‘Never feel confined by methodologies or disciplines'

Ian Florance interviews Jovan Byford, a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University.

Conspiracy theories gained a higher profile during the last US election. Interest was stoked by the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, the assault on the US Capitol, and QAnon’s emergence. Reading Jovan Byford’s 2011 book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction rekindled my undergraduate interest in conspiracies. Jovan is a social psychologist whose interests cover a wide range of topics, from conspiracy theories and antisemitism to the relationship between psychology and history.

Jovan critiques psychology’s approach to belief in conspiracies. Psychological language is a regular feature of media and everyday discussions, where belief in conspiracy theories is associated with paranoia, anxiety, fantasy, hysteria, and so on. Richard Hofstadter’s 1967 influential essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics exemplifies this understanding. But in his book, Jovan points out important differences between paranoid delusions as defined by the DSM, and actual behaviours and attitudes of conspiracy theory believers.

‘The defining feature of paranoia,’ Jovan says, ‘is the immediacy of threat and its personal nature: paranoid people see themselves as being under imminent personal threat. In conspiracy theories the threat is to a nation, religion, way of life, or the whole world, and it is seen as part of a sinister long-term plan. Rather than looking for similarities between conspiracy beliefs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders, we need to turn our attention to the often-unacknowledged benefits that belief in conspiracy theories brings to the believer, including the “illusion of control” and a sense that the world is ordered. But the most important benefit is the belief that one is part of some heroic minority that actually knows what is going on. That’s a huge generator of self-esteem and what drives people to conspiracy theories.’

‘If you’re not sure, go for Psychology’
Jovan’s interest in this subject and many others, stems from his continual involvement with the countries of the former Yugoslavia. ‘I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Belgrade, which was then the capital of Yugoslavia. My father was British, my mother Serbian. They both worked in children’s TV: I grew up in a creative, artistic household. I went to a secondary school that was strong in natural sciences and, like a lot of my friends I was meant to go on to study medicine but I got interested in law and had to catch up on social sciences and humanities to pass university entrance exams.’

Jovan was of the generation that turned 18 when war broke out. ‘In fact, the war broke out on my 18th birthday so I was expected to do National Service at the worst possible moment. Instead I came to England. I adapted quickly to living alone in London since we’d stayed there several times on family visits. But I’ve kept strong links with Serbia and, though it’s not the most pleasant place to live, I find the whole of the former Yugoslavia, especially its history and politics, a fascinating object of study.’

After his first year in London, Jovan decided not to return home. ‘I worked for two years in Wimbledon branches of WH Smith while waiting to become eligible for a local authority grant to go to university. Getting up at five every morning and selling papers on the platform kiosk in Winter was no joke! I wasn’t sure what to study at university. My aunt who is a psychotherapist and psychologist had told me “If you’re not sure… go for psychology. It’s a broad, flexible subject that offers plenty of career options and straddles the boundaries between natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.” Today I give the same advice to anyone facing a similar dilemma.’

Study interesting things
During his first degree at Royal Holloway Jovan got interested in social psychology. He then completed an MSc in Social and Applied Psychology at the University of Kent, before taking a PhD in social sciences at Loughborough University. ‘My PhD supervisor was Michael Billig. Working with him was a privilege and a hugely liberating experience. He stressed that you should never feel confined by methods or disciplines but should study interesting things. In academia there is a pressure to do things in certain ways because that brings prestige and funding. But one needs to resist that pressure (within reason) and follow one’s interests. I have adopted this approach, which is why my  disciplinary identity is fluid and some of my recent work is in history rather than psychology.’

