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Book Review: James G. McGann with Richard Sabatini (2011), Global Think Tanks: Policy Networks and Governance

This is the first of a series of book reviews in which we ask an academic and a student to review the same work. Suggestions of books to review are welcome.


James G. McGann with Richard Sabatini (2011), Global Think Tanks: Policy Networks and Governance, Abingdon: Routledge
Global Institutions Series, 170pp.
ISBN: 978-0-415-77978-4 (hardback), 978-0-415-77979-1 (paperback)


As academics across the UK are seeking to demonstrate the benefits and impact of their research in preparation for the forthcoming 2013 Research Excellence Framework, this latest addition to Routledge's consistently excellent Global Institutions series could hardly be timelier. Global think tanks, however they may be defined, provide a means by which academics can speak 'truth to power' and inform the policymaking process with their expertise. However, like the work they do, they themselves are often overlooked and under-researched despite their dramatic increase in number after the end of the Cold War. As the opening to this book states: 'ideas are powerful, but in a world of increasingly diverse and globalized sources of information the good ideas can be lost' (p. 1). This contribution provides the perfect starting point for further investigation of how and why this may happen, in addition to how it can be addressed in an attempt to bridge the 'gap between the world of ideas and the world of policy where academics and policymakers are defined by different organizational cultures' (p. 3).

The idea of this series as a whole is to provide a one-stop, easily accessible and sensibly priced overview of a particular institution or issue of global governance that appeals to a broad church of readers from students to academics to policymakers. The series is fast approaching its fiftieth edition with many more in the pipeline which provide readers with an understanding of institutions from the World Bank to FIFA, and of issues from global poverty to maritime piracy. It is incredible to think that this series is only five years old as this averages approximately ten publications each year; the editors are to be applauded for their hard work and ability to discern gaps that might exist in the series. This particular contribution covers another important base and for that reason alone it is to be welcomed but there are other reasons for praising this book in its own right.

Both authors are seasoned observers of the development of think tanks and their pedigree shows. There is something of a Tardis-like quality to the book in that although it may be brief, the authors manage to pack a lot of information into just over 150 pages. It is organized into six chapters in addition to an introduction and conclusion that take the reader through the definitions, roles, scope, structure, experience and challenges faced by a range of global think tanks. Tables, figures and an annotated bibliography assist the reader further in navigating these issues. Although the authors are quite right to contend that 'think tanks are an American invention, and their development is largely an American phenomenon' (p. 35), this reader was particularly relieved to see that the use of the word 'global' in the title was true to its word and the focus is not placed solely on North American think tanks to the exclusion of think tanks based in other regions of the world.

Pedantic readers might focus on some repetitious passages and typos but to do so would be unfair and distract any potential readers from the utility and contribution of this book both individually and as part of a reliably high-quality series. I fear that as an undergraduate and postgraduate – and even today if I am being honest – I have probably wasted too many hours trying to understand an institution or issue through opaque and impenetrable analyses. This book and the series as a whole are most welcome as a digestible starting-point for further investigation which strikes the right balance between detail and concision.

- Professor Hugo Dobson, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield



'The world has simply become too complex; its problems are too complicated and diverse for policy makers [to deal with] on their own' (p. 141). Students of political science are becoming increasingly familiar with governments and political parties brandishing the work of think tanks in support of their arguments, yet comparatively little attention is devoted to the study of these organisations as ends in themselves. Global Think Tanks fills this gap in the literature by casting light on the increasingly important roles performed by think tanks at domestic, regional and global levels, providing both novices and veterans of the study of policy-making processes and global institutions with a robust and nuanced overview of the diverse categories and functions they perform.

Much like the think tanks themselves, this book targets a broad audience, bridging the gap between academia and the public policy-making process itself, and, accordingly, the reader is left with the impression that this book has something for everyone. I was pleased to find that the authors have made a particular effort to introduce think tanks in a manner that guides readers in a systematic and logical way, even those who know relatively little even about domestic think tanks and the policy process.

McGann and Sabatini start from the position that ideas have become pivotal to the study of how we define and conduct politics. The intricate processes that shape our world can at times seem impenetrable to students and academics alike, with the sheer number of actors and interests involved. As they point out, 'ideas are powerful, but in a world of increasingly diverse and globalized sources of information the good ideas can be lost' (p. 1), and this, too, can often be the case with the institutions which make up global society. The authors ask questions relating to what functions are performed by think tanks at present; they also theorise as to what functions they could perform in the future, in a culturally sensitive account. It is evident that they are eager to avoid the perils of Western ethnocentrism in their analyses and prescriptions.

The overall structure of the book is logical, and it is written in a fluent manner which is widely accessible; a particularly useful case study of policy-making in the United States (chapter 2) is very effective. The contents of the chapters themselves are occasionally repetitive, but this does not detract from the overall analysis. The reader is treated to a generous number of graphs that are in the main successful in enhancing and contextualising the text; one small criticism would be that the black and white graphs are not always easily distinguishable, yet this is a minor point of immediacy that should not detract or deter readers.

This book is not the final word on think tanks, but nor does it set out to be. Readers are left with a valuable foundation from which they can proceed with confidence to further study of these fascinating and important institutions. Ultimately, McGann and Sabatini achieve what they set out to do with consummate professionalism, and they accomplish with clarity and distinction a task that so many others complicate: they posit a way forward that can be applied to important actors within the policy process, as well as to the possible methods that could be used to confront some of the most challenging contemporary problems on a global scale. As most good works should, this book ends by posing as many questions for future study as it answers, and this should ensure a well-deserved longevity.

- Joseph Haigh, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick

 

 

To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Dobson, H. OR Haigh, J. (2011), 'Book Review: James G. McGann with Richard Sabatini (2011), Global Think Tanks: Policy Networks and Governance', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 4, Issue 1, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/volume4issue1/book_dobsonhaigh. Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal@warwick.ac.uk.