Exploring the relationship between think tanks and social movements

15 April 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]

Do think tanks and social movements work together? What motivates this engagement? How do they work with each other? What difficulties do they face?

With the support of the Open Society Foundations we set out answer these questions and find out how and why think tanks and social movements work together. Through interviews with thinktankers, we learned that the relationships, motivations, impact and difficulties are as varied as the actors involved in them.

We define social movements as a network of individuals, groups and/or organisations engaged in collective action aimed at changing something in their context – be it the internal configuration of a social group, its relationship with other groups, with the state or other institutions, or aimed at changing social, cultural or political aspects of their context.

We define think tanks broadly as organisations or groups of experts who produce knowledge to inform and/or influence policy outcomes. These can include government research departments, university research centres, consultancies, professionalised NGOs and other sites of knowledge production and engagement.

We have found that indeed think tanks and social movements do work together. But because social movements, policy research organisations and the issues that they try to address are so varied, there is a multitude of options for engagement. Nonetheless the key finding, so far, is that think tanks and social movements work together to address an issue that they both aim to improve. Each brings to the table their key feature. Social movements mobilise the public and increase notoriety of the issue, while think tanks are able to convene actors and translate the demands of social movements into actionable policy demands. The success (or not) of the collaboration and the impact that it achieves depends on the context in which it operates.

There are many types of relationships between think tanks and social movements. Here are a few of the ones we have found so far:

Direct relationship

Actors within a think tank, and with institutional backing, engage with different organisations, including ones that are formal, informal or created out of the movement. A space for discussion is generated between these actors. The social movement actors voice the demands of the public and move them to action. The think tank uses its expertise and the research it has done in the past to translate the demands into clear policy options for the government. The think tank’s role is to advise which courses of action would be best, based on the knowledge they have.

Coalition engagement

Another form of relationship is coalition engagement, in which formal civil society organisations (such as think tanks and NGOs) join forces to address a pressing issue, forming a joint committee. In parallel, grassroots movements organise themselves to address a similar, but not entirely overlapping, issue. Both groups generate a space for discussion in which they agree their demands to the government. Again, social movement actors voice the demands of the public and move them to action. The think tank uses its accumulated knowledge to translate the demands into clear actions for the government.

Thematic network

This type of relationship is not directly between think tanks and social movements, but rather the relationship is fostered by a thematic network (with funding to pursue the agenda). It is the network that engages and connects researchers, think tanks and NGOs with a particular social movement. Social movements, in this case, have at their core other issues that relate to but exceed the interest of the thematic network. Thus, they engage only in some of the aspects of the problem. The network supports social movements to articulate the demands that address their cause (although not in their entirety) and supports social movements in helping them to achieve them, but do not act as intermediaries with specific governments.

The commonalities

The commonalities between these  forms of engagement (whatever the type of the relationship) is that think tanks think and social movements move. In all cases, think tanks acted on their acquired knowledge on the issue and helped articulate the demands of the public; while social movement actors had the ability to move people into action, channel their interest to create space for discussion and communicate the agreed courses of action. In all but the thematic network, think tankers used their ability to convene to help social movements translate their demands into policy demands. In essence, both think tanks and social movements are part of a chain of translation from the demands of the public to policy actions.