Researching a murky subject: definitions, questions, and methods

SERIES Methods for researching think tanks 6 items

[Editor’s note: This article has been written by Marcos Gonzalez Hernando and Jordan Tchilingirian with contributions from Enrique Mendizabal and Andrea Ordoñez. It incorporates the views and suggestions of those present at the pre-launch of the online conference on research methods to study think tanks as well as online participants. ]

This article serves as a discussion paper for the series of webinars on studying think tanks. It is structured in the same way as the pre-launch event and involved a few statements from the organisers and a compilation of the views of the participants. Richard Darlington, Rosie Clayton, Brendan Martin, and Alyaa Ebbiary joined us at the event and their views have been incorporated in the discussion.

In it, we addressed three questions:

  1. What is a think tank?
  2. What questions have been asked and should be asked about think tanks?
  3. What methods could be used to study them?

You can watch the event here:

What is a think tank?

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. 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. In the traditional literature on think tanks, these stances are represented by the ‘elite theory’ or the ‘pluralist’ tradition:

  1. The first asserts that these institutions are but a part of networks of power and influence, and solely seek the translation, as it were, of ‘interests’ into ‘expertise.’
  2. The second claims think tanks are only another actor in a saturated ‘marketplace of ideas,’ being only another voice seeking to inform the public debate.

So the question is, how should researchers attempt to capture this hybridity and the diversity between and within organisations (over their own history)? We suggest the work of Thomas Medvetz is especially valuable to social scientists and practitioners.

In Think Tanks in America, Medvetz claims that a think tank should be understood, more than as a distinct organisational type operating at a niche environment, as communicating several spheres or fields. His model includes four fields and types of capital – academia, politics, the media, economics and interest groups –, and he argues these organisations seek to influence each of these with influences extraneous to them. They do this by, for instance, attempting to bring media visibility and political appositeness to policy-relevant academic work, or by producing industry-funded academic expertise in order to influence the policy debate. Taking those arguments as a starting point, one can begin exploring think tanks not so much as discreet organisations that pertain to a specific area of influence, but as part of networks of actors with differing aims and resources.

This realisation opens a space for a renewed sense on how to research these organisations, because:

  1. It is not necessary to limit our understanding of think tanks to only one of their facets, and because
  2. From it we can move beyond debates on whether any given organisation is or is not a think tank (is a for profit company a think tank?). This opens a new space to explore policy-expertise, and even to render our understanding of what we are researching around think tanks more complex.

This provides us with the opportunity to look at the boundary of the definition as done by Enrique Mendizabal. Where the fields described by Medvetz are strong then the space occupied by think tanks is easier to identify. Think tanks may engage with and copy some of the characteristics (organisational or functional) of those in the fields of media, academia, politics or the market, but will not replace them.

In developing countries or wherever these institutions are relatively weak the boundary is rather porous. There, think tanks may adopt organisational characteristics and the functions of others. It becomes harder to tell the difference between academic research centres, research departments in policymaking bodies, NGOs, consultancies, and media outlets and think tanks.

Participants’ definitions

Similar to the approach taken by Thomas Medvetz the participants’ definitions did not focus on specific attributes but were concerned with relationships and functions:

  • Think tank as a hub within a network – drawing together disparate professions or constitutes
  • Think tanks as a nexus/node in a wider network
  • Functions – a role or area within an organisation which is related to learning, change and research activities
  • More than one type of organisation – a think tank does more than one thing, never purely research or policy

Others, online, suggested:

How have they been studied so far, what questions have been asked and what questions should be asked?

The definition is important, among other things, because it affects the kind of questions that are asked about them.

What questions are being asked?

It should come as no surprise that academic interest in think tanks has stemmed from the political sciences. The core interest tends to be directed to state or party centric questions. The aim of such research has been to ascertain the similarities between think tank-formulated discourses and official policy pronouncements by politicians, and to tell the story of how a band of think tanks succeeded or failed to change ideas.

Reflecting on the British literature, in general, the conclusion has been a qualified ‘yes’: at key moments of crisis, certain think tanks were influential in the establishment of Thatcherism and a wider intellectual climate for neoliberal ideas in the 1980s. Similarly, in the 1990s certain think tanks (and associated intellectuals), but not the same ones, provided the Labour reformers with the ideological tools to legitimise their reformulation of British social democracy.

A good example of this research is the work of Hartwig Pautz. Pautz – focuses on the impact of think tanks in the development of new labour – also Denham & Garnett and Rhadika Desai on the role think tanks played during the Thatcher premiership. In the context of the American continent, one could also mention the study of Alvarez-Rivadulla et al on the network of relationships between US based free-market think tanks and their Latin American counterparts.

A plethora of recent studies have emerged, presenting British think tanks as being influential within coalitions of state and non-state actors across various policy domains, usually as members who seek to propagate a certain policy discourse, for instance: Shaw, et al+

In many of these studies, as well as in the press, concerns and questions are raised about their financial transparency and the independence of think tanks. Policy researchers such as Bertelli & Wenger,  BrightClarkMcClenaghanMiller,  Ruane and Transparify think tanks are seen within these institutions as potential sources of ‘biased information’ for another group’s (mainly corporate or political) interests.

