I’ve written previously about the usefulness and necessity of examining conspiracy theories, and I also provided an outline of my conspiracy theories course.
Several weeks ago, a student approached me asking for reading suggestions about conspiracy theories. The request provided a good opportunity to write a blog post that I’ve wanted to write outlining the essential readings on conspiracy thinking.
Some of the works listed below provide the intellectual and theoretical framework for understanding the conspiratorial mindset, while others provide a narrative on specific conspiracy theories. Many of the monographs offer overviews of conspiracy thinking and theories in their introductions.
Primary Source Compilations
Donald T. Critchlow, John Korasick, and Matthew C. Sherman, eds., Political Conspiracies in America: A Reader (2008)
David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (1971)
Comment: Both books are good. Davis’ is older, but it’s more diverse in its coverage of topics.
Secondary Sources (Books)
Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (2001)
Daniel Pipes, Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From (1997)
Kathy Olmsted, Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (2008)
David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (2009)
Comment: Pipes and Aaronovitch take a more global view of conspiracy thinking, while Goldberg and Olmsted focus on the U.S. Both of the latter have strengths: Goldberg’s introduction is a good historical overview of American conspiracism, while Olmsted’s book is more up-to-date.
Secondary Sources (Essays/Articles)
David Brion Davis, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Mississippi ValleyHistorical Review 47 (September 1960): 205-24.
Comment: This article offers an incisive analysis of Early Republic conspiracy thinking.
Robert A. Goldberg, “‘Who Profited from the Crime?’ Intelligence Failure, Conspiracy Theories, and the Case of September 11,” Journal of Intelligence and National Security 19 (Summer 2004): 249-261.
Comment: This essays supplements Goldberg’s book (see above).
Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 3-40.
Comment: Although the original essay was published in 1964, it has held up well. This is the first thing I have my students read in the conspiracy theories class.
Gordon S. Wood, “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century,” William & Mary Quarterly 39 (July 1982): 401-441.
Comment: An insightful and important explanation of the influence of conspiracy thinking during the Revolutionary era.
At some point, I want to write about other important books and articles that are more narrowly focused on specific eras or theories. But if you’re looking for some introductory material, the above suggestions should keep you busy.