Think Tank Sociology

by Henry on February 15, 2008

Moira Whelan speculates on Mike O’Hanlon and ‘think tank sociology.’

Think tanks in DC are traditionally known as refugee camps for the out-of-office team of foreign policy wonks. There’s an expected turn over when new administrations come on as each team goes about grabbing “the best and the brightest” to fill their ranks. O’Hanlon has by now gotten the message that he’s burned his bridges with his Democratic friends. Those that like him personally even agree that he’s radioactive right now thanks to his avid support of Bush’s war strategy. So what’s a wonk to do? … one option is pre-positioning yourself for the future. By getting out there and going after the leading Democrats—people that some of his closest colleagues are actively supporting—is he lining himself up to say that he was critiquing the next Administration before it was cool? That would be worth it, because as I’ve mentioned before, there are three forms of currency in the think tank world that make you a valuable player: bringing in money, getting press, and getting called to testify. This strategy could certainly pay off in those categories over the next few months.


As it happens, I’ve recently finished reading a fascinating new paper (PDF) which actually provides a sociological account of how think tanks work. Tom Medvetz’s paper agrees with Whelan’s argument to the extent that it focuses on the kinds of symbolic and economic resources that structure the world of think tanks (his mode of analysis is deeply indebted to Pierre Bourdieu). Medvetz is particularly interested in the contradictions of the think tank expert’s role; how he (and Medved notes the predominance of men in this world) navigates between the conflicting imperatives of academic expertise, policy aide, policy entrepreneurship and journalism. These roles conflict with each other; for example, think tanks’ emphasis on policy entrepreneurship aggressive self promotion, and journalistic simplifications are at odds with their connections to the academy, and the implied prestige that they draw from these connections. This makes life complicated for think tank experts; in Medvetz’s words:

the duties of the policy expert give rise to an elaborate symbolic balancing act that commonly involves signaling similarities to and differences from actors in proximate institutions. This self-presentation pairs an announcement of scholarly detachment with a tacit willingness to abide by the established rules of the political field, which require fast turnaround in one’s intellectual production, aggressive self-promotion and general accessibility in one’s writing. … Additional blurriness arises from the fact that many think tanks permit their policy experts to advise politicians and candidates for public office, but usually require them to separate such consulting from their official organizational duties …

In many cases, policy experts describe feeling pulled in opposite directions by the demands of their job. Even as they lay claim to an academic form of authority, for example, most report reading neither the major academic journals in their fields (much less devoting time or energy to publishing in them) nor attending academic conferences. Nevertheless, the assertion of scholarly detachment is an essential component of the policy expert’s stance because it suggests insulation from political and economic constraint – the hallmark of the intellectual’s authority

This, I think, provides a possible account of O’Hanlon’s structural position which is somewhat different than the one Whelan gives (although the two aren’t entirely dissimilar). By my perhaps imperfect reading, it would suggest that someone in O’Hanlon’s position may be less engaged in a conscious act of ‘selling out’ than changing the balance of his self-presentation so that it lays less stress on values of disinterested academic expertise, and more on political entrepreneurship.

Note that this change need not be a deliberately chosen strategy; a Bourdieuvian analysis might suggest instead a more complicated process of adjustment between the individual and the field that she is located in (I’ll note in passing that I’m not a Bourdieuvian myself, although I find aspects of Bourdieu’s work helpful in understanding this kind of phenomenon). For example, O’Hanlon’s change of tone may have less to do with deliberate pre-positioning than with the kind of roles that are now open to him given the change in political climate, and the forms of self-presentation associated with these roles. It’s hard for him to adopt the position of the disinterested scholar as he may well have done a couple of years ago, given the concerted attacks that he has come under (from an analytic point of view, whether these attacks were fair or unfair is irrelevant; what is important is their consequences for his positioning in the world of think tanks).

What’s missing though from this kind of analysis is the role of the blogosphere and wonkosphere. The reason for this is straightforward: Medvetz appears to have done his research in 2003, before either of these had really become an important phenomenon in the policy world. It seems to me highly unlikely that O’Hanlon would find himself in the position that he is in had it not been for the creation of blogs, and the decision of a number of key bloggers (most notably Glenn Greenwald ) to focus on his particular failings as an analyst.

I suspect that if Medvetz was to replicate his research today, he would find that the field of play had been changed by the advent of blogs in some significant ways. Bloggers such as Ezra Klein have come to play a very important role in policy debates; one prominent wonk whom I’ve spoken to suggests that Klein’s blog played a quite substantial role in building the focal point for health policy reforms around which Edwards, Clinton and Obama’s campaigns have converged (obviously, this is not to say that Klein’s blog is the only factor). It’s also interesting that several of Medvetz’ interviewees (Eric Alterman, Dean Baker) either now play important roles in the blogosphere, or in a broader set of debates where bloggers play an important role (David Boaz, Greg Anrig). I’d be interested to know how this has affected the field of resources that Medvetz describes, the self-perceived role of think-tankers etc – while I suspect that there are significant changes, and can draw some surmises as to what direction those changes might point in, it would be very nice indeed to have proper data …

[cross-posted to The Monkey Cage]

{ 20 comments }

1

Grand Moff Texan 02.15.08 at 8:24 pm

Any idea where I could find a sociologically-informed history of the development of (the US’) think-tank industry?

