#Awalkinthepark – “Think” tanks,  denialists, renewables and (neo)institutional theory

Four articles this time (one a re-read)

Zimmerman, E. 2016. Discursive Institutionalism and Institutional Change. In Zimmerman, E. 2016. Think Tanks and Non-Traditional Security. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

McKewon, E. 2012.  Talking Points Ammo: The use of neoliberal think tank fantasy themes to delegitimise scientific knowledge of climate change in Australian newspapers. Journalism Studies, Vol. 13 (2), pp. 277-297.

Genus, A. 2015. Institutions, discourses, and the promotion of renewable energy. WIREs Energy Environment. Vol. 5, pp. 119-12

Andrews-Speed, P. 2016. Applying institutional theory to the low-carbon energy transition.  Energy Research & Social Science, Vol. 13, pp.216-225.

Erin Zimmerman studied at the University of Adelaide (I think you’ll find all the smartest people did, #justsaying) and this book is based on her PhD.  I will possibly only read chapter 2 (#timeconstraints) but the whole thing looks fascinating, and is probably as good as this chapter.

The power of think tanks is contingent upon their ability to move ideas through political space and have these ideas accepted and acted upon by political actors. This necessitates an in-depth understanding of the dynamics undergirding ideational impact on the policy process.
(Zimmerman, 2015:16)

She takes a constructivist (discursive) understanding of their influence. She lays out the different institutionalisms nicely, adapts a lovely graph from Blyth (2002)

2015 think tank cycle zimmerman

(Zimmerman, 2015:19)

She argues that

DI is well-suited to the study of think tanks because it can acknowledge their positions both within and external to existing governing structures, as well as fully account for the expertise think tanks possess in conveying ideas. DI can be used to link ideas and institutions through discursive actors and clarifies how, by operating in the ‘middle’ of formal and informal process, think tanks can wield political influence.
(Zimmerman, 2015:23)

She tentatively comes down on Schmidt’s ‘side’ in the ongoing and useful Schmidt-Bell debate (see previous #walkinthepark posts) –

Upon closer reading, it appears that Bell’s discomfort with DI is based upon a simplified perception of the theory that overlooks the efforts of discursive institutionalists to situate ideas into their institutional contexts.
(Zimmerman, 2016:24)

The point is, of course, that these things (getting long term change) can take a looooong time. Which we don’t have anymore, I fear…

Institutionalised ideas influence policy for decades or even generations and sometimes outlive the circumstance which gave rise to their initial creation (adapted from Goldstein and Keohane 1993; Blyth 2002). Institutionalisation is, by far, the most permanent and politically contested outcome of ideational promotion. Networking, problem framing, agenda setting and creating discursive space are often used to build up the necessary political momentum prior to attempting institutionalisation.
(Zimmerman, 2016:39)

Similarly on think-tanks, Elaine McKewon wrote a very good paper on the japes and hi-jinx of Australia’s “Institute of Public Affairs”.  McKewon uses Borman’s Symbolic Convergence Theory.  What’s that? I’m glad you asked. Its

a general communication theory that offers an explanation for the process by which groups develop and share a symbolic reality. The process firstly involves the creation and sharing of stories, or fantasy themes, within small groups; the fantasy themes then chain out from person to person, and from group to group*often through the mass media*to create a shared social reality or rhetorical vision. The basic concept of SCT is the fantasy theme, which is a structured dramatic account of a real-world experience (Bormann, 1972). Fantasy theme is further defined as ‘‘the creative and imaginative shared interpretation of events that fulfills a group psychological or rhetorical need’’ (Bormann, 1985, p. 130). Fantasy themes are stories driven by dramatis personae*stock characters such as protagonists (i.e. heroes, victims) and antagonists (i.e. villains)*and are often grounded in the personality traits, moral codes and motives of the characters:
(McKewon, 2012: 28x)

She goes into good detail on how Ian Plimer’s “Heaven + Earth” was effectively shilled by IPA staffers and sympathisers, despite its manifest and manifold inadequacies.  She’s good on the creation of various front groups (Australian Environment Foundation, Australian Climate Science Coalition) and the classiness of people like the late Bob Carter.   She explains that in a 2003 article in the IPA’s “Review” magazine

“Carter joins forces with American sceptics who were escalating their attacks on climate scientists and the scientific consensus; here, he quotes a former President of the Mineralogical Society of America: ‘‘The idea that humans have significantly enhanced global warming is by far the most massive abuse of science that I have ever seen’’ (Ross, in Carter, 2003, p. 13). Carter’s own inflammatory rhetoric compares scientists to ‘‘sex workers’’ and accuses the entire field of climate scientists of fabricating environmental threats to procure government funding:

To capture government’s attention, and funding, requires the generation of a crisis in one of these politically sensitive areas . . . Thus did our venerable handmaiden, science, become a sex-worker. (Carter, 2003, p. 12)”
(McKewon, 2012: 288)

All in all, good stuff.  Since McKewon wrote this, the IPA has of course doubled-down, producing another “Climate Change: The Facts” book.  They’re painting themselves into a corner on this one, and the reputational embarrassment is going to be intense, and may even involve a renaming (but that’s the future, and prediction of it is tricky, eh?)


Genus’s article is more of a teaser/trailer than a full-fledged detailed explanation of the differences between UK and Germany on renewable energy success/failure.  The more extensive work he has done is

Genus A. Changing the rules? Institutional innovation and the diffusion of microgeneration. Technol Anal Strateg Manage 2012, 24:711–727.


Genus A, Theobald K. Creating low carbon neighbourhoods: a critical discourse analysis. Eur Urban Reg Stud 2014. doi:10.1177/0969776414546243.


