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Playing to the Gallery (and the uses of typologies)

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The 2013 Reith Lecturer, Grayson Perry, titled his series of lectures ‘Playing to the Gallery‘. In them, he outlines the boundaries of the art world and offered a candid account of its nuances. In a nutshell, or at least this is one of the key messages I took from the lectures, the art world likes to talk to itself.

My flatmate, an artist, explained this to me the other day. There are, she said, different kinds of artists. There are “artists’ artists”, the “kind of artists that curators and critics like”, and “popular artists”. There are maybe more and these are not her exact words but it is what I remember.

Of course, being an artists’ artist carries the greatest status. Being accepted by one’s peers, particularly in a community that sees itself as special and different from others, has huge intrinsic value.

Secretly, though, many hope for critical acclaim, and, at the very least would not mind, some popular success. Stephen Yeo suggested something similar about think tanks when he described them in terms of their business models. Most would claim to do independent research but in truth operate as consultants. Sure, the outputs of those consultancies are research products but they are no less consultancies.

But let’s get back to the artists’ artists analogy. I realise that there are similar types of think tanks (and researchers). There are:

Think tanks’ think tanks: these are organisations who like to talk to other think tanks, invite mostly if not only researchers to their events, write in an academic style, refuse to voice an opinion, keep a close eye on academic citations, like to use job descriptions such as “fellow”, hire and promote PhDs mostly, and are distrustful of politicians and journalists -they really don’t like them. They are also terribly offended by the suggestions that maybe, just maybe, they are preaching to the converted or, at the very least, to others like them, even if from another church.

Think tanks’ think tanks are particularly, if you as me, common in the international development industry: What is the point of the development sector? Unmediated support is the future.

The politicians’ and journalists’ think tanks: these are the kind of organisations that we tend to associate with think tanks. Ironically, the ‘universities without students’ analogy is claimed by think tanks’ think tanks but is appropriate only to this group. The whole point of not having students was that researchers would have the time to be able to focus on policy problems and questions and to engage with politicians (and, and later on, other political actors like journalists). These think tanks don’t care too much about academic citations, they worry more about making it to government memos and the opinion pages of key newspapers. They are more concerned with writing for, as psychologist Daniel Kahneman described it: “their university room-mates who studied something else” (in other words people with similar intellect and capacity but just interested or focused on something else). Politicians’ think tanks use labels that hover in between academia and politics: “fellows” is OK but it would be a bit too much to include “PhDs” in the business cards; “analyst” and “officer” goes well; the word “policy” is often inserted here and there in job descriptions and titles; and the make a point of saying that they have “media officers”.

These think tanks are in constant conflict between wanting to be more like their audiences and wanting to separate themselves from them. Tom Medvetz describes this as the political art of forging an identity:

Medvetz explains how this positioning as a think tank involves a necessary ‘complex performance of distancing and affinity’: On the one hand think tanks assert their independence by differentiating themselves from universities, advocacy groups, public bodies and lobbyists; but on the other hand pursue strategies or behaviours that mimic their values and practices: appointing fellows, investing in communication departments and an array of advocacy tactics, pilot projects and policy proposals, and seek to actively influence and lobby policymakers.

Popular think tanks: this is a rare type of organisation on account that think tanks are never very popular -in the way that NGOs or media organisations can be, for example. It would be hard to find many except for the unusually large Heritage Foundation type think tank but even they have to come up with side projects and initiatives to reach the public directly; i.e.not via the media or political parties. Recently, some international development NGOs have begun to get into this space claiming that they do research (some do or at least outsource it) or that their arguments are fundamentally research based. While I do not dismiss that NGOs like Save the Children or CAFOD or OXFAM undertake research I don’t think research is the main basis or the driver of their efforts. We know it is not. Research is strategically used to achieve influence. They appeal to it to convince the more technocrats of us; just as they appeal to images of dying children to convince those easily moved by them; or certain secular or religious values to appeal to others. It is OK, after all, their values and missions are right there in their names. No evidence will make Save the Children not want to, to make a reference to their UK tag line, “save children”. Anyway, this is for another time.

The point is that, ironically then, popular think tanks aren’t too popular.

Why is this important?

As I was coming up with this classification I thought to myself: “Oh no, another classification of think tanks.”  Last year alone I’ve come across at least two new efforts to classify think tanks. Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in projects to create typologies of think tanks. What is the point of this, I ask. So let me indulge in this short parenthesis about the uses of typologies.

Typologies are important, I am told, because they allow us to compare between think tanks in different countries. This can help explain why there are more think tanks in one country than another. Another important reasons is that they can help decide how to support different kinds of think tanks. So there is a ‘research’ argument and an ‘action’ argument. But both seem to focus on third parties, researchers or funders, and not on think tanks themselves.

Typologies are only useful, in my opinion, for three purposes: they can be useful thinking tools and so relevant in academic terms, they help to create conceptual walls around each type of think tank, and they help to bring down (those) walls between types of think tanks.

The last two uses are the most important and interesting for me. Walls are sometimes useful when one is trying to write a blog about think tanks in developing countries. They helps me to think of one type of think tank (and only that type) sometimes. And just as it helps me, it can help think tanks themselves. It is alright to get advice from think tank experts (so-called experts, like your truly) but one has to question how relevant ‘generalist’ advice is and how it  may be put into practice.

Every organisation has its own nuances and they all have different explanations. Their missions, their structure, their functions, their staffing, etc., nothing is disconnected. If an organisation has trouble hiring the right communications team this is likely to be linked to the organisations origins in academia or its lack of human resources capacity (another important team); or some other reason or reasons. Sending in a consultant to help with their comms will have little or no real effect on their communications unless all these other issues are addressed.

So I think that any category that allows think tanks to self identify, in all their nuances, can be useful; but only if, it also helps to tear down the walls that are often built around them. These walls serve a perverse purpose. They allow think tanks  to reject advice on the grounds that it is not relevant to ‘their special circumstances’.

The point of having more than one type of think tank in a typology could be said to be that it allows for comparisons between them. But this is not enough. The point ought to be that it is possible to compare and learn across types.

So back to our typology

Think tanks’ think tanks play an important function. They helps advance knowledge, mostly for the sake of knowledge , and play a key supporting role for politicians’ think tanks. These, after all, keep an eye not just on politicians and journalists but also on other think tanks, especially, think tanks’ think tanks. They feed on their rather obscure ideas and take advantage that nobody else (or at least very few people in a position to make decisions or to transform ideas into transformative narratives) really understand what is it that they are saying, to become the more visible agents of change they want to be.

Politicians’ and journalists’ think tanks are boundary workers; they are also the easily identifiable think tanks.

Think tanks’ think tanks are easily confused with universities (so why not just support universities? After all, that would also help out with developing new human capital?) and popular think tanks are easily confused with NGO, trade media, political and economic interest groups, etc.

The point isn’t that these organisations all have to change but that they should pay greater attention to who is it that they engage with. It may seem rather great to be respected and recognised by other think tanks but what use is that if the organisation’s purpose is to affect politics? And it may feel rather great to be popular among the general public but what use is that if the organisation wants to affect policies?

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