The majority of studies form political scientists or political sociologists follow a similar ‘policy network’ approach, which places think tanks as members of specific political projects. The aim is to understand what think tanks did and how this helped to change the climate of opinion.

The outcome of this focus is that academic understanding tends to be limited to these relationships to a few party-focused networks. For instance, in Slater‘s work, the think tank and the intellectuals who work within them are seen as a champion for a party or government’s interest, developing ideas and the effective policy discourses or the propagating ‘dis-information’ in certain policy debates. In these studies in which the positioning of the think tank is as either expert or ideologue (or both), intellectual life is presented as, according to Diane Stone, providing “the conceptual language, the ruling paradigms, the empirical examples [that] become the accepted assumption for those making policy”. Methodologically, researchers – like many thinktankers! – try to assess impact through media or parliamentary citation, or by assessing the congruence between a think tank’s output and the official speeches of ministers, politicians and the terms used in policy documents.

Away from the policy domain and political project literature there is a small but growing number of studies which consider think tanks as new sites of public intellectual activity and knowledge production. These researchers tend to be within sociology, though interested in questions of politics, and their studies seek to focus on think tanks firstly, rather than starting with a particular ideological project.

The following are worthwhile examples:

  • Tom Medvetz and the rise of think tanks – documentary/archival research, media citations, primary interviews and analysis of organisational data.
  • John McLevey – focuses on the funding arrangements and cultures of Canadian think tanks
  • Marcos Hernandez: Think tanks and their responses to economic crisis – case studies of certain organisations, focus on texts, organisational change/strategy and interviewee reflection
  • Jordan Tchilingirian: Think tanks and production of policy knowledge – focus on texts and the emergent networks think tanks and their researchers draw upon
  • Hartwig Pautz: Focuses on the role think tanks played in informing and strengthening the austerity discourse after 2008, and thus interviews public servants and advisors to government
  • Plehwe: Is interested in transnational discourse coalitions and their attempts to attain hegemony across nations. Thus he analyses formal networks of think tanks centred on the EU

What questions should be asked?

The participants of the pre-launch event provided a range of views about the questions that need to be asked about think tanks. We have considered them along 4 levels :

  • A wider, ‘non-political’, focusQuestions should start to move away from a state centric view of think-tanks and consider their impact or influence on other sectors:
    • think-tanks impact on academia, journalism and so on
    • the effect of the emergence of think-tanks in the wider policy debate
    • the global diffusion, and local appropriation, of the ‘think-tank’ brand
    • the relationship between think-tanks, NGOs, University research departments and other ‘think-tank-like’ policy relevant knowledge producers
    • the importance of focusing on think-tank ‘functions’ and ‘behaviours’

  • Organisational questions: including:
    • the impact of political context – e.g. robustness of democracy and political parties, official policy’s permeability to outside expertise – on think tank creation and development
    • the consequences of different funding regimes and funding sources
    • examples of think tank failure, rather than focusing on the successful survivors can researchers account for the ‘death’ of a think tank

These questions lend themselves to more historical studies: differing business and funding models, and management practices.

  • Impact of technology: including:
    • the rise of social media on the act of policy research and think tank activity
    • the consequences of the availability (or lack thereof) of think tank reports on the internet
  • Intellectual practice: including:
    • a more fine grained approach to the study of intellectual independence
    • the role of self-reflexivity within think tanks – Study away days!
    • an understanding of messages and research is disseminated and why
    • how do think tanks differentiate their research from other sources of knowledge, especially academic research, in a time of academic transformation?
    • what makes think tank knowledge authoritative?
    • how are think tanks affected by current political challenges to technocracy?

Methods list

Finally, we explored different methods to employ when studying think tanks. This is the focus of the series of webinars running through September and November. Different methods are useful for different situations and questions. The list is not exhaustive but we hope it will provide a useful source of ideas to think tank researchers:

  • By type of data
    • Qualitative: interviews, ethnography, document analysis (discourse analysis/grounded theory)
    • Quantitative: surveys, SNA, content analysis, bibliometrics analysis, social media and big data.

  • Mixed methods: including case studies and episode studies.

  • Temporal frame: Historical, Snapshot
  • Context: National, Multinational, Institutional, Network, Political-wing, Policy area
  • Unit of analysis: Institution, Researcher, Policy report, Policy Idea, Tweet, Media presence
  • Research Question: Impact, research capacity, networks, institutional structure and change

Over the next two months we will share methods briefs produced by the speakers on the online conference. If you have examples of methods you have used to study think tanks please share them. IN the meantime, below is a short selection of the literature consulted for this discussion brief.

Some useful references in the literature

The objective of the online conference series is to encourage more researchers to address think tanks as a (murky) subject of their research. The list below is a short one that shows how many questions can asked about think tanks and how, when one looks at the UK based studied, they can help understand the political process.

  • Alvarez Rivadulla, M., Markoff, J. and Montecinos, V. (2010) “The Transamerican Market-Oriented Think Tank Movement”, in Adolfo Garcé and Gerardo Uña, eds., Think Tanks and Public Politics in Latin America (Buenos Aires: Fundación Siena and CIPPEC, 2010), pp. 172-208.