The scope of what counts as a conspiracy theory interests me. One sense of scope is found in the political/non-political demarcation between some explanations being treated as conspiracy theories and others not. Surprise parties are non-political and so explanations thereof might not be considered to be conspiracy theories; I think this is a mistake because ruling out a conspiratorial explanation as a conspiracy theory just because it is not political raises the question of what do we mean by “political” here? The Moscow Show Trials are clearly political, given that they involved political figures who acted conspiratorially to achieve political ends, but is LaRouche’s conspiracy theory [about the competing philosophical ideologies of Europe and the USA] similarly political? It alleges political activity but does not show it. The explanation is political, in that if it were true, then it would impact upon what we claim to know about politics, but is not political in the sense that is an explanation of the activities of the political realm.
Another sense of scope, I think, is to be found in whether these things we call conspiracy theories refer to actual explanations (where “explanation” is being used a success term)? Conspiracy theory theorists like Aaronvitch reserve the term conspiracy theory for unwarranted conspiratorial explanations. Cases like the Moscow Show Trials are treated merely as examples of explanations that cite conspiratorial activity, whilst examples like LaRouche’s posited explanation are treated as conspiracy theories. This is yet another version of the pejorative usage of conspiracy theory.
All of these notions are, I think, unhelpful. I wish to define conspiracy theory as any explanation of an event that cites the existence of a conspiracy as a salient feature or cause. I do not want to draw distinctions between political and non-political cases, between large, small or medium-sized cabals, between warranted and unwarranted cases. These distinctions do not, I think, help. What is interesting about conspiracy theories, of any “kind” you might like to think of, is whether the conspiratorial behaviour cited in the explanation of the event is a warranted inference. The scope of my analysis of conspiracy theories is, then, any explanation that cites conspiratorial behaviour as a salient cause of the event.
[This is not strictly excised material; I’ve rewritten a lot of this and moved it elsewhere. I don’t really touch (at this stage of the rewrite) the notion of success terms because I’m arguing that claims of “Conspiracy!” are assertions and conspiracy theories are put forward as the rather than an explanation (in most cases).]