Defining the Think Tank Label: An Ongoing Topic of Debate, Discussion and Analysis

30 May 2016
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

Think Tank
Research Center
Public Policy Research Institute
Idea Factory
University Research Center
Investigation Center
Laboratory of Ideas

These are just some of the labels that one runs into while looking into think tanks. They all often refer to the same kind of institution, as anyone “in the know” is quick to point out. However, whilst an expert can confidently say that: public policy research center = think tank = investigation center, when you ask them what these organisations/centers/institutes actually are, there is not a straightforward definition that can be offered. Defining think tanks has been a topic of debate, discussion, contingency, analysis, and lots of writing. Experts approach their definition efforts from different lenses: historic, scholarly, functional, political, etc. The result of all these attempts has yielded bulleted lists of what think tanks are and are not, what they do and what they don’t, and what their roles in society are and are not.

A few months ago I was editing interviews from a couple of audio captions in French and a written piece in Spanish. In these, there were at least three different terms that (I would later learn) all referred to the same kind of organisations. Nevertheless, as much as they shared the same family name, they were vastly different in their business models, intention, outputs, funding sources and budgets. The root of the varying terminology is not surprising- it has to do with language. While these organisations are all think tanks, it is highly unlikely that french or spanish speaking countries will incorporate an english expression into the official names or descriptions of their policy institutes. As Enrique Mendizabal points on in his article on think tanks in Latin America:

The concept, and the fact that it is a term in English, is not accepted by all the organisations that can be described as think tanks. By think tank I’m referring to a very diverse group of organisations that have as their main objective to influence, be it in a direct or indirect manner, the ideas, policies, relationships, and practices of other political actors, public or private.

This series includes articles from several experts in the field, who have all contributed (and continue to do so) to defining think tanks. After reading a three-digit number of articles (available on this blog), I found there are more correlations than discrepancies amongst those attempting to define them. Newer definitions include previous viewpoints and, often, build upon them. There is also an acceptance that the term has mutated and will continue to do so as societies and countries change and as political landscapes and media outlets evolve. Think tanks have been adapting to the times and trying to stay afloat amidst external pressures since their inception. In an interview with Till Bruckner, Tom Medvetz shares his rather skeptical view of think tanks, but appreciates that they sit in an awkward place:

When it comes to the role of think tanks, we should start with the recognition that they act within an elaborate system of constraints. Being able to think independently is the exception rather than the rule. When you’re situated in an institutional space in which being responsive to external interests is a basic requirement of your existence, you can’t help but orient yourself intellectually to those interests, wittingly or unwittingly.

On Think Tanks founder, Enrique Mendizabal, has engaged on the study of think tanks for more than a decade. Enrique’s articles analyse views from scholars, along with his own reflections and insights into the field. On the definition of think tanks, he writes:

the common definition describes them as a distinctive class of organisations -different and separate from universities, markets and the state. (…) However, as I found in the study of think tanks in Latin America, Africa and Asia, these think tanks only exist in the imaginary of those who idealised the Brookings and Chatham Houses of this world.

When writing on the origin of think tanks, Enrique touches on the historic relationship between the media and think tanks, drawing on an example from Peru in 1790, and reflecting on the current relationship between think tanks and external and internal publications. As he well says, the apparent competitiveness between publications and think tanks seems to void the fact that they share a common past.

Enrique makes some very interesting analogies. In his article Playing to the gallery (and the uses of typologies), he refers to Grayson Perry’s categorisations in the art world, and how they apply to the think tank world. The importance of typologies, according to him, lies in:

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.

In his article on the boundaries of the [think tank] label, Enrique refers to Perry’s work attempting to define art, drawing on the idea that when defining abstract labels one should focus on the boundaries of these. There is not a one-size-fits-all definition, but attempting to identify where think tanks’ influence ends, aids the process of identifying where they exist. Enrique concludes that rather than focusing on the form of a think tank, we should focus on its function:

(…) what matters isn’t the label but the function -and the contribution to society. Surely we want more organisations to produce information and knowledge to inform public policy (openly).

The default conclusion of the theory of boundaries is that thinktankers are boundary workers. These boundary workers can work simultaneously in the various fields that think tanks operate in.

For think tanks, we could argue that they need to have people and teams with skills to: Appreciate and undertake research (boundary with academia); Communicate effectively to  to boarder audiences and the public (boundary with the media); Undertake analysis and deliver solutions (boundary with consultancy); Analyse policy and provide actionable recommendations (boundary with policy and politics); and Work with citizens to develop new ideas and solutions (boundary with NGOs).

