Cranks or heroes? Conspiracy theories through the eyes of a scholar

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Anyone who engages with the subject of Katharina Thalmann's research will find themselves plunged into a world full of secrets and wrongdoers. It is a world that thrives on potential threat and whose creators are sometimes seen as cranks and sometimes as heroes. It is the world of conspiracy theories.

The American studies expert has been studying this subject intensively since 2009. "When I first came across it at university, I was immediately hooked", explains the 32-year-old. Presumably because it was new and largely unfamiliar territory for her. For her master's thesis, she chose to investigate how America's conspiracy theorists of the 1950s were viewed.

A fundamental shift in perception

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Today, Thalmann is a research associate in the American Studies department at the University of Tübingen. She is also one of more than 100 researchers from 36 countries who are taking part in the EU COST Action project "Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories (COMPACT)". In it, researchers in various fields such as psychology, media studies, Romance studies and American studies discuss and share ideas about conspiracy theories. Twice a year, they meet for a conference. It is clear from this transnational project that conspiracy theories are an international phenomenon that is by no means limited to the USA.

In the thesis she completed at the end of last year, Katharina Thalmann's aim was to find an explanation for the fundamental shift in the perception of conspiracy theories. Until the early 1960s, such theories were generally acknowledged in the USA, and were widespread and accepted by everyone from the elites to the "man on the street". Like Senator Joe McCarthy's claim in the 1950s that communists were working in the US State Department, for instance. Theories such as this were later seen as problematic, however. So what changed?

"The stigmatisation of conspiracy theories did not happen overnight", explains Thalmann. First, academics began a critical discourse on the theories in response to fascism, totalitarianism and the anti-communism of the 1950s. At some point, the debate moved from the academic domain into the public sphere. Many of those who were coming up with the theories then became much more cautious. Conspiracies would be merely hinted at in their writing – though this did not mean that they disappeared entirely.

Theories fuelled by social media

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That said, the Internet has given conspiracy theories a renewed boost in recent years, claims the researcher. As she explains, it is much easier for conspiracy theorists to spread their ideas in today’s era of Twitter and Facebook. Nonetheless, she still believes that public discourse is dominated by a more critical view of the theories.  

The Tübingen-based researcher also sees a shift in terms of the subject's visibility. "It used to be the case that many people didn't know anything about it, but it is now talked about a great deal. I am glad, because this shows that American studies focuses on questions that are relevant to today."

Conspiracy theories are part of our culture

Thalmann is currently working on a book version of her thesis. She also teaches at the University of Tübingen. "I really enjoy helping the students to grow and improve their skills, and discussing with them", she remarks. And she is certain that the subject of her thesis will continue to be of relevance in future. "Conspiracy theories will always be part of our culture – they are simply fascinating."

Various options for young researchers

Young researchers will find good courses in English and American studies at many German universities. In the CHE Ranking, for example, the following universities score particularly well:

Friedrich Schiller University Jena
Leipzig University
Technische Universität Braunschweig
University of Bamberg
University of Mannheim

American Studies at the University of Tübingen

Researchers in American Studies at the University of Tübingen explore numerous aspects of American literature, culture and society. The projects there cover almost the entire period of American history. Currently one focus is on the nineteenth century and contemporary history. > American Studies