Bras. Political Sci. Rev.2017;11(2):e0006.

What are ‘Think Tanks’? Revisiting the Dilemma of the Definition

Juliana Cristina Rosa Hauck

DOI: 10.1590/1981-3821201700020006

‘Think tanks’ (TTs) are ‘sui generis’ organizations that have been proliferating, playing more and more the role of very relevant actors on the political scene in clashes over interests, preferences and ideas for the formation of public policies. The definition of ‘think tank’, however, creates a conceptual gap that causes serious limitations on the development of this field of study. Excessive generality or inflexibility in the use of the concept raises questions about the validity of the category. Either way, the ‘trade offs’ of the conceptual choices have delineated a not very useful concept of think tank to both inter-contextual and inter-organizational comparability and to differentiate think thanks from overlapping organizations. The article revisits some of these dilemmas. To do so, the treatment in the specialized literature of the analytic category, highlighting both the insensitivity of the traditional North American matrix to different national contexts and its obsolescence to the changes in the context of TTs’ action, including their own context of origin, is explained. In shedding light on promising conceptual contributions, the main contribution of the present article is the proposal of the radial structuring of the concept of think tanks as ‘boundary spanners’, as advanced by Medvetz, and of corresponding indicators to deal with the large variation in the substantive properties of the operationalization of the adopted concept. Thus, the aim is to reduce non-specificities in the analytic category and the dissent of its social significance, which demands less abstraction facing the exploratory state of the field of study.

What are ‘Think Tanks’? Revisiting the Dilemma of the Definition