What Sociology Students Should Know About Think Tanks

What Sociology Students Should Know About Think Tanks
Written by admin

Karen Sternheimer

Have you ever heard the term think tank and wondered what it means? It sounds like a locked glass room full of smart people who just want to reflect on life’s issues. This is not entirely wrong (except for the locked part, I think).

An expert group is usually a non-profit organization that focuses on a specific set of questions to make policy recommendations. They can explore issues such as labor market inequality, racial inequality, foreign policy, technology and social change. They may be affiliated with a university, a group of lawyers, or another organization, but may also be independent individuals. (Here is a list of some of the major U.S. centers of expertise)

Expert groups often conduct original research, public opinion polls, or analyze data from other sources, such as the U.S. Department of Labor Census Bureau, to inform policy makers and the public about specific issues. They publish reports that often involve secular readers more than traditional academic research, and share their messages with the media and the public.

Why should sociology students care about expert groups? First, they can ever hire you!

A degree in sociology or a related field of social sciences, especially higher education, provides you with skills in data collection, data analysis, critical thinking, and understanding the roots of social issues. Being a good writer is also a big advantage for a team of experts, as is the ability to communicate thoughts orally and visually.

You may not want to engage directly in research or data analysis, but expert teams need a lot of other staff, such as managers, fundraisers, grant writers, and public relations professionals. Your sociology education will still be useful, and there will still be problems in your daily work that allowed you to study sociology in the first place.

Even if you don’t think you’re working in a team of experts, you may come across their research when writing a paper, so it’s worth understanding the organization better before using one of their reports as a reference. Even if you never cite an expert group report, you’ll probably hear about their research in the news if you’re familiar with social issues, sometimes without even knowing the source of the data.

Some expert groups are clearly non-partisan, meaning they have nothing to do with a political group or ideology. If you go to an organization’s website and click on its “About” link, it should be clear that they are not biased. Some, such as the Pew Research Center, do not provide policy recommendations based on the data collected or analyzed. As they say in their mission section:

We create a factual framework that enriches public dialogue and helps us make informed decisions. We are non-profit, non-partisan and non-advocacy. We value independence, objectivity, accuracy, rigor, humility, transparency and innovation.

We study a variety of topics, including politics and politics; news habits and media; internet and technology; religion; race and ethnicity; International relationship; social, demographic and economic trends; science; research methodology and data science; and immigration and migration.

Other experts do not consider themselves non-partisan, but this does not mean that their work should be ignored or necessarily biased. Instead, it is likely that the organization may be interested on some issues more than others. For example, expert groups that focus on people living in poverty may be seen as ‘left-wing’, while those with an interest in tax and free market issues may be seen as ‘right-wing’. This is not to say that one cannot trust the research itself, but it is important to know about the overall ideological perspective of the organization.

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 data was collected, knowing that advocacy can be part of an organization’s mission. There is nothing wrong with advocating for a particular position using data as a basis for public policy if the data collection process has been conducted in good faith and to learn more about the problem.

It is your job as a user of such information to know the purpose of the institution and to critically assess whether the source is valuable. (Click here for a list of expert groups and their interests.) You can even use a source from the expert group that you can criticize, along with mentioning some important considerations that the reader should keep in mind.

Also, it’s important to consider research that may not match your own way of seeing the world. Good research can help us understand that social problems are more complex than we might think.

So go ahead, take a look at some of the work the team is doing. You may even want to join them someday.

About the author


Leave a Comment