Register for the 1st International Online Conference: Studying think tanks (September – October 2015)

2 June 2015
This international online conference, possibly the first of its kind, aims to bring together scholars and practitioners interested in the study of think tanks across the world. The sessions provide an opportunity to discuss research methods to further understand these organisations and their impact on politics and society more broadly. Sign-up to join the webinars as a participant.

Studying the impact on, and of, think tanks (#TTMethods)

International online conference: Methodologies for Researching Think Tanks

A series of webinars: September -October 2015 

Sign-up here


Think tanks, or policy institutes, are garnering ever more attention within the public debate, and have become major actors across several polities. Thus, in the last years there has been a growing interest in researching these organisations, particularly within Sociology and Political Science. As such, there have been several efforts in understanding what they are and what they do: from the perspective of their work and impact in policymaking (be it in healthcare, education, foreign policy, etc.); their role as public intellectuals and in the ‘battle of ideas’; from the standpoint of the national and international networks they are part of; and from the point of view of their funding and organisational structure, to name but a few.

Conversely, several methodological approaches could and have been applied to study these institutions. Researchers have focused on their intellectual output, policy impact and its members, on their funders, political allies and presence across the media landscape. One could employ a network analysis, critical discourse analysis, or grounded theory approach to study them, across reports, blog posts, interviews, surveys or tweets.


Part of the fascination and frustration of studying think tanks is the question ‘what is a think-tank?’ Answers tend to point towards contrasting positions: that think tanks are either extensions of the academic or political spheres and that there is a number of possible typologies that ensue. Both have uncritically (and pre-empirically) assumed that these labels correspond with a certain intellectual practice, condition and activity.

For more critical scholars, the assertion is that ‘real’ think-tanks are either ideological stooges building lobbying for the interests of capital and embedded within the interests of the main political parties. On the other hand, those sympathetic to the role of think tanks have tended to overplay the cognitive autonomy of these organisations.

To add another layer of complexity to the debate, think tanks are no longer seen as a North American or European phenomenon. They exist in every region (and, possibly, country) in the world. There they take different organizational arrangements that allow them to perform the kind of functions that we have come to associate with think tanks.

These issues were addressed in the introductory discussion during a pre-launch event in London in August 2015. Using concepts associated with the sociological approach of field analysis, an alternative approach to what a think tanks is will be put forward as a working description for the conference. You can view the webinar here:

August 11 2015: 1pm British Summer Time (BST) Location: London Pre-Launch Public Event in London: Approaching a murky subject: what is a think tank?

Objectives of the international online conference

Hence, this series of international webinars seeks to bring together academics studying think tanks and practitioners in worlds of think tanks (as well as in politics, economics, the media, business and others) with the purpose of learning about, comparing approaches and sharing insights into the advantages and shortcomings of different ways of understanding and researching these organisations.

The series also expects to help researchers connect with each other.

The series aims to address some of the following:

  • How to study the effect of context over think tanks’ business models and strategies?
  • How to assess or evaluate the performance of individual think tanks –as well as think tank communities?
  • How to assess the impact of think tanks or their contribution to society?

The focus of the webinars should be the method and tools used to address these challenges –participants should feel comfortable in their theoretical and practical understanding of the methods and tools as to be able to replicate them. They could include:

  • Social Network Analysis
  • Case studies
  • Political economy analysis
  • Historical studies
  • Organisational assessments
  • Ethnographic studies
  • Action Research
  • and others


The organisers of this conference are:

Additional support is provided by Daniel Boyco, Research and Communications Officer at On Think Tanks, Jeff Knezovich, Nuffield Trust and partner at On Think Tanks, and Leandro Echt, partner at On Think Tanks.

All are participating voluntarily and any associated costs are covered by On Think Tanks thanks to the support of the Hewlett Foundation and Universidad del Pacífico (Peru).

Who can and how to participate?

Anyone interested in the study of think tanks can participate. While some will do so as panelists, others may simply join in the webinars to listen-in, comment, or engage during a post-webinar discussion.

