Think tanks have been studied from different perspectives, described as follows in Parrilla, Almiron and Xifra (2016):

According to various scholars (e.g., Medvetz, 2012; Pautz, 2011; Stone, 1996; Thomas, 2004), pluralism and elitism are the two dominant theories on which researchers have mainly based their analysis of interest groups (lobbies and think tanks). The pluralist approach has been the most orthodox in the Anglo-American literature with regard to the role of interest groups in liberal democracies (Thomas, 2004). According to this theory, think tanks are one among many organizations competing to shape public policy in a political setting where policy making is the product of a dynamic interplay among organized interests. These interests may not have the same resources and goals, but there is ultimately a pluralist representation of views (e.g., McGann, 2007).

While in most pluralist accounts a proliferation of think tanks is a sign of progress in a democracy, those authors who adopt the elitist perspective stress that these organizations are neither neutral, disinterested actors devoted to the progress of knowledge nor competing equally in shaping public policies. The elitist approach derives from the elite theory tradition posited by U.S. political sociologist C. Wright Mills (1956). Accordingly, elitist authors consider that think tanks should be analysed as tools of the capitalist ruling class (e.g., Domhoff, 2010).

Besides pluralism and elitism, some other theories have also emerged, most notably institutionalism, neo-Marxism, political economy, and field theory. Institutionalism focuses on the environments (structures, rules, norms, and processes) that shape think tank behaviours. Institutionalists do not, however, consider social and economic control by elites to be the main feature of these shaping forces. Although they deem this framework to leave little scope for agency or independence, they consider that thinks tanks do not always serve the interests of capital (e.g., Stone, 1996).

The neo-Marxist perspective considers think tanks to be less the product of politic elites or societal agreements than of class-consciousness (Thomas, 2004). This approach assumes the centrality of class conflict in Marxist political economy. In this regard, it is worth highlighting Gramscian analysis of hegemonic control. Within this perspective, the ideological apparatus constrains the parameters of ideas, debate, and discourse in civil society and the state (Gramsci, 1971). Pautz, for instance, provides a neo-Gramscian understanding of think tanks. This author shows that cooperative networks have become influential in policy making; and that agency, ideas, power hierarchies, and context are relevant to think tanks’ effectiveness in shaping policies (Pautz, 2011).

Political economy approaches “have been used to understand interest groups from the early years of political science research” (Thomas, 2004: 54). However, critical political economy approaches to think tanks — that is, focusing not only on economics but also on power relations from a critical stance — are infrequent. Based on such an approach, McLevey’s (2014) research on the funding of Canadian think tanks suggests a complicated reality where think tanks are neither “the pawns of corporate-political donors nor representatives of many competing interest groups” (McLevey, 2014, p. 71). Furthermore, Medvetz (2012) performs a comprehensive analysis of U.S. think tanks that includes sociology, history, politics, economy, and media approaches. Medvetz’s critical political economy perspective leads him to a new paradigm, which he calls — after Bourdieu — “field theory.”

In field theory, the focus is on the complicated organizational and political environments in which think tanks operate and on their underlying dependencies on powerful sponsors. According to Medvetz (2012, p. 42), think tanks consistently depend on three types of client: political actors are needed “for the political access they can provide,” economic actors are needed “for financial support,” and the media are needed “for public visibility.” Additionally, think tanks exhibit strong academic links, although their commitment to academic rigour is dubious when they hold consistent political and economic servitudes. In light of this, it does not make sense to define think tanks according to their independence, as pluralist, elitist, and institutionalist approaches do.

Finally, discourse coalition theory is a critical approach developed to study institutional change and structural transformations beyond national confines. This theory has been applied to the study of interest groups, and particularly of think tanks, for instance by Dieter Plehwe. Plehwe (2011) defines discourse coalitions as “social forces acting jointly, though not necessarily in direct interaction, in pursuit of a common goal” (2011: 130). By studying these social forces, including think tanks, we can devise the national and transnational networks, institutionalized actor constellations and power relations of the hegemonic neoliberal discourse coalition at large. Like Medvetz, Plehwe (2011) urges adopting a sociological view, which does not isolate organizations from “the relevant societal circumstances” (2011: 131) taking place at the time.


All references in

Parrilla, R.; Almiron, N.; Xifra, J. (2016). Crisis and Interest: The Political Economy of Think Tanks During the Great Recession. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(3) 340–359.