Following Mayer’s Bridge-Building, Boundary-Spanning Path Requires a Movement in our Profession

By Jackie Smith

When thinking about Mayer Zald’s impact on the study of social movements and global change, what is most striking is how he helped build bridges between disciplines and perspectives that are structured in ways that virtually ensure that no cross-fertilization of ideas will occur. At a time when our universities and core institutions of the academy such as academic freedom and tenure are being seriously threatened, it is useful to think about why people like Mayer are so rare in the academic profession. Mayer’s writings on organizations, firms, and social movements can help us look closely at the organizational “prisons” in which we work, and his example as a mentor and catalyst of ideas provide insights on how to respond to the challenges of our time.

In particular, it seems urgent that we have more research and discussion among sociologists and social movement scholars that considers universities as organizations in competitive organizational fields. How have the logics that define organizational fields been redefined in ways that affect the very ways people are trained to think? How has the organizational logic emerging from for-profit firms become so dominant in educational institutions, and to what effect? How have organizational norms, routines, and practices that permeate the business world come to define academic settings? How have these changes affected the context in which social movements mobilize? Although research has been done on some of these questions,[1] we have yet to give serious attention to them in the study of social movements. Considering the important resources universities can provide for social movements, serious attention to the contemporary organization of educational institutions is warranted. Mayer’s work on organizations and social movements guide such work.

Practices that Mayer engaged in and encouraged were reading a lot,[2] reading outside one’s own discipline, and daring and innovative thinking. At a time when few sociologists in the United States were paying attention to things outside this country, Mayer co-edited Organizations and Nation-States,[3] encouraging the extension of lessons from organizational theory to levels beyond what sociologists had typically considered. States had become for many like the air we breathe, the taken-for-granted context of social life. The notion that they might behave as other organizations do, and the implications of this, have yet to be fully explored. As we witness the proliferation of anti-austerity and anti-corruption protests around the world, it makes sense for students of social movements to revisit this book and ask about the organizational routines and structures that account for the simultaneity and the commonality of claims and forms of these protests.

It is his openness to new ideas and big picture thinking that has made Mayer’s and his many co-authors’ work appealing to so many scholars in numerous fields. One reason we see so few scholars like Mayer today is the nature of academic work, which has been restructured over recent decades to mirror practices in the corporate world. As higher education has become more focused on generating revenues (in response to cuts in public funding), scholars’ quantitative productivity and individual reputations have become the main criteria for determining who sinks and who swims. Reading and engaging with scholars from fields outside one’s own rarely contribute to these quantitative measures of success in our profession, and so few of us have incentives to do so, even after we have climbed the professional ranks.

A paper Mayer recommended to me, Raewyn Connell’s “The Northern Theory of Globalization,”[4] had a profound impact on my thinking about the academy and social science more generally. Interestingly, Connell explicitly critiqued projects like Organizations and Nation-States, saying, “Metropolitan sociology in the 1990s constructed a concept of global society mostly by scaling up its existing conceptual tools rather than by launching a fresh research agenda on a global scale” (p. 376). Yet, echoing core ideas in Zald’s “Social Movements in Organizations,”[5] Connell quoted Appadurai[6] to call for a transformation of our systems of knowledge production: “For metropolitan sociology to become more [globally] inclusive … requires breaking with professional customs such as the monocultural curriculum in graduate education. It requires an investment of time and resources…to break the intellectual habits created by the deep eurocentrism of [many schools of thought]…a process involving risks for careers and reputations.”[7]

We will miss Mayer’s contributions as a scholar and mentor, but I hope there are people brave enough to fuel the social movements that can remake our profession so that it nurtures rather than quells those qualities of his that we so admire.


[1]See, for instance, Stanley Aronowitz. 2000. The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. New York: Beacon Press.

[2]Just a couple of weeks before his death, Mayer sent me an email recommending a book he just read, providing a detailed overview of what he thought were its key contributions. For the curious, the book is The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change 1510-2010, by John M. Owen IV (Princeton University Press, 2010).

[3] Kahn, Robert L. and Mayer N. Zald, Ed(s). 1990. Organizations and Nation-States: New Perspectives on Conflict and Cooperation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Connell, Raewyn. 2007. “The Northern Theory of Globalization.” Sociological Theory 25:368-385.

[5] Zald, Mayer N. 1987 [1978]. “Social Movements in Organizations: Coup d’Etat, Bureaucratic Insurgency, and Mass Movement.” Pp. 185-222 in Social Movements in an Organizational Society, edited by M. N. Zald and J. D. McCarthy. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

[6]Appadurai, Arjun, Ed(s). 2001. Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press.

[7] Connell, p. 382.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements

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