Social facts have been the focus of several conversations around TSP “world headquarters” recently as we’ve begun to formulate our plan for next year. It is our continuing mission to best represent and explain the value and contribution of sociology to public discourse and the understanding of society. One of sociology’s most important contributions is basic: we report empirical information about how people live and how the world they live in is organized. Often these facts are kind of demographic or quantitative—poverty and income rates, for example, or the number of people having kids, that sort of thing. But sometimes the facts we collect and contribute are of a more cultural or subjective nature, about how folks think about various things, how they understand the worlds that they live in, what they value or aspire to.
All of this took on new salience over the weekend when I read this little post from our old friend Jeff Weintraub. Weintraub, a specialist in social and political theory, recommends a recent column on conspiracy theories from Andrew Sullivan–who insists that there is important insight to be gained from taking even the most ludicrous conspiracy talk seriously–as well as several recent contributions to the scholarly literature on conspiracy theories, urban legends, and the like. Coming from the state that elected Jesse Ventura governor once upon a time, this seems like a literature worth delving into. But what really caught my attention was simply how Weintraub framed his post:
Mass delusions, including paranoid conspiracy theories and other widely shared myths, may be factually and logically absurd, but it’s important to remember that they’re also social facts worth noticing and trying to understand—and if enough people believe them, they can sometimes be quite important and consequential social facts.
Absolutely. We may disagree as to the truth value of these theories and claims, but we can’t dismiss those who hold them. And beliefs, even crazy ones—perhaps especially crazy ones—reveal important things about how people think. They can also have powerful consequences if and when believers act upon them. And so all beliefs are “facts” about the social worlds we live in. We must take those beliefs and those believers seriously if we are to understand social worlds and the people that compose them. Conspiracy theories as social facts–just another one of those great, social oxymorons that make it so much fun to be a sociologist.