In the complex landscape of American politics, conspiracy theories can wield significant influence over public opinion. In 2023, Carson Maxfield ’24 embarked on a capstone project investigating the connections between education, gender, and belief in conspiracy theories. Employing a mixed methods approach, his study focused on the Great Replacement Theory (GRT), a divisive conspiracy gaining prominence in various right-wing circles.

Maxfield was raised in the Dallas suburb of Frisco and traces his initial interest in conspiracy theories to his upbringing. Reflecting on his background, he noted, “I’ve extensively engaged with the diverse thought processes and prejudices present in such environments. Whether navigating through various conspiracies at my former workplace or witnessing the apprehension in my hometown following the January 6 Capitol Riots, reactionary politics have been a constant in my life. Through these experiences and my own efforts to analyze my encounters, I’ve developed a fascination with conspiracy theories.” Recognizing that his background provides a nuanced perspective, he emphasized how it enriched his research, offering a unique lens for interpreting the study’s findings.

For his capstone, Maxfield formulated two key research questions focusing on different aspects of the conspiracy theory phenomenon. Male respondents with less than an associate’s degree are more likely to believe in GRT principles, and those believing in COVID-19 conspiracy theories are more likely to endorse both GRT principles and the theory itself.

Maxfield conducted a survey from March 1 to March 3, 2023, which garnered responses from 400 individuals in the United States. While the data did not fully represent the nation’s demographics, it provided valuable insights. Contrary to Maxfield’s initial hypothesis, men with less than an associate’s degree were more likely to believe in GRT principles but not necessarily in the theory itself. The study also revealed that individuals believing in COVID-19 conspiracy theories were more likely to endorse both GRT principles and the theory itself. This aligns with existing research emphasizing the interconnected nature of conspiracy beliefs.

In reflecting on his research, Maxfield said he has a newfound appreciation for the dedicated work it takes to create a robust survey. “It was eye-opening. I appreciate it more because I understand the lengths one has to go through to create a comprehensive survey. I also have a greater understanding of how the results are read and reported on.”

Maxfield’s capstone project highlights the importance of nuanced research. He said the most challenging part of his project was understanding the data he received. He had to learn how to analyze hundreds of responses and interpret what it meant statistically. He also had to open himself up to the idea that his hypothesis might be wrong or need further investigation from broader demographics. Ultimately, Maxfield’s research provides valuable insights into America’s complex connections between education, ideology, and conspiracy beliefs.

While Maxfield has one semester remaining at Southwestern, he hopes to attend graduate school somewhere in Europe after taking a gap year. Driven by a passion for understanding conspiracy theories and right-wing ideologies, he envisions a career where his research can make a meaningful impact. He is eager to delve deeper into the complexities of these subjects, recognizing their significance in shaping societal perspectives.