I’ve always wondered if the GI Bill’s transformation of the American academy made it necessary for political elites to develop an alternative and more reliable source of impressive-sounding rationalizations for policies that favored their interests, but that’s my cynicism talking, I guess.
.

2

Grand Moff Texan 02.15.08 at 8:31 pm

(… and yes, I realize that some of them will be older than that, like the Hoover Institute).
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3

Marc Dean Millot 02.15.08 at 11:39 pm

For some cross pollination on this see the ongoing pan-edu(wonk)blog debate on the education think tanks. I’ve provided a starting pointlinking to it at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2008/02/get_into_the_crossblog_debate.html

“grand moff texan” might find ny series of essays on the so called education “Think tanks” useful, in that I compare them to the organization for wjhom the term was coined, and discuss something of what RAND did to deserve it. The series staets here: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edbizbuzz/2008/02/uberblogger_alexander_russo_as.html

I’d be happy to correspond separately on the “think tank” “industry.” I would place its roots and its cednter of gravity in defense and national security, and point out that it is by no means confined to nonprofits. You can find out more about me by clicking on the “About the author” highlight on the blog page.

4

greg anrig 02.15.08 at 11:42 pm

Henry, Leaving aside the particular and highly unusual case of O’Hanlon, you’re absolutely right that the web is forcing all kinds of change in the think tank and wonkery world that post-dates Medvetz’ paper (which is very good). The biggest change is that policy debates have become so much faster, deeper, and broader in the past three years. The debate about health care mandates alone in the past few months has been unlike anything in 2004 or before. And those on-line debates are pretty efficiently making their way into the mainstream media, affecting political discussions. Krugman, who is steeped in blogs and online debates, has been particularly important in accelerating that process. Stupid arguments and tropes that used to be repeated endlessly in the msm now get shot down fast. The SS debate, I think, really was a turning point signalling a whole new process for wrestling with policy.

It’s only a matter of time before all the think tanks have their own group blogs (The Century Foundation is starting one in a few weeks). But most importantly, anyone who has a winning argument can quickly jump right in and blow the guy from Brookings out of the water. And it’s all for the good. (I could go about this endlessly, and would love to, but my kids need me to feed them).

5

Jeet Heer 02.16.08 at 12:14 am

A good history of the think tank world with a focus on the Rand corporation, although not particularly sociological, can be found in Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon.

There’s a book called Do Think Tanks Matter?: Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes, by Donald Abelson. I haven’t read it yet.

6

K H 02.16.08 at 3:48 am

to #3: do you know of any good blogs for discussing US foreign policy, especially in Asia and the Middle East? That is one policy area where the mainstream discussion could *really* use some help. I read Informed Comment Global Affairs, and Informed Comment, but not much else at the moment that is especially relevant.

7

K H 02.16.08 at 3:49 am

Ack. I meant to say, “to #4.”

8

John Emerson 02.16.08 at 3:52 am

There’s quite a lot on the Rand Corporation and its influence on the university, for example Mirowski’s “Machine Dreams”.

9

greg anrig 02.16.08 at 4:44 am

#6 (and #7). DemocracyArsenal.org, which The Century Foundation helped to launch, is the best example I know of of a group blog focusing on US foreign policy from a progressive prospective. Our prospectsforpeace.com, which is Daniel Levy’ blog co-sponsored by TCF and the New America Foundation, focuses on US policy toward the Middle East. U.S. policy toward Asia is a rich environment that we will try to fill soon, though someone I am unfamiliar with may already be at it.

10

Laleh 02.16.08 at 9:01 am

#6 and #7: In the blogosphere, http://www.justworldnews.com by Helene Cobban (a very well-experienced and well-connected journalist, Arabic-speaker, and Quaker) is quite a good (re)source for the Middle East. Also Abu Aardvark (though he is too happily “establishment” for me). For a hilarious radical anarchist reading of what happens in the Middle East, Angry Arab (angryarab.blogspot.com) is brilliant.

For a recent and mind-blowing book on US foreign policy in the Middle East (and a searing critique from the Left), try Robert Vitalis’s _America’s Kingdom_ (on US-Saudi historic relations). There is also a book edited by David Lesch on US foreign policy towards the Middle East which gets all the people who are in the know and critical together. If there is a recent revision of the book, it will give you the best sort of background you might need.

For Pakistan in the blogosphere, check out Chapati Mystery.

11

Maurice Meilleur 02.16.08 at 12:46 pm

‘[T]here are three forms of currency in the think tank world that make you a valuable player: bringing in money, getting press, and getting called to testify.’

It’s probably an obvious point, but it is so depressing that ‘being able to think’ and ‘getting it right’ are not on this list.

