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Author ORCID Identifier
Campus-Only Access for Five (5) Years
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Year Degree Awarded
Month Degree Awarded
Regine A. Spector
Comparative Politics | Political Theory
My dissertation, entitled “Politics IS Conspiracy,” is a political ethnography of conspiracy theories. It examines everyday people’s conversations to develop an understanding of politics in conspiracy-rich contexts and posits that, rather than dismissing conspiracy theories as false claims, political scientists should study them as one of the ways that people engage in politics both discursively and in practice. This conclusion is supported by fifteen months of participant observation research in Kabul, Afghanistan between 2017-2019 where I found that conspiracy accounts were the primary mode people discussed and practiced politics.
Instead of approaching conspiracy theories as distorted accounts of facts, I consider people’s engagement with conspiracy theories as performative. In performing conversations around conspiracy theories, people do something rather than report about facts. In Afghanistan, these conversations, which were ritualistically and repeatedly expressed, represented shared experiences that were collectively performed. The scripts for such conversations already existed and people reproduced, sustained, and contributed to them. My dissertation, then, uncovers the identity-making aspect of such performances where a collective self is shaped.
Applying Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical approach, I re-imagine the Mandawi Bazaar of Kabul, the site of my field research, as a stage with a frontstage and a backstage. Frontstage, people recount and bond around discussions of international conspiracies in order to express their unity as Afghans and victims of foreign conspirators, especially the United States. Backstage conversations, however, focus on conspiracies orchestrated by one ethnic group against another. These whispered conspiratorial conversations backstage serve to reinforce ethnic identities. In closely examining these apparently contradictory conversations, I bring to light an identity tension characterizing life in Afghanistan. On the one hand, people talk about a national identity and brotherhood among all Afghans, and on the other, they are consumed by deep divides stemming from their ethnic identities. My dissertation exposes the reality of this identity tension and argues that it is caused by the failure of the nation-state building project in Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies. The identity tension created a state of ambivalence which also explains the paralysis of political commitment and a suspension of political judgements and, consequently, action. This (in)activity is visible in people’s alienation from institutional politics such as voting and their lack of trust in the government.
By taking a novel approach to conspiracy theories, “Politics IS Conspiracy” contributes to scholarship that attempts to theorize different ways of understanding conspiracism in the contemporary political environment and attends to the internal variety of conspiracy theories while avoiding homogenizing conspiracy theorists as a cohesive collective.
Jalali, Mohsen, "Politics is Conspiracy: Everyday Political Conversations in Afghanistan" (2023). Doctoral Dissertations. 2996.
Available for download on Friday, September 01, 2028