BA English Literature and American Studies

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Conspiracy Theories in American Culture

Course unit fact file
Unit code AMER30382
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


The course deals with one central question: why have Americans been so interested in conspiracy theories? The course provides an overview of the tradition of conspiracism in American culture and politics, from the Declaration of Independence (after the 'all men are created equal' part, there's a long catalogue of suspicions about plotting by the British monarchy), to the Birther Movement (the accusation that Obama is hiding the the truth about his origins). It offers students the chance to explore particular historical episodes and cultural texts in more detail, including fears about the Illuminati, the Red Scares, the Money Power, the Kennedy assassination, ghetto rumours about drugs and AIDS, and 9/11. It looks at a range of source materials from the eighteenth century to the present, including political pamphlets, novels, films, and websites. It also explores each week a different theoretical approach to the topic within the sociology of knowledge.


  • To introduce students to the role that conspiracy theories have played in American history and culture;

  • To engage critically with a range of different cultural and historical source materials;

  • To develop an awareness of the different theoretical approaches to this topic in the sociology of knowledge;

  • To foster skills in critical and cultural analysis, and oral and written presentation skills at a level appropriate to final year degree work.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course unit, students should be able to:

  • Grasp the way that conspiracy has been imagined in American culture from the 18thC to the present;

  • Weigh up competing interpretations and arguments; and critically analyse a range of different source materials;

  • Research and construct a convincing argument using appropriate methods of scholarly presentation;

  • Carry out independent research; critically analyse different kinds of texts; summarise complex arguments; work in groups; contribute to a wiki; present ideas in oral and written communication.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication
Students on this unit will develop their ability to write in a way that is lucid, precise and compelling.

Assessment methods

Case study presentation (blog / podcast /slide show) 40%
Essay 60%


Feedback methods

  • oral feedback on group presentations and wiki contribution
  • written feedback on the analytical commentary mid-way through the course, and on the long essay at the end of the course
  • additional one-to-one feedback in office hours

Recommended reading

Indicative Reading List

Michael Butter and Peter Knight, eds, Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories (2019)

Anna Merlan, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power (2019)

Jovan Byford, Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction (2011) 

Michael Butter, The Nature of Conspiracy Theories (2020)

Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (2001)

Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (rev. ed. 2008)

Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to the “X-Files” (2000)

Kathryn Olmsted, Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (rev. ed. 2019)

Joseph Uscinksi and Joseph Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (2014) 

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Peter Knight Unit coordinator

Return to course details