12

Sk 02.16.08 at 1:26 pm

“Even as they lay claim to an academic form of authority, for example, most report reading neither the major academic journals in their fields (much less devoting time or energy to publishing in them) nor attending academic conferences. Nevertheless, the assertion of scholarly detachment…”

What do ‘scholarly detachment’ and ‘reading…major academic journals..’ have to do with each other? Its a bizarre argument; you can’t be detached unless you read two or three specific magazines?

Believe it or not, there are other sources of information than Foreign Affairs magazine.

What a weird, insular argument.

Sk

13

Alison 02.16.08 at 2:24 pm

Here you go!!

I did a little preliminary research on this when I was thinking of thesis topics.

Rich, A., & Weaver, R. K. (2000). Think tanks in the US media. Press/Politics, 5(4), 81-103.

SHERRINGTON, P. (2000). Shaping the policy agenda: Think tank activity in the european union. Global Society, 14(2), 173-189.

STONE, D. (2000). Think tank transnationalisation and non-profit analysis, advice and advocacy. Global Society, 14(2), 153-172.

Stone, D. (2000). Non-governmental policy transfer: The strategies of independent policy institutes. Governance, 13(1), 45-70.

Stone, D. (2001). Think tanks, global lesson-drawing and networking social policy ideas. Global Social Policy, 1(3), 338-360.

Weaver, R. K. (1989). The changing world of think tanks. PS: Political Science and Politics, 22(3), 563-578.

14

Dan Nexon 02.16.08 at 3:01 pm

“one prominent wonk whom I’ve spoken to suggests that Klein’s blog played a quite substantial role in building the focal point for health policy reforms around which Edwards, Clinton and Obama’s campaigns have converged (obviously, this is not to say that Klein’s blog is the only factor).”

Really? I find this hard to believe given that (1) all three employ health-care policy people with independent expertise and (2) their plans represent a convergence that already existed among the center-left prior to Klein’s blogging.

Your source may be right, but you also might want to consider the Bourdieuvian (isn’t tht Bourdieuian?) incentives that wonks might have to credit other wonks for prominent policies….

15

Walt 02.16.08 at 3:07 pm

Yeah, sk, you tell them. What’s up with these scholars expecting people to be interested in scholarship? I mean, investment banks have people who follow the publications in academic finance journals, but hey that’s just money.

16

seth edenbaum 02.16.08 at 5:31 pm

“The duties of [MEMBERSHIP] give rise to an elaborate symbolic balancing act that commonly involves signaling similarities to and differences from actors in proximate institutions. This self-presentation pairs an announcement of scholarly detachment with a tacit willingness to abide by the established rules of the political field,”

Removing this from the context of the sentenced that followed, how is that any different than academia? All this assumes that there’s some absolute measure of “scholarly detachment” and that think tanks do more than vulgarize what is often already vulgar. Donnishness is a form of vulgarized prepackaged curiosity. My mother and father and her first husband were all in grad school together. She was fond of quoting E.M. Forster on the choice between friendship or the state, and both my parents were convinced her ex had lost any claim to intellectual seriousness well before he went to work in the White House.

I’m more flexible than my parents were. Language is slippery and there are no Platonic forms in social/political life. If there were Laleh would have no need to mention Asad AbuKhalil or Helena Cobbban, and Tony Judt would have no need to through a fit in the LRB.

Note that this change need not be a deliberately chosen strategy; a Bourdieuvian analysis might suggest instead a more complicated process of adjustment between the individual and the field that she is located in (I’ll note in passing that I’m not a Bourdieuvian myself, although I find aspects of Bourdieu’s work helpful in understanding this kind of phenomenon).

So Bourdieu is MoDo with a data set. Oy.

17

Barry 02.16.08 at 5:32 pm

One view of the ‘foreign policy community’ of wonks that I’ve seen in the blogosphere is that they are basically propagandists. In the case of the FPC, they are propagandists for the imperial project, so to speak. Given that viewpoint, O’Hanlon’s only problem is getting press; or rather, being able to get his columns and favorable interviews in print.

18

Miracle Max 02.16.08 at 5:49 pm

I haven’t read the paper, but I would be leery of generalizations about the tanks.

Brookings, AEI, Heritage, and Hudson regularly exchange top-level personnel with Administrations. AEI and Heritage are also a parking spot for hacks out of office, though both do some actual research, in AEI’s case some of it not bad. Brookings does a lot of good research, while Cato does interesting metaphysics.

Urban Inst trades scholarly, wonky types with their counterparts at the Congressional Budget Office. RAND does wonky stuff but I don’t see a lot of migration to and from. By contrast, TCF, EPI and IPS (like Cato) mostly operate outside of the revolving door.

Many organizations (self-) labeled think tanks do no research at all, but provide a roosting place for unemployed Republicans.

19

Witt 02.17.08 at 2:51 am

What a useful frame for looking at this phenomenon; thanks.

Some organizations have lately started calling themselves fact tanks, an interesting attempt to (apparently) distance themselves from the connotations attached to think tanks.

20

Henry 02.19.08 at 12:05 am

Have been remiss in responding here, but fwiw Medvetz does talk at some length about the differences between think tanks and their degree of wonkiness or lack of same – what he’s trying to do in a sense is to figure out what the politics are underlying the positioning of different institutions and people.

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