How did Jovan’s background lead him to embark on research into conspiracy theories? ‘I started my PhD in the summer of 1999, just a few weeks after the NATO bombing of Serbia ended. The war caused a huge growth in conspiracy theories in Serbia. The newspapers were full of stories about the sinister New World Order, the Bilderberg Group, and how the West was seeking to destroy Serbia. There were also some very strange theories incorporating paranormal elements and Jewish plots against Serbia. Michael Billig, who had written on conspiracy theories in the ‘70s and ‘80s, thought this would make a great focus for the PhD. After I finished my PhD, I put the subject aside but returned to it a decade later, after I grew uncomfortable with a growing trend to treat conspiracy theories as a rather fun cultural phenomenon. With hindsight we can see how wrong this was. My 2011 book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction was an attempt to provide an overview of the social, political, psychological, and historical dimensions of conspiracy theories, and a corrective to the tendency to trivialise them.’

One interesting thing about conspiracy theories, Jovan says, is that they are remarkably alike. ‘Their form and transmission medium change but their narrative structure, explanatory style and rhetoric are the same. A lot of the underlying vision of QAnon, for instance, is no different from that of earlier theories. The way it describes conspirators, their plan and the way mass manipulation keeps their machinations secret is the same as in any other conspiracy theory. So are the irrefutable logic of the claims made, and the way this feeds on, and seeks to increase, resentment towards traditional sources of authority. These similarities are the reason why I think we need to see conspiracy theories as a persistent, but evolving tradition of explanation.’

Jovan also argues that anti-Semitism pervades conspiracy theories: they ultimately track back to the same stereotypes and tropes even if they’re not overtly or even consciously anti-Semitic. ‘What I have tried to show is that people often come into contact with and are drawn to anti-Semitism through familiarity with and commitment to conspiracy theories. Ideas about Jewish power and influence have been such a prominent feature of conspiracy theories that those who peddle them today find it hard, if not impossible, to completely escape that aspect of their tradition.’   

History and memory
With Cristian Tileaga, Jovan co-edited the volume Psychology and History: Interdisciplinary Explorations in 2014. ‘Both disciplines are interested in the human condition and topics such as emotions, beliefs and memory. Social psychologists often use selected historical examples, while historians borrow concepts and ideas from psychological literature. But there’s always been a tension between the two: psychologists tend to view history as lacking methodological rigour and of being too speculative; historians see psychology’s concern with experimental control as preventing true historical insight. Our book looks at how we may go beyond this “borrowing” across disciplines towards a more integrated form of interdisciplinarity.’

His recent book – Picturing Genocide in the Independent State of Croatia – continues to draw from history, dealing with atrocity images from the Second World War. ‘The genocide of Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia is the most controversial episode of the Second World War in Yugoslavia. Disputes over its history remain a political flashpoint in the region. One source of disagreement is how the genocide should be represented visually. Serbian museum exhibitions, books and documentaries routinely display graphic images of massacres and other atrocities. In Croatia, these images are invisible, and their authenticity and value as vehicles of memory is disputed. My book looks at the history of the images, and of their representation between 1945 and today. It charts the origins of the two diametrically opposed visual cultures and considers how we might productively incorporate atrocity images into public memory.’

How is Jovan’s work being affected by the lockdown? ‘I’m juggling things: organising childcare and work and planning my next project. I would like to explore Yugoslavia’s involvement in the Nuremburg Trials. Most accounts of the Nuremberg tribunal tend to emphasise the role of the “great powers”, and hardly mention that other smaller countries – such as Yugoslavia – were involved. Yugoslavia may not have played a central role, but Nuremberg was certainly important to Yugoslavia. At the time, Yugoslavia was keen to forge a place in the new, post-war world, and have the suffering of its people recognised. This interesting story is about the interplay between law, politics, diplomacy, and identity. But the project will have to wait, as I cannot travel and visit the relevant archives.’

‘Being one of the Heads of Discipline in the School of Psychology and the chair of our final year project module is keeping me busy. Thanks to my daughter Clara, I am also brushing up on fractions, fronted adverbials, and other joys of the Key Stage 2 curriculum. And since Christmas I’ve been watching the complete Game of Thrones TV series. People sometimes ask me if I look for links between the series and my interests in conspiracy theories or visual representations of atrocities. The answer is a resounding “no”. This is just pure, unadulterated escapism!’

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