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Tank-thoughts from Think-tanks

Metaphors constraining development of global governance (Part #1)

This paper was subsequently the basis for a slide presentation on behalf of the Union of International Associations, with Nadia McLaren, for a Workshop on Networking the Future: Think Tanks and Building a European Knowledge Platform (Conference on the Futures of Europeans in the Global Knowledge Society,*Louvain-la-Neuve, 13-14 April 2005)
Fish tank
Battle tank
Reservoir tank
Holding tank
Septic tank
Sensory deprivation tank
Cultivation tank
Simulation tank
Integrative perspective: configuring the set of tank metaphors

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It is from "think-tanks" that the new understandings of the challenges of world society and global governance are now widely assumed to emerge. As the working environments of the "best and the brightest", they are the source of new policy options valued by governments. In particular right-wing think-tanks have been the source of the policy inspiration for the emergent American Empire and the strategies to ensure its predominance. Concerns expressed regarding the "intellectual failure" suggested by the recourse to force in Iraq presumably reflect their inability to formulate viable alternatives -- a weakness shared by all think-tanks from within the Coalition of the Willing. [more]

Think-tanks are often created, or linked to, more conventional institutions -- typically universities, corporations, governments, political parties or other bodies. In the status competition between institutions, creation of a think-tank may well signal a capacity to act as an attractor for intellectual excellence. think-tanks tend to pride themselves on their interdisciplinarity -- in contrast to universities -- and possibly their intercultural and international qualities.

The web provides many resource pages linking to such bodies [more; more; more; more; more]. In particular, NIRA's World Directory of Think Tanks provides a systematic introduction to the world's most prominent and innovative public policy research institutes, better known as think-tanks. The 2002 edition contains information on 320 selected think-tanks from 77 countries and regions.

Such environments may well have been carefully designed to optimize certain processes -- and may do so successfully in the light of quantitative criteria of productivity: titles published, patents, value of contracts or grants, awards, etc. The concern here however is whether there is a particular quality to the think-tank environment that, beyond political affiliations, may limit or distort conceptual processes relevant to global governance.

Work on the role of metaphor, notably by George Lakoff and colleagues (Metaphors We Live By, 1980), explores in particular the unforeseen cognitive effects of use of the "container metaphor". Given that "tank" is indeed a form of container, there is a case for exploring how the term "think-tank" may inadvertently be affecting the way in which conceptualization is sought, undertaken and delivered from such environments. It is however important to recognize the degree to which "think-tank" may be an externally applied label to a range of institutions that may not perceive or define themselves in terms of "tank". This does not detract from the consequences of such bodies being treated by their clients as "think-tanks" -- imposing upon them a requirement to think "within the tank" rather than "out of the box", as some might otherwise believe to be necessary if the much-sought "new thinking" is to become available.

The work of Gareth Morgan (Images of Organisation, 1986) has also proved to be seminal in describing the 8 metaphors through which organizations tend to be viewed: Machine, Organism, Brain, Culture, Political System, Psychic Prison, Flux and Transformation, and Instrument of Domination. In this light, operating in any one of these metaphors of course reveals its own truth. The question is what are the truths revealed by operating in relation to the metaphors associated with a "think-tank"?

The exploration here follows from an earlier and more general paper (Missiles, Missives, Missions and Memetic Warfare: Navigation of strategic interfaces in multidimensional knowledge space, 2001) and from previous work on metaphor and governance (see Metaphor as a Language for Global Governance, 1993; Governance through Metaphor Project).

In the spirit of Gareth Morgan's inquiry, the following sections explore the implications for strategic thinking due to understanding a think-tank as being in some way patterned on any of 8 "tank" metaphors: fish tank (aquarium), battle tank, police holding tank, septic tank, gas tank, sensory deprivation tank, cultivation tank, or simulation tank. In a final section, as a tentative exercise, these individual tank metaphors are interrelated in a framework to highlight patterns of commonality and complementarity in think-tank operation.

The concern here is that, with whichever interpretation, a "tank" is merely a form of box filled with water. Whether their occupants or clients desire it or not, a "think-tank" will then tend to produce "tank thoughts" that are very much "in the box" rather than "out of the box".

Branding Thintanks

There are two main types of thinktank brand. Those that favour the Greco-Roman effect of classical names - Localis, Politeia, the Fabian Society, Civitas, Demos - in a bid to conjure the image of ancient systems of governance and wise philosophers. And those that have adopted the prefix "new". Gravitas by name In the world of thinktanks, the really serious brainpower goes into the right branding Ellie Levenson The Guardian, 28 June 2004

anding Ellie Levenson The Guardian, 28 June 2004

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