May 16, 2022

What Sociology Students Should Know about “Think Tanks”

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Have you ever heard the term “think tank” and wondered what it meant? It sounds like a locked glass room filled with smart people who just want to ponder life’s questions. That’s not entirely wrong (except, I assume, for the locked part).

A think tank is typically a nonprofit organization that focuses on a particular set of issues to make policy recommendations. They might study issues like inequalities in the job market, racial inequality, foreign policy, technology, and social change. They may be affiliated with a university, an advocacy group, or another organization, but they might also be stand-alone independents. (Here is a list of some of the major think tanks in the U.S.)

Think tanks often conduct original research, public opinion polling, or analyze data from other sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau of the Department of Labor, with the goal of informing policy makers and the public about specific issues. They publish reports that are often more engaging for lay readers than traditional academic research papers are, and they share their reports with the news media and the public.

Why should sociology students care about think tanks? For one, they might employ you someday!

Having a degree in sociology or a related social science field, especially an advanced degree, provides you with skills for data collection, data analysis, critical thinking, and an understanding of the roots of social problems. Being a good writer is also a great asset for a think tank, as is being able to communicate ideas orally and visually.

You might not want to be directly engaged in research or data analysis, but think tanks need many other types of employees, such as managers, fundraisers, grant writers, and public relations specialists. Your background in sociology will still be useful, and your day-to-day work will still incorporate the kinds of issues that may have drawn you to study sociology in the first place.

Even if you don’t see yourself working for a think tank, you might come across their research when writing a paper, and it is a good idea to understand an organization better before you use one of their reports as a reference. Even if you never cite a think tank’s report, you will likely hear about their research in the news if you are attuned to social issues, sometimes without even knowing the source of the data.

Some think tanks are explicitly nonpartisan, meaning they are not in any way connected with a political group or ideology. If you go to an organization’s website and click their “About” link it should be clear whether they identify as nonpartisan. Some, like Pew Research Center, do not make policy recommendations based on the data the collect or analyze. As they state in their mission section:

We generate a foundation of facts that enriches the public dialogue and supports sound decision-making. We are nonprofit, nonpartisan and nonadvocacy. We value independence, objectivity, accuracy, rigor, humility, transparency and innovation.

We study a wide range of topics including politics and policy; news habits and media; the internet and technology; religion; race and ethnicity; international affairs; social, demographic and economic trends; science; research methodology and data science; and immigration and migration.

Other think tanks do not refer to themselves as nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean that their work should be ignored or that it is necessarily “biased.” Instead, it is likely that the organization might be interested in some issues more than others. For instance, think tanks that focus on people in poverty might be identified as “left-leaning,” whereas those that are interested in issues related to taxation and free markets might be considered “right-leaning.” That doesn’t mean that the research itself should not be trusted, but instead that it is important to know about the organization’s overall ideological perspective.

A true “think tank” is interested in learning about social issues using the principles of good research methods, but it is important to look critically at how the data were gathered, knowing that advocacy might be part of the organization’s mission. There is nothing wrong with advocating for a particular position using data as the foundation for public policy, as long as the data collection process was conducted with integrity and for the purpose of learning more about an issue.

As a consumer of such information, it is your job to know the institution’s purpose and to critically consider whether the source is valuable. (Click here for a list of think tanks and their interests.) You might even use a source from a think tank that you might be critical of, while mentioning some critical considerations in your paper that the reader should keep in mind.

That said, it’s important to consider research that might not align with your own way of seeing the world. Good research can help us understand that social issues are more complicated than we may think.

So go ahead, check out some of the work that think tanks produce. You might even want to join one someday.

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