Studying think tanks' role in shaping health policy and planning

Health policy and planning as the focus of our study

In recent decades, think tanks have emerged as a significant part of the global knowledge economy. The growth of think tanks has been described as 'nothing less than explosive' (McGann, 2013: 14), with an estimated 6600 operating across 180 countries (ibid.). This growth has emerged out of social and political changes occurring since the 1980s (see Shaw, Russell, Korica and Greenhalgh 2014). It has enabled think tanks to increase not only in number, but also in the scope of their work, with greater input into policymaking across a range of areas. Whilst they vary in terms of their focus, activities and funding, think tanks are increasingly visible participants in health policy.

The starting point for our study was health policy. This is different from much of the existing work in linguistic ethnography, which has strong roots in education and literacy studies and has drawn researchers to focus on, for instance, language practice and classroom interaction (Rampton, 2007; Tusting and Maybin, 2007; Lefstein and Snell, 2011). Whilst policy and planning are clearly relevant (for instance, in considering how policy initiatives such as the national curriculum are enacted in the classroom [Lefstein, 2008]), it is not the prime focus for much linguistic ethnography. Hence, in order to examine the relationship between think tanks and health policy our initial orientation was not only to micro-level interaction but also to interpretive theory that could help us to define the analytic problem of studying policy (Wagenaar, 2011).

Interpretive policy analysis situates policy as something broader than tangible pieces of legislation and regulation administered by government. Rather, the idea of 'public policy' indicates an area of social life that is simultaneously distributed (through multiple and dispersed policy practices) and held in common (via overarching policy narratives that make sense of events and guide political action), involving 'a never ending series of communications and strategic moves by which various policy actors in loosely coupled forums of public deliberation construct intersubjective meanings' (Hoppe, 1993: 77). These meanings are continually translated into collective narratives, projects and plans through a range of activities, actions, interactions, organisations and actors (including think tanks). Our focus on policy therefore meant that there was no single 'policy space' similar to a classroom into which we could walk, observe 'health policy' and collect naturally occurring data of interaction. This is because the practices that make up 'policy and planning' are dispersed and do not sit neatly in a single, accessible, naturally occurring space. And think tanks do not engage with policy and planning via a single route but occupy different social spaces allied to a range of political, media, knowledge production and business activities (Medvetz, 2012, 2008).

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