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Different ways to define and describe think tanks

As I have mentioned before, I am working on a book on think tanks in developing countries -the focus is changing towards the analysis of think tanks influence, though. This first stage has me working on a literature review and, as promised, here as some ideas that I’d like to share with you.

One of the first questions I’ve had to address is how to define think tanks?

After going through a long list of definitions and descriptions of think tanks I’ve decided to organise these different types of definitions or descriptions (and the criteria used)  in the following way (please note, I am not providing a list of definitions from the literature just the ways in which the issue of defining or describing think tanks has been approached by various authors):

  • Legal definitions -for example 501 (c) (3) organisations in the U.S.– and narrative, normative definitions that emphasise their independence, non-profit status, non-partisan, etc.
  • Categories or types of think tanks, described by:
    • Size and focus: e.g. large and diversified, large and specialised, small and specialised (Weidenbaum, 2009)
    • Evolution of stage of development: e.g. first (small), second (small to large but more complex projects), and third (larger and policy influence) stages (Struyk R. J., 2006)
    • Strategy, including:
      • Funding sources (individuals, corporations, foundations, donors/governments, endowments, sales/events) (Weidenbaum, 2009) and business model (independent research, contract work, advocacy) (Abelson D. E., 2006) (Abelson D. E., 2009) (Belletini, 2007) (Ricci, 1993) (Rich, 2006) (Reinicke, 1996) (Smith, 1991) (Weaver, 1989) (Braml, 2004)
      • The balance between research, consultancy/advisory work and advocacy
      • The source of their arguments: Ideology, values or interests; applied, empirical or synthesis research; or theoretical or academic research (from a conversation with Stephen Yeo)
      • The manner in which the research agenda is developed: e.g. by senior members of the think tank or by individual researchers; or by the think tank of their funders (Braml, 2004)
      • Their influencing approaches and tactics (many researchers but an interesting one comes from Abelson D. E., 2009) and the time horizon for their strategies: long term and short term mobilisation (Ricci, 1993) (Weidenbaum, 2009)
      • Their various audiences of the think tanks (audiences as consumers and public -this merits another blog; soon) (again, many authors, but Zufeng, 2009 provides a good framework for China)
      • Affiliation, which refers to the issue of independence (or autonomy which may be a better concept to focus on) but also includes think tanks with formal and informal links to political parties, interest groups and other political players (Weaver, 1989) (Braml, 2004) (Snowdon, 2010)
  • Relational definitions that refer to the self-identification as think tank in relation to other organisations that may play similar, overlapping or complementary roles. I have written quite a bit about this in this blog.
  • And functional, focusing on the functions played by think tanks and including (taken from quite a few authors but particularly Belletini, 2007, Mendizabal & Sample, 2009, Gusternson, 2009, and Tanner, 2002):
    • Providing ideas, people, access
    • Creating, maintaining, opening spaces
    • As boundary workers or windows into the policymaking process -and into other spaces (this comes from the literature on think tanks in China where think tanks are described as windows that allowed Chinese policymakers to look into Western policy communities and societies -as well as allowing western policymakers and scholars to look into Chinese policymaking communities.
    • Channels of resources to political parties, interest groups, leaders
    • Legitimising ideas, policies and practices -and individuals or groups
    • Monitoring and auditing public policy and behaviour
    • Public and elite (including policymakers) education (something often forgotten by many think tanks as it is certainly difficult to assess its impact).

What do you think? Or maybe James McGaan is right and we’ll know one when we see it.

Now, please answer the poll:

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Priyanthi Fernando #

    What is the imperative to choose one definition? Given that there are multiple ways of ‘recognising’ think tanks, should we not stick with the diversity?


    March 10, 2011
    • Sure, i agree, but if i want to study something i do have to say what it is that i am studying. Having said that, Priyanthi, I think that both the range of approaches and some of them (relations, functions, for example) do address and embrace that diversity. Don’t you think?


      March 10, 2011
  2. I chose relational definition because I think that opens the door to many different perspectives based on context. A bit like community, I think the definition is going to be quite variable in different settings. But the challenge with: we will know it when we see it, is that one can easily end up with a mishmash of organizational types that means your data does not resonate with anyone. I used to think that one could consider the idea of crowd sourcing the definition of a think tank but as a field of study it is not quite big enough for crowd sourcing of definitions – too big for one definition, too small for good open definition.
    So I agree with Quique that we have to be clear what we are talking about as TTs are so variable around the world. And if we are clear, perhaps it is more possible to debate the values behind different definitions that might drive donors to fund one TT and not another?


