International Online Conference: Insights into Think Tanks (August – October 2015)

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published at On Think Tanks. It introduces the International online conference: Methodologies for Researching Think Tanks, a series of webinars to be held between August and October 2015. You can use this hashtag to address the issue in social media: #studyingthinktanks.]



Think tanks, or policy institutes, are garnering ever more attention within the public debate, and have become major actors across several polities. Thus, in the last years there has been a growing interest in researching these organisations, particularly within Sociology and Political Science. As such, there have been several efforts in understanding what they are and what they do: from the perspective of their work and impact in policymaking (be it in healthcare, education, foreign policy, etc.); their role as public intellectuals and in the ‘battle of ideas’; from the standpoint of the national and international networks they are part of; and from the point of view of their funding and organisational structure, to name but a few.

Conversely, several methodological approaches could and have been applied to study these institutions. Researchers have focused on their intellectual output, policy impact and its members, on their funders, political allies and presence across the media landscape. One could employ a network analysis, critical discourse analysis, or grounded theory approach to study them, across reports, blog posts, interviews, surveys or tweets.


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 that ensue. 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.

To add another layer of complexity to the debate, think tanks are no longer seen as a North American or European phenomenon. They exist in every region (and, possibly, country) in the world. There they take different organizational arrangements that allow them to perform the kind of functions that we have come to associate with think tanks.

These issues will be addressed in a short discussion paper, to be shared during a pre-launch event in London in August 2015 (see below). Using concepts associated with the sociological approach of field analysis, an alternative approach to what a think tanks is will be put forward as a working description for the conference.

Objectives of the international online conference

Hence, this series of international webinars seeks to bring together academics studying think tanks and practitioners in worlds of think tanks (as well as in politics, economics, the media, business and others) with the purpose of learning about, comparing approaches and sharing insights into the advantages and shortcomings of different ways of understanding and researching these organisations.

The series also expects to help researchers connect with each other.

The series will aim to address some of the following:

  • How to study the effect of context over think tanks’ business models and strategies?
  • How to assess or evaluate the performance of individual think tanks –as well as think tank communities?
  • How to assess the impact of think tanks or their contribution to society?

The focus of the webinars should be the method and tools used to address these challenges –participants should feel comfortable in their theoretical and practical understanding of the methods and tools as to be able to replicate them. They could include:

  • Social Network Analysis
  • Case studies
  • Political economy analysis
  • Historical studies
  • Organisational assessments
  • Ethnographic studies
  • Action Research
  • and others


The organisers of this conference are:

  • Enrique Mendizabal, Founder On Think Tanks
  • Marcos Gonzalez-Hernando, PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge
  • Jordan Tchilingirian, PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge
  • Andrea Ordoñez, Research Coordinator for Southern Voice and Research Fellow at UNU-MERIT

Their main tasks involve reviewing the submissions from prospective presenters and chairing each of the sessions.

Additional support is provided by Daniel Boyco, Research and Communications Officer at On Think Tanks, Jeff Knezovich, Nuffield Trust and partner at On Think Tanks, and Leandro Echt, partner at On Think Tanks.

All are participating voluntarily and any associated costs are covered by On Think Tanks thanks to the support of the Hewlett Foundation and Universidad del Pacífico (Peru).

Who can and how to participate?

Anyone interested in the study of think tanks can participate. While some will do so as panelists, others may simply join in the webinars to listen-in, comment, or engage during a post-webinar discussion.

The organisers encourage researchers, students and practitioners to submit an application. We are partially interested in giving PhD students and young researchers a platform to share their work and connect to their peers and to those interested in the outcomes of their research.

Although 7 sessions have been planed more could be added, as the format is flexible. Even if the application is not considered for any of the webinars, the methodology brief will be shared through the site.

How to participate?

This conference is intended to bring together researchers studying think tanks across the world. Experienced academic researchers as well as students or consultants can apply to participate.

If you would like to participate as a panelist please:

  • Send an application (in English, sorry) by 31 July 2015 (mid-night BST) to dboyco [at], including:
  • A brief bio (up to 200 words max) of yourself as well as links to any research you have undertaken focused on think tanks (this will be shared with all participants)
  • A methodology brief (1,200 words max) describing your method or approach to studying think tanks. This brief will be published. The brief must have the following sections:
    1. Name of the method and/or tool
    2. Description of the method and/or tool and how to use it, including: objectives, description of the method and practicalities (see examples)
    3. Further resources – i.e. references and links for anyone who would like to know more about it.
    4. Besides your method or tool what other method or tool would you like to learn about? (This will help choose among the proposals to present).

