Theorizing modernity conspiratorially: Science, scale, and the political economy of public discourse in explanations of a cholera epidemic

Briggs, Charles L.
American Ethnologist

When some five hundred people in eastern Venezuela died from cholera in 1992–93, officials responded by racializing the dead as “indigenous people” and suggesting that “their culture” was to blame. Stories that circulated in affected communities talked back to official accounts, alleging that the state, global capitalism, and international politics were complicit in a genocidal plot. It is easy to attribute such conspiracy theories to differences of culture and epistemology. I argue, rather, that how political economies position different players in the processes through which public discourses circulate, excluding some communities from access to authoritative sources of information and denying them means of transforming their narratives into public discourse, provides a more fruitful line of analysis. In this article I use—and talk back to—research on science studies, globalization, and public discourse to think about how conspiracy theories can open up new ways for anthropologists to critically engage the contemporary politics of exclusion and help us all find strategies for survival.