Following murky objects and hidden networks: The use of semi-structured interviews in a social network analysis of British think-tanks

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Think-tanks and their research staff are important actors within the policy-knowledge nexus. The world of think-tanks is murky; the organisations which nestle under the label ‘think-tank’ are, diverse and confusion abounds about their motives and professional status. This is because think-tanks are found within ‘spaces between fields,’ and draw upon symbols and practices from the more stable fields of politics, media, academia, and business. In this paper I report on the innovative use of semi-structured interviews as part of a social network analysis (SNA) of British think-tanks. I suggest this method brings clarity to the study of these ‘murky objects’ and the relations between them; provides a richer understanding of their intellectual life; and acts as a novel case study of the usefulness of mixed-method SNA.

Rather than using traditional name or position generators often used in social network research, I invited participants to ‘tell the story’ of their research project from inspiration to dissemination, mapping out alters using participant completed sociograms. Qualitative networks were then contrasted with quantitative organisational networks.

Generating networks through participants recounting a typical task allowed structure and meaning to be explored ‘in action’. This enabled the interview to go beyond the simple recording of weak or strong ties from name generating studies. It enabled me to elucidate the way in which these ties are found and cultivated, the conventions which underpin these relations, and how the think-tank researcher positions (and repositions) themselves within their diverse professional networks.

Elucidating personal repositioning and movement between alters was vital for transcending the simplistic images of the think-tank as either a value free expert ‘bridge’ between science and politics, or as a conduit for elite interests. The approach facilitated the mapping of the social space of the policy-knowledge nexus from the perspective of the interventions of intellectuals, rather than imposing a specific field onto their labour. This is a significant break with the structural approaches which have dominated the sociology of knowledge. Furthermore this method makes a strong case for the role of traditional qualitative methods in strengthening the findings derived from cutting edge quantitative methods.

Location: University of Bath
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventSouth West Qualitative Research Symposium: Third Annual Event - University of Bath, Bath, UK United Kingdom
Duration: 1 Feb 20171 Feb 2017


ConferenceSouth West Qualitative Research Symposium
Country/TerritoryUK United Kingdom


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