Bourdieu and the literature on think tanks

29 April 2015
SERIES The On Think Tanks review of books 7 items

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) is, without a doubt, amongst the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. His work spanned topics as diverse as education, academia, marginality, the formation of taste, media, television, masculine domination and economics. He is most known, however, for his theoretical and methodological contributions, particularly in the form of a ’toolkit’ that continues to be applied across social phenomena. This comprises concepts such as:

  • field: Loosely speaking, relatively autonomous spheres wherein actors struggle for positions and dominance (e.g. media, politics, arts).
  • capital: i.e. resources that can be mobilised in struggles within fields (e.g. money, knowledge, prestige, contacts).
  • habitus: in a nutshell, a set of values and expectations acquired through early socialisation and everyday life that shape an actor’s practices and dispositions and, in turn, others’ perceptions towards said actor.

Hence, it is little wonder that Bourdieu has also transformed the current literature on think tanks. The most notorious instance of this is the work of Tom Medvetz, which has already been covered in this blog.

One of Medvetz’s main contributions lies within the issue of defining what think tanks are. He avoids a search for a precise definition of think tanks as a discrete category – which in most instances entail establishing strict typologies or tautological definitions, which often leave national contexts and outliers out of the picture.

Instead, he advances a model inspired by Bourdieu’s fields and capitals. Think-tanks are understood as institutions with murky boundaries that ‘juggle with’ a diverse array of capitals pertaining to four fields (academia, politics, media and the economy), performing a ‘balancing act’ between heterogeneous aims and resources (e.g. academic credentials, political power, media presence, economic assets). Therefore, think tank are often somewhere between being a research centre, an advocacy group, a media agency and lobbyists, without ever becoming only one of those things in particular.

Faithful to Bourdieusian sociology and inspired by Gil Eyal’s ‘spaces between fields’, think tanks are, for Medvetz, not a ‘thing’ that fits neatly into any specific sphere (be it politics or research) but actors that move across fields and capitals, thus rendering diffuse their boundaries.

This has an interesting corollary. Conceivably, the efforts of an institution to garner a certain type of resource (e.g. economic) might weaken its ability to attain others (e.g. academic). Indeed, actors operating in fewer ‘fields’ tend to be weary of others – e.g. the strained relationship between academics and the business world. Hence, for Medvetz, the best strategy is most often to reach a middle ground, trying to remain somewhere between the four fields of academia, economics, politics and the media. As a way of illustration, in Medvetz’s own examples, the Brookings Institute became more media-savvy as a response to the challenges of more vocal think tanks, while a new wave of think tanks on the right sought to garner ever more academic resources (e.g. employing PhDs, scholarly journals, ‘Fellows’) to increase their credibility.

Model of US think tanks across fields. Available here


Medvetz’s is, undoubtedly, the most thorough and focused application of Bourdieusian concepts to the world of think tanks to date. But as the influence of Bourdieu expands within the English-speaking social sciences, and being Bourdieu himself such a ‘relational’ thinker – and think tanks such ‘relational’ entities – one can expect more research of this kind in the coming years.

This possibility is especially salient when considering the work carried out around actors and fields adjacent to think tanks. For instance, Nick Couldry’s media meta-capital – the possibility of one capital to affect other fields – or Gisele Sapiro’s (in French) modalities of political interventions of intellectuals.

Indeed, such research is already being produced, for example in David Sapto Adi Guttormsen’s recent PhD thesis, which applies Bourdieu’s theory of practice to the way China is constructed within US think tanks.