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5ABLCF03 Conspiracy Theories and Democracy


Module convenor: Dr Simon Kaye
Credits: 15
Pre-requisites: none
Teaching pattern: Nine one-hour lectures, nine one-hour seminars, one two-hour workshop

Module description: 

What are conspiracy theories? Why do people invent them or believe them? How do they influence citizens’ relationship with institutions? What are the psychological and intellectual conditions for their development? Are they becoming more or less significant in democratic life? Can they be effectively debunked? Are any of them plausible, and have any of them been proven true?

In this opportunity module, we begin from recognition of the facts that a) some conspiracy theories are popularly believed and increasingly ‘mainstream’, rather than the reserve of small, outlying minority groups, and b) the kinds of assumptions and logical errors that help to construct identifiable conspiracy theories can also be seen in a whole range of other analyses and explanations, from contemporary political debates to the essays of academics and students. Conspiracy theories prosper, in part, because they involve the hijacking of heuristics and intellectual habits which are usually thought to be desirable: scepticism, worldly cynicism, and an interest in subtext and the less-visible causes of events. 

The impact and politics of these beliefs is worthy of scholarly examination. In this interdisciplinary module, we will analyse the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, and evaluate their implications for contemporary democracy. Along the way, students will be asked to first construct a conspiracy theory of their own, before demonstrating their ability to recognise, critique, and ‘debunk’ conspiratorial reasoning.

Module aims:

This module aims to:

  • Provide a critical overview of the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in the context of the arts, humanities, and social sciences
  • Evaluate the extent to which conspiracy theories, and the beliefs and behaviours associated with them, pose a challenge to contemporary democratic politics
  • Use conspiracy theories as a case-study for the better understanding of logical fallacies and psychological tendencies that can affect many kinds of scholarly and analytical work
  • Offer students opportunities to work on epistemic and political problems in an interdisciplinary way

Learning outcomes:

By the end of this module, students will:

  • Develop an improved understanding of the nature of conspiracy theories and their implications for democratic politics
  • Be able to recognise and critically evaluate the logical and evidential merits of explanatory theories (particularly conspiracy theories)
  • Be able to critique inadequate explanations and accounts of specific events in a coherent and comprehensively argued way
  • Have engaged in analysis based on interdisciplinary sources and research 

Core reading:



Assessment pattern: 1,200-word original conspiracy theory outline and discussion (15%), poster presentation and analysis (15%), 2,000-word analysis and research essay (70%) 

The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

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