Hans Gutbrod offers a different analogy in his article Optimizers: How Hearts, Kidneys and Pareto Help Define Think Tanks. Hans writes about the importance of tailoring expectations from different think tanks- what is expected (and achievable) from a think tank in a developed country should not be the same as what is from a think tank in a developing country. Long-term versus short-term implementations, with target goals, are more suitable:

Next to outer trappings of success such as funds raised, think tanks truly excel if they expand our sense of what is possible by discovering and promoting new ways of making lives better.

Trying to create a template definition is not only unfair, but would leave too much space for misunderstandings. In his article On the Definition of Think Tanks: Towards a More Useful Discussion, Enrique shares several guidelines and models for studying think tanks, all of which recognise (and allow the inclusion of) think tanks that might break certain conventions of shape or form.

One of the main arguments when defining think tanks is that they vary from one country to another. What is considered a think tank in one country might not be in another, but it is important to understand that it is often the political or financial contexts that create these boundaries.

In her article Think Tank effectiveness: an outsider view, Neeta Krishna reflects on her experience in India, but her insights can apply anywhere:

Think Tanks are organizations, which like biological systems grow and evolve. They may do this well or badly; a Think Tank may thrive, grow and increase its sphere of influence or struggle and become irrelevant, perhaps perish.

In another article, What do think tanks do? A view from India, Neeta offers another perspective into the complexities of the label:

The label ‘Think Tank’ embraces a diverse set of policy research organizations. Some are big, some small, some operate in narrow and specific areas; others have wider domains. Some follow no particular ideological agenda, claiming they engage in open-minded enquiry; others have specific ideological values. Some are pure research institutions; others attempt to influence public policy by advocating specific policy options, and lobby with lawmakers and governments. Some even engage in activism, undertaking specific actions to bring change.

Andrea Moncada writes about European Think Tanks and their role according to a report which states that think tanks are becoming more and more relevant in European policies, having significant influence in the public and their expectations. Andrea notes:

Think tanks across the EU do not have one specific origin. They also have very different purposes: some may have a quasi-academic profile; others are non-profits with an interest in advocacy; a few are quite general in their scope while others are thematic or geographically focused, etc.

Clara Richards also writes about think tanks in India and how they evolve as institutions in India change:

While traditionally think tanks had a strong tie to international organisations – which mainly provided funding – there is now a tendency to develop stronger relationships with local government, other Indian organisations and local companies.

Jeanne Muller wrote an article from her time as an intern, questioning the very thing so many of us do and so many of these posts attempt to address and clarify- what IS a think tank?  Her article is a nice summary of the different definitions available, and also a great resource to some of the original works on defining think tanks. Her conclusion is quite simple:

After having read twelve accounts of how think tanks from all over the world have been able to influence public policy, I can say that think tanks can be as different as the colors of the rainbow. They come in all shapes and sizes, have different core values and missions, work in a range of different issues, use different methodologies, and employ different strategies to reach different targets.

I am sure this is a sentiment some of us share.

In Think Tanks in Latin America: what are they and what drives them, Enrique writes about the establishment of (possibly) the first South American think tank with the Sociedad Académica de Amantes del País, a space where colonial Peruvian intellectuals would meet to discuss and publish their ideas on a new independent nation. He writes:

The origin of Latin American think tanks, then, is found in Politics (with a capital P) but its development has been affected by a great number of factors that have, in different contexts and historical moments, generated an equally large number of classes or families of think tanks that live side by side in a political–intellectual space.

Think Tanks everywhere have evolved and responded to their own contexts and realities, broadening their definition rather than channeling it. What’s true is that what would labeled as a think tank in Peru, might not be a think tank in the UK, or in Uganda. The term has to be inclusive yet exclusive.

In his article Think Tanks: research findings and some common challenges, Enrique shares the results of his research, in a list that encompasses most attempts at defining think tanks available, and the guidelines by which these can be analysed.

The first obvious questions most people have is: what is a think tank? The literature is not absent of options: think tank definitions can be divided into broad and narrow ones:
The broad definition: any organisation that produces or uses research to inspire, inform or influence policy.
The more narrow definition: an organisation not governed by the rules of academia, policy, the media or the private sector and that seeks policy influence through research informed arguments.

Is this non-precise definition of think tanks a problem, or is this just part of their enigma? Are they meant to not be boxed up and fitted into a clear definition? Is the continuous analysis of the term more detrimental than beneficial, or is it a healthy ongoing debate?

We ought to define where we stand in the policy-research inter-face. However, the common debate over whether an organisation is a think tank or a policy research centre or anything else is, really, unhelpful. We would struggle to define any of them.

Enrique Mendizabal on The Business Model and How this Affects what Think Tanks do.