Please use the linked examples as a guide when preparing your submissions –use the same sections and style. We are all volunteering to do this and it will save us a lot of time when comparing the proposals and preparing them for publication.

The series is planned to last two months (September and October) with 5 thematic sessions. The organisers are looking for a minimum of 3 additional methods to the 2 already identified below. Depending on demand, however, the series can be expanded to accommodate more presentations. It is possible that applications relating to the same method could be bright together during a session.

Successful applicants will be asked to submit their presentation two weeks in advance of their webinar. Please use the presentation in linked as an example. You will be expected to present for about 15 minutesand then engage in a conversation.

The webinar will accessible via On Think Tanks: and details on how to sign up will be provided in due course to those who subscribe.

If you would like to join the webinar discussions please keep an eye on the blog by subscribing using the widget on the right, adding your comments to this post below, or signing up here for further announcements on how to register for all or each webinar. Participation is free.

If you would like to support this effort please do get in touch: or @onthinktanks. we are always keen to collaborate.

Outline of the series

The first 3 sessions have been pre-defined by the organisers as a way to ensure minimum content. These provide a taste of what is to come.

Each panel will involve at least one researcher and practitioners to provide initial commentary. Participants will be able to ask questions before the webinar (the paper will be shared in advance) and via a web-chat facility during the webinar itself. All will be recorded to be shared afterwards.


August 11 2015: 1pm British Summer Time (BST) Location: London, exact location to be confirmed – Pre-Launch Public Event in London: Approaching a murky subject: what is a think tank?

This pre-launch session provides an opportunity to present and debate the discussion paper to be developed for the conference. The event will include a round table discussion on different approaches to define and describe think tanks in different contexts.

It will also offer the chance to present the sessions of the webinar series starting on September 7. Background materials to the presentations and the panelists will be shared with those present and more widely through the web.

This pre-launch session will be web-streamed to allow for global participation.

The online conference

September 7 2015; 1pm BST – Session 1: A research agenda on think tanks: striking a balance between theory and practice. Prof. Tom Medvetz in discussion with think tank leaders and think tank funders from around the world.

This session offers a unique opportunity to learn from those who will consume research on think tanks. Tom Medvetz, renowned think tanks scholars, will chair a conversation with think tank leaders and funders. The session will set the scene for the rest of the series.

It will outline the questions about think tanks that we would like to answer.

The following sessions will present an opportunity to learn about how to answer these questions.

September 14 2015; 1pm BST – Session 2: Case studies, qualitative methods and diachronic perspectives Marcos Gonzalez-Hernando (University of Cambridge)

Those who wish to generalise about think tanks face at least three important hurdles. Firstly, their remarkable institutional diversity. Secondly, the high degree of instability of these organisations, which depend to a great degree on the movements and expertise of key individuals. Finally, the richness of the data available about them and what they advocate for (across policy reports, parliamentary advice, blogs, media appearances, etc). Consequently, this session will explore how studies of think-tanks have relied on an array of qualitative methods – including interviews, ethnography, document analysis – to study these organisations from a closer perspective. I will argue that qualitative methods are especially well-suited when attempting to describe changes through time, which, importantly, in the case of think tanks generally take both an institutional and an intellectual form.

For more information on this method: Case studies, qualitative methods and diachronic perspectives

September 21 2015; 1pm BST – Session 3: Think-tanks and social network analysis Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Cambridge)

Social network analysis (SNA) is the visualisation and measuring of relationships between a set of actors, be they computers, websites, cities, people, tribes, organisations and even think tanks. For many, the term is closely associated with social media. However, SNA is in fact a powerful tool which enables researchers to uncover important actors, discover coalitions, understand how resources (be they ideas, information, cash) move or are blocked, and even explore how diseases and technological innovations spread through a population.

This session will look at how social network analysis can be applied to the political world and to public policy research. It starts by introducing the foundational concepts of social network analysis and the practical and ethical issues related to its research design. The focus then moves to the several innovative ways political scientists and sociologists have used SNA, which have delivered findings other methods might have missed. The session ends with a case study of how SNA has been employed in the study of British think-tank networks, in order to uncover potentially important actors in the process of policy-knowledge creation.

For more information on this method: Think-tanks and social network analysis

September 28 2015: 1pm BST – Session 4: tbd


October 5 2015; 1pm BST – Session 5: tbd


October 12 2015; 1pm BST – Session 6: tbd


October 19 2015; 1pm BST – Session 7: A research agenda for the future 


The series will be recorded and a digital and multimedia report will be developed for each session as well as for the series.

The reports and all relevant resources will be available online.

You can follow its progress on On Think Tanks as well as via its Facebook Page or Twitter:#studyingthinktanks

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