The organisers encourage researchers, students and practitioners to submit an application. We are partially interested in giving PhD students and young researchers a platform to share their work and connect to their peers and to those interested in the outcomes of their research.

Although 7 sessions have been planed more could be added, as the format is flexible. Even if the application is not considered for any of the webinars, the methodology brief will be shared through the site.

How to participate?

All webinars will accessible via On Think Tanks:

If you would like to join the webinar discussions please keep an eye on the blog by subscribing using the widget on the right, adding your comments to this post below, or signing-up to each of the webinars. Participation is free.

You can follow and comment via #TTMethods

If you would like to support this effort please do get in touch: enrique [at] or @onthinktanks. We are always keen to collaborate.

Outline of the series

Each panel will involve at least one researcher and practitioners to provide initial commentary. Participants will be able to ask questions before the webinar (the paper will be shared in advance) and via a web-chat facility during the webinar itself. All will be recorded to be shared afterwards.


September 21st 2015; 1pm BST – Session 1: Case studies, qualitative methods and diachronic perspectives Marcos Gonzalez-Hernando (University of Cambridge)

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Those who wish to generalise about think tanks face at least three important hurdles. Firstly, their remarkable institutional diversity. Secondly, the high degree of instability of these organisations, which depend to a great degree on the movements and expertise of key individuals. Finally, the richness of the data available about them and what they advocate for (across policy reports, parliamentary advice, blogs, media appearances, etc). Consequently, this session will explore how studies of think-tanks have relied on an array of qualitative methods – including interviews, ethnography, document analysis – to study these organisations from a closer perspective. I will argue that qualitative methods are especially well-suited when attempting to describe changes through time, which, importantly, in the case of think tanks generally take both an institutional and an intellectual form.

For more information on this method: Case studies, qualitative methods and diachronic perspectives


October 5th 2015; 1pm BST – Session 2: Think-tanks and social network analysis Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Cambridge)

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Social network analysis (SNA) is the visualisation and measuring of relationships between a set of actors, be they computers, websites, cities, people, tribes, organisations and even think tanks. For many, the term is closely associated with social media. However, SNA is in fact a powerful tool which enables researchers to uncover important actors, discover coalitions, understand how resources (be they ideas, information, cash) move or are blocked, and even explore how diseases and technological innovations spread through a population.

This session will look at how social network analysis can be applied to the political world and to public policy research. It starts by introducing the foundational concepts of social network analysis and the practical and ethical issues related to its research design. The focus then moves to the several innovative ways political scientists and sociologists have used SNA, which have delivered findings other methods might have missed. The session ends with a case study of how SNA has been employed in the study of British think-tank networks, in order to uncover potentially important actors in the process of policy-knowledge creation.

For more information on this method: Think-tanks and social network analysis


October 21st 2015: 1pm BST – Session 3: Quantitative Survey Analysis Courtney Tolmie (Results for Development Institute)

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The objective of quantitative survey analysis is to leverage large comparable datasets to identify trends in think tank characteristics, actions, and exogenous factors. “Analysis” here is used to represent a set of methods that can be used to analyze large datasets, including regression analysis and even running summary statistics. This is an important set of methods to discuss, especially in think tank research, because there have been limited opportunities to analyze quantitative comparable data on think tanks at a large-scale. Quantitative survey analysis gives researchers the potential to investigate the generalizability of findings that may initially be identified in comparative case studies or other qualitative techniques but that cannot be assessed at scale due to the limited number of cases that are often researched when using case study methodologies.

For more information on this method: Quantitative Survey Analysis 


TbC 2015; 1pm BST – Session 4: A research agenda on think tanks: striking a balance between theory and practice. Prof. Tom Medvetz in discussion with think tank leaders and think tank funders from around the world.

This session offers a unique opportunity to learn from those who will consume research on think tanks. Tom Medvetz, renowned think tanks scholars, will chair a conversation with think tank leaders and funders. The session will set the scene for the rest of the series.


The series will be recorded and a digital and multimedia report will be developed for each session as well as for the series.

The reports and all relevant resources will be available online.

You can follow its progress on On Think Tanks as well as via its Facebook Page or Twitter: #TTMethods