    March 10, 2011
    • Thanks for the comment, Fred

      That would be much more interesting: how does the definition affect the funding decision? Maybe the next question -or the better question- should be: what are the labels or names for ‘this thing we call think tank’ in different contexts?

      I used to think that defining was not a good idea -hence my focus on functions- but the more I talk to people about what I am studying the more I find myself HAVING to explain what is a think tank as a prerequisite to a meaningful conversation about the subject -even if in the process we end up talking about organisations that did not fall within my original definition.


      March 10, 2011
  3. John Young #

    Most of your statements are not actually “definitions” of what are (and are not) think tanks, nor categories of “types” of think tanks but instead are dimensions of the very wide range of characteristics that you might want to study them by. In my mind the key things that define a think tank as a think tank are that they “use research based evidence” to “engage with policy processes”. Since we (in RAPID) define research very broadly as “any systematic learning process” and policy equally broadly as “a purposive course of action” that leaves the field pretty wide. They can do their own research, or use the results of other’s. They can use their own (or others’) research-based evidence themselves or can create policy spaces in which other people with research-based evidence can get together with policymakers. The words “use” and “engage” are very important. In my view, simply publishing policy pieces in newspapers or on line for policy makers to pick up or not, is not enough to be termed a think tank. Also while they need to be “institutions” (ie any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals – acc. to the Stanford Encyclopaedia), rather than individuals, they do not have to be “organisations” (usually, though not necessarily, defined legally). So they could be networks or informal groups of people working together to achieve a common goal as well as legally constituted organisations, or departments within larger organisations. So the only box I could tick in your poll was “functional descriptions”, though I don’t actually think any of your functional descriptions quite fit the (or at least my) bill.


    March 10, 2011
    • Thanks for the comments, John. I’ll check but just to be sure, what I am presenting is ways (dimensions as John says) to define or describe and not necessarily listing a series of DIFFERENT definitions or all the possible types (I did not include ego or personal think tanks, for instance).

      Yes, I think that although individuals can do some of the things think tanks do I am not looking at them. I am not sure i get your institution vs. organisation comment, though. Josef Braml has a useful description of think tanks as an organisation homo mediaticus -he says: organisational vehicles –for the exchange of ideas or staff through communicative processes between different policy players.


      March 10, 2011
  4. A think tank has a lot of variations in their definitions. I think it is simply a discussion about a subject such as politics, health, ecology, between others. there are many ways to make this discussions: between organizations, individuals, etc.


    March 11, 2011
  5. Karthik Nachiappan #

    The panoply of definitions that pervade on TTs have certainly done more harm than good. Straitjacketing entities (especially from the West) has entrenched certain features, qualities and traits that predetermine Think Tanks before an ex-ante appraisal. McGann’s 2010 TTs version disconcertedly continues to fuel the obscurity on this topic.

    Braml’s conception of think tanks serves in fulfilling donors prerogatives and safeguarding the integrity of their interests, where influence is definitely prized upon.

    One of the more innovative and refreshing scholarly channels that I’ve come across in the recent past includes understanding Think Tanks (entire gamut) through applying tools of Economic Sociology and Economic Geography. On the latter, a new approach called ‘Policy Mobilities’ is being gradually built that critically, and quite incisively explores how ideas and agendas are transported across multiple spatial scales by different organizational vehicles, which draws from a globally based intellectual cadre that are not spatially defined or restricted, too. Some of this is spilling over into analyzing International Development policy, where I certainly believe there is much resonance and symmetry, and which, I do hope offers ideas/insights that reveals more on Think Tanks in the global south.


    March 15, 2011
  6. Marguerite Berger #

    I think the definition should stem from the main purpose, which seems to overlap more with functional(?). As the name implies the main purpose is thinking…but the reason for the thinking is more specific. I suggested a definition of think tank that was a tiny bit too long to fit in the box, so here’s what I wanted to say: “an organization whose main purpose is to provide information and analysis to inform and/or influence policy development”


    March 29, 2011

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