The Symposium Think tanks as agenda setters took place at Stockholm University’s Department of Media Studies on June 2 and 3. Organized by Professor Sigurd Allern and Vice-Head of Department Ester Pollack, and sponsored by the Leading Research Environment “Global Media Studies and the Politics of Mediated Communication” (Director: Miyase Christensen), the Symposium addressed the role of think tanks in transnational politics.
The Symposium’s first session on June 2, introduced by Ester Pollack, brought together three internationally recognized researchers in the field of think tank studies. In her keynote address “Building a transnational think tank community – Atlas and neoliberalism”, Professor Marie-Laure Djelic (ESSEC Business School and Research Center on Capitalism, Globalization and Governance) raised the question of how a body of ideas is rendered into an influential knowledge regime with a transnational impact. Concerned with understanding the organizational and structural architectures that enable such a process, she presented a historical case study of the neoliberal think tank Atlas Economic Research Foundation (Atlas) and discussed its role in the establishment, coordination and integration of an expanding transnational neoliberal community. Professor Djelic showed how Atlas has grown into a strong network of around 400 member think tanks in more than 70 nations worldwide, and unpacked the strategies deployed by the organization over time in order to expand its influence by fostering the transnational proliferation of “secondhand dealers in ideas” that work to influence opinion making in the first place, and eventually policy-making.
In his keynote address “European austerity knowledge: think tank truth or bias?”, Doctor Dieter Plehwe (Inequality and Social Policy Research Unit, WZB Berlin Social Science Center) raised the question of whether austerity ideas in Europe as widely shared because they are right, or right because they are widely shared. Starting from the argument that a focus on think tanks makes it possible to bridge structural and ideational approaches to the dissemination of ideas, he introduced a study of the positions of networks of European think tanks regarding austerity discourses as compared with the position-taking of the party foundations with which they are connected to. According to the study, at present 54 European think tanks strongly advocate austerity politics.
In her keynote address “Think tanks as policy agenda setters?”, Associate Professor Adrienne Sörbom (Stockholm Centre for Organizational research, SCORE) referred to her work as part of the ongoing research project “Global Policy Brokers: The Role of Transnational Think Tanks in Setting Political Agendas”. She introduced a study of the World Economic Forum that combines an ethnographic approach and an organizational perspective in order to investigate how the think tank brokers ideas and knowledge for their transfer to other actors. Based on her findings, Ass. Prof. Sörborn argued that the World Economic Forum resorts to a distinct combination of networking and organizing in more structured ways in order to influence transnational policy-making, and in the process “organize the future” according to a specific worldview.
The keynotes were followed by a panel in which Daniel Suhonen from the Swedish think tank Katalys, Magnus Mardal from the Norwegian think tank Manifest and Professor Christian Christensen (Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University) discussed the issues raised in the keynotes.