could a couple of men trick US security? Weren't we suppossed to be the best of the best? In this sense, this cospiracy is not that hard too believe because we have so much technology and we weren't able to detect one airplane going the wrong way?

(Dr. Pih, Sociology 150)

I think that one can not compare the Holocaust Conspiracy to that of the assassination of JFK. In my opinion, it has nothing to do who stands behind it rather than what proof we have about the event. When JFK was assassinated, it was a shock and a surprise, was it JUST the lone gunman or was the government behind it? The possibilities are endless. When it comes to the Holocaust, we have REAL PEOPLE who live to this day that were a part of the terrible time. My grandparents' friends were in the Holocaust, this is something that we KNOW happened and the people who say it didn't, are just ignorant. Other conspiracies, like you say, start with the public because something doesn't add up. It has become increasingly popular due to the Internet and the ability for people to look up facts, testimonials etc.
Some conspiracies are plausible because they simply make sense, there is something that backs them up. The Holocaust is not a conspiracy, it is History and something that happened no matter who was behind it. Where as the assassination of JFK has no facts.

Dr. Pih, Sociology 150

Groups of people are able to find meaning in a conspiracy if there is a traumatic event, and people need to find answers. The reason why some conspiracies are outlandish is because they are simply not believable. Some conspiracies sound like nonsense, like alien abductions.

I am very skepticle when it comes to conspiracy theorys. I believe that people sometimes believer in conspiracy theorys because the are rediculous. People tend to favor things that are absurd or differnt, it is sometimes very appealing to people.Some groups that claim a conspiracy has taken place may gain popularity and this may be the reason that some create conspiracys. Conspiracys may sound plausable if they have a lot of information to go with them, however i believe most to be just coincidences. This article was very interesting

Reading this article the first time around made me think about what has happened this past years and how we the people cope with the situation. Many believe while others pretend that nothing happened, its crazy how our minds work.

The Holocaust us an example of a conspiracy theory that people question if this ever really happened. The main reason one theory might seem outlandish or plausible is because of imbalance of power. Social order makes these theories even harder to believe. A theory seems more relevant if you actually were apart of that time of the event.

Unfortunately, tragedies still occur regardless of what era we live.

Could validation be an origin for conspiracy theories? One person with an idea, a belief, or even fleeting thought vocalized to solicit validation? One person refusing to stand on a bus, seeking validation as an equal, one person with an uncanny ability to speak and write seeking validation of being a member of a supreme race. The desire to have ones ideas or thoughts validated have led to many historical changes. Could the initiation of any given conspiracy theory be a search for validation? Whether the conspiracy theory is true or not should not be what a sociologist is looking at. It should be the who, what, when, where. how and why? Could the why be validation of ones own ideas or beliefs? If we, any particular cultural group accept a conspiracy theory as fact does it make it so? If every citizen of the United States agrees that 9/11 was indeed a government set-up or that the Holocaust never happened have these ideas changed from conspiracy theories to facts?

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