Finally Philip Andrews-Speed has written a corker, imho.  Here’s the abstract –

The low-carbon energy transition is a form of socio-technical transition and, as such, it involves profound changes in the institutions that govern society. Despite the acknowledged importance of institutions in shaping the pace and nature of transition, a relatively small proportion of the academic literature on the topic applies institutional theory to the analysis of this transition in a systematic and detailed manner, and these accounts draw mainly on organizational and sociological institutionalism. This paper aims to demonstrate the benefits of applying a wider set of institutional theories to the study of the low-carbon energy transition. It draws principally, but not solely, on rational choice and historical institutionalism with selective reference being made to key concepts within social and organizational institutionalism as well as discursive institutionalism. The paper demonstrates the high degree of parallelism that exists between the literatures on socio-technical regimes and institutions, and also shows how the systematic application of institutionalism can provide a deeper understanding of socio-technical transitions. It concludes by outlining the main elements of a research agenda relating to the low-carbon energy transition.
(Andrews-Speed, 2016:216)

The aim of the paper is

“to respond to the calls to bring institutional theory further into the study of the low-carbon energy transition [1,2] by treating the energy sector as a socio-technical regime and examining how institutionalism can throw light on the processes involved in this transition.”
(Andrews-Speed, 2016:216)

There’s a crystal clear exposition of socio-technical transitions, (in transition management, and adaptive capacity, and then the four neo-institutional theories and what they might bring to the table.
Andrews-Speed uses “positive feedback” when he means I am pretty sure he means “negative feedback” (p. 220), but other than that there is not a foot wrong.

[Update 27 April – I am wrong, of course;  This from Carter and Jacobs, 2014:128]

Pressures for reform attract negative feedback from the policy sub-sector, creating a ‘friction’ that limits change to small incremental adjustments. But the opening of a window of opportunity can start a bandwagon or ‘cascade’ effect that provides positive feedback for new initiatives; the removal of the friction releases the pent-up pressure for change, sometimes resulting in major policy punctuations. But these periods of disequilibrium are brief: after change occurs, political attention shifts elsewhere and a new equilibrium evolves.

Andrews-Speed talks about how open societies are(n’t) to new ways of doing things with reference to “adaptive efficiency”

Behind the more ‘tangible’ requirements for a technologically innovative society [51,52] lies a softer attribute known as ‘absorptive capacity’ [53]. Absorptive capacity is needed to turn new ideas and techniques into technological progress. Without it, no amount of transferred or indigenously produced technology can be diffused and deployed across a nation. The absorptive capacity of an organization or a society is the ability to identify the value of new ideas or technologies, to introduce them into the organization and to use them to produce new products or services.
(Andrews-Speed, 2016:218)


North [3] captured the idea of openness to institutional change in his term ‘adaptive efficiency’ which refers to the willingness and ability of a society to acquire new knowledge, to innovate, to take risks through experimentation, and to eliminate unsuccessful political and economic organizations and institutions. In this respect, culture is seen as an important determinant of adaptive efficiency. For example, ideological conformity, whether rooted in history or imposed by dictatorship, may reduce a society’s adaptive efficiency.

(Andrews-Speed, 2016:220)

There’s much more – you should read this article, dear reader. That research agenda promised in the abstract?

Following this logic, an effective analysis of the low-carbon energy transition at the level of a nation or sub-national region should seek to address the following non-exclusive list of questions:
1 What is the general nature of the embedded institutions such as societal values and norms, and how does this shape such attributes as preference for conformity, impersonal trust, willingness to change behavior, and potential for collective action?
2 What is the general nature of the prevailing political, economic and legal systems (i.e., the institutional environment) and how does this shape policy discourse, policy making and policy implementation in general and in the energy sector in particular?
3 How does the nature of the institutional environment shape the distribution of agency and interest among actors, the openness to competition for ideas, and willingness to experiment?4 What are the prevailing policy paradigms that shape the governance of energy, what are their origins, and how open are they to change?
(Andrews-Speed, 2016:223)

Should keep us all busy as the atmospheric carbon accumulates, the oceans acidify and the consequences of our past inaction catch up with us.  Insert Benjamin on Klee’s Angelus Novus about here

4 thoughts on “#Awalkinthepark – “Think” tanks,  denialists, renewables and (neo)institutional theory

Add yours

  1. This: ‘by operating in the ‘middle’ of formal and informal process, think tanks can wield political influence.
    (Zimmerman, 2015:23)’

    …reminds me of this bit about thinktanks in the USA:

    ‘The period after 1970 saw a momentous transformation among think tanks along two dimensions: first, the crystallization of a distinct “interstitial field,” a structurally intermediate system of relations in which think tanks vie over the means of producing relevant policy-knowledge; ‘

    as well as this:
    ‘The formation of a bounded space of think tanks was accompanied by the emergence of the “policy expert,” a hybrid intellectual who incorporates contradictory skills and sensibilities from the proximate social worlds that brought think tanks into being: academics, politics, business, and journalism.’

    Excerpts above taken from summary of a dissertation here:


    Tom Medvetz

    Tom Medvetz studies political sociology and the sociology of knowledge and intellectuals with an emphasis on the political role of experts in the United States. His dissertation, “Think Tanks and the Production of Policy-Knowledge in America,” examines the history and present-day effects of American public policy research centers, or “think tanks.”

    I’ve read his book based on this dissertation…Medvetz analysis includes some effective diagrams explaining the position of thinktanks among the other players.

    1. When I say ‘best’ to characterize Medvetz’s diagram, I mean in terms of his diagrams’ usefulness for enabling lay people like me to understand his text. Because I have probably only a primitive grasp of a lot of his text and of the content you’re sharing in this posts, I really need pictures.

      1. thanks for the heads up on that work! V. useful. Diagrams of this stuff I have been blogging about are coming, I promise!

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