Do Business-Backed Think Tanks Represent Class Interests? The Co-evolution of Policy Learning and Economic Elites in the Canadian Knowledge Regime

AuthorJulien Landry
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/00953997211065340
Published date01 August 2022
Date01 August 2022
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/00953997211065340
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(7) 1305 –1327
© The Author(s) 2021
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DOI: 10.1177/00953997211065340
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Article
Do Business-Backed
Think Tanks Represent
Class Interests? The
Co-evolution of Policy
Learning and Economic
Elites in the Canadian
Knowledge Regime
Julien Landry1
Abstract
Business-backed think tanks are often presented as representing the
interests of economic elites. This article provides a more nuanced
argument by using field theory to present the co-evolutionary dynamics
between economic elites and other social forces. Three Canadian think
tanks are examined to illustrate how different social forces can converge
around business-backed think tanks, and how governance contexts and
institutions shape these relationships. The paper also reflects on the kinds
of learning these think tanks can enable depending on the kinds of actors
that converge around them and on the forms of power that these actors
represent.
Keywords
think tanks, business elites, learning, co-evolution, field theory, Canada
1University of Ottawa Faculty of Social Sciences, ON, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Julien Landry, University of Ottawa Faculty of Social Sciences, 120 University Private, Social
Sciences Building, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5, Canada.
Email: jlandry_06@hotmail.com
1065340AAS0010.1177/00953997211065340Administration & SocietyLandry
research-article2021
1306 Administration & Society 54(7)
Actors and institutions and the forms of power and knowledge they produce
constantly shape how governance systems mediate policy learning and the
kinds of discourses and knowledge that will be considered salient and author-
itative in decision-making. One enduring question regarding this relationship
between social orders and knowledge is the extent to which the holders of
economic power shape the supply of dominant policy advice in modern capi-
talist democracies. A related albeit narrower question is whether policy anal-
ysis units like think tanks represent business interests (Alam, 2021; Hauck &
Resende, 2021; Plehwe, 2021; Salas-Porras, 2021).
Although they are broadly understood to be organizations specialized in
the production and dissemination of knowledge and expert discourse on pub-
lic policy, think tanks maintain strong ties with various clients, donors, and
allies, and their views on policy are often congruent or aligned with the pol-
icy goals, preoccupations, and desiderata of those that make up their support
network (Landry, 2020; Medvetz, 2012b; Plehwe, 2014; Stahl, 2016). Among
these alignments, the relationship between think tanks and business donors
and allies is often portrayed as particularly important, especially when these
organizations advance research and outreach programs that appear to endorse
the views and interests of their corporate benefactors, such as in the case of
climate skepticism (Dunlap & Jacques, 2013; Jacques et al., 2008; Plehwe,
2014).
The relationship between think tanks and economic and political elites
have garnered attention for some time (e.g., Carroll & Shaw, 2001; Domhoff
& Dye, 1987; Peschek, 1987; Salas-Porras & Murray, 2017a; Saloma, 1984).
Neo-Gramscian theories of class hegemony and elitist theories of power
inspired by Marxism often suggest a thorough integration of economic inter-
ests and the positions worked out by political and intellectual elites.
Theoretical and commonsense perspectives on think tanks have at times
reduced these organizations to instruments of the ruling class—adopting
roles of coordination and propaganda (Domhoff & Dye, 1987). This view
may improve upon depictions of think tanks as autonomous agents of civil
society (e.g., Newsom, 1996; Polsby, 1983). However, it has been criticized
for portraying elites as overly cohesive (Fischer, 1993, p. 34), and it pre-
cludes a thorough analysis of the relative autonomy of political and intellec-
tual power from the infrastructure of economic relations (see Bourdieu,
1985). Experts, scholars, and intellectuals have various interests but they are
in many ways different from the interests of material gain or political power
inherent to other spheres of life (Bourdieu, 1984, 2000).
A framework designed to assess the co-evolution of elite social systems
(as opposed to their assimilation) could help grasp the complex interrela-
tionships between think tanks and their support networks in a way that

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