Tom Medvetz

Tom Medvetz studies political sociology and the sociology of knowledge and intellectuals with an emphasis on the political role of experts in the United States. His dissertation, “Think Tanks and the Production of Policy-Knowledge in America,” examines the history and present-day effects of American public policy research centers, or “think tanks.”

Drawing on archival records, in-depth interviews, original statistical data, and first-hand observations, Medvetz’s dissertation investigates think tanks, the growing breed of organization whose intellectual pronouncements have recently become a fixture of national public debate. Part I traces the early 20 th century emergence of non-profit policy research institutes, the forerunners of the think tank. It then documents the formation of the “think tank” category in the middle part of the century and the proliferation and transformation of think tanks after 1970. Part II examines the present-day anatomy and structural location of the think tank universe by developing both an objectivist topography of the social space they inhabit and a constructivist phenomenology of the “policy expert.” The dissertation concludes with a case study of the role of think tanks in public debates surrounding poverty and welfare policy from 1964 to 1996.

The study finds that think tanks are defined by their structural hybridity, having emerged out of a collaboration among political, economic, and cultural elites who put aside differences of outlook and style to pursue common political objectives. However, far from an equal partnership, this project required a set of knowledge producers willing to subordinate their intellectual production to the established rules of the political field and the priorities of their sponsors. The period a fter 1970 saw a momentous transformation among think tanks along two dimensions: first, the crystallization of a distinct “interstitial field,” a structurally intermediate system of relations in which think tanks vie over the means of producing relevantpolicy-knowledge; second, the growing dependence of think tanks on holders of political and economic power for material support and symbolic legitimation. The formation of a bounded space of think tanks was accompanied by the emergence of the “policy expert,” a hybrid intellectual who incorporates contradictory skills and sensibilities from the proximate social worlds that brought think tanks into being: academics, politics, business, and journalism.

The dissertation concludes with a case study showing that t he proliferation of think tanks was one of the major structural transformations facilitating the discursive shift that established “dependency” and “personal responsibility” as the core problems of welfare reform, the narrow symbolic confines within which policymakers worked to achieve policy solutions in the 1990s. This analysis of think tanks in situ points to a novel argument about their political effects: namely, that the major impact of think tanks lies paradoxically in their anti-intellectualism, or their structural role in reducing the effect that more independently produced social scientific knowledge has on the terms, content, and direction of American public debate.

This study was conducted with funding support from the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  Medvetz’s research has been published in the journal Politics & Society.

Tom Medvetz CV

Paper: The Strength of Weekly Ties: Relations of Material and Symbolic exchange in the Conservative Movement

Paper: Hybrid intellectuals: Toward a theory of think tanks and public policy experts in the United States