Think Tanks As Public Intellectuals? Recent Developments in the Sociology of Think Tanks

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 9:00 AM
Room: 413
Oral Presentation
Marcos GONZALEZ-HERNANDO , Sociology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
This paper’s aim is to contribute to the sociological literature on think tanks by drawing insights from the sociology of intellectuals. I first proceed by describing and establishing links between some of the latest contributions stemming from sociology and political science: Tom Medvetz’s Bourdieusian framework and Hartwig Pautz’s neogramscian approach. From there, a discussion ensues on the potentialities and limits of those perspectives to study intellectual change, independence and stability within think tanks. Herein positioning theory, previously used to study public intellectuals (Baert) becomes relevant, as it highlights the relationship between a public intervention, its context and other actors. In the case of think tanks, it highlights how these organisations must “juggle with” diverse forms of resources and experts within and outside themselves, criss-crossed by institutional and economic constraints. Since within think tanks individuals and institutions are enmeshed in various public debates and connect to a range of people and organisations, alliances are crystallised in the public sphere through the think tank’s intellectual reputation (and the form we understand a think tank’s intellectual function: based on technocratic expertise, on being a critical voice, etc.). These resources can in turn be mobilised in the form of allegiances and distances, economic constraints and intellectual resources. This reputation thus becomes a think tank’s greatest asset, its depository of symbolic capital. A public intervention is therefore an exercise of weaving together the intellectual image of a think tank, “talking”, as it were, through its experts in every public intervention and across platforms and publics. This stretches the concept of cognitive autonomy in interesting ways, as organisations themselves generate an image vis-à-vis the image of those who talk on its behalf. In order to exemplify this I expose the case of the British think tank “New Economics Foundation”.