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Think Tank Sociology

- February 15, 2008

“Moira Whelan”:http://www.democracyarsenal.org/2008/02/ohanlon-and-thi.html 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”:http://www.socialsciences.cornell.edu/0609/Medvetz.hybrid.pdf (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 Medvetz 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”:http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=12003. 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”:http://www.salon.com/opinion/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 …