In Appreciation of Mayer Zald

By Elisabeth Clemens

In the classic model, the five stages of grief end with acceptance.  In remembering Mayer Zald, however, appreciation seems much more possible, indeed necessary.  In the weeks since his death, stories and expressions of gratitude for his enormous generosity have tumbled out in conversations, in print, and in pixels.  But his so-unexpected absence also forecloses the opportunity to reciprocate directly, to thank him fully for everything.    It leaves only the possibility of generalized exchange, sharing with others what we received from Mayer.  In that spirit, let me contribute one lesson that Mayer taught me, namely how to make our work both a craft and a calling, rather than simply a job-to-be-done or an idea-to-be-thought in solitary brilliance.  This lesson came in many forms, but perhaps most clearly over the course of a pair of Mayer and Joan’s spring visits to Arizona in the late 1990s, when Mayer and I co-taught Contemporary Sociological Theory, then Organization Theory and History.  My notes for an early session that I led in that second seminar capture the flavor of a teaching apprenticeship with Mayer:

As I was doing the readings for this week, I was struck by the schizophrenic ambitions of the course.  On the one hand, the first weeks hit you with some of those really big philosophical questions:  how do we know anything?  Free will and determination?  On the other, this is a “craft” class:  given that knowledge of anything, and particularly of the past, is problematic, what are the tricks of the trade for doing as good a job as possible?

The joy and the challenge of any conversation with Mayer was his virtuosity in moving between these frames, as well as his irreverent, genial goading to think harder, his gleeful appreciation of a stray bit of snark or an original insight from an unexpected source.  But behind that virtuosity was a deep appreciation of the work that was required to have a great idea and then bring it to fruition, not simply as a single paper or even a book, but as a sustained conversation with other scholars and friends (and, this being Mayer, most of those other scholars already were—or would soon become—friends as well).

He had the good grace not to make it look easy.  At his insistence, our theory seminar was both a survey of great exemplars and the prelude to a practicum, ending not with a classic essay, but rather with a pair of discussions on what it takes to do work that becomes interesting and, if you are both smart and lucky, classic.[i]   As a new associate professor, “interesting” was the most I could hope for my own work, but Mayer was one of the select company in sociology who could legitimately reflect on “classic” in relation to his own contribution.  The 1977 American Journal of Sociology paper with John McCarthy, “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory,” is beyond doubt foundational for scholarship on social movements and for all the other fields, such as organizational analysis, that have subsequently imported and refashioned these arguments.  But while Mayer took enormous pleasure in the influence of this paper, he paired it with another published just one year later, “On the Social Control of Industries” (Social Forces 1978).  This is a much less well-known piece, receiving only a small fraction of the citations to McCarthy and Zald, at least according to Google Scholar this past week.   The point of the juxtaposition of readings was, inevitably, to allow Mayer to tell a story, both self-deprecating and wise.

Whether he admitted this to John at the time, I can’t say.  But what Mayer told us was that in the late 1970s, his bets (although I don’t know for certain that he was a betting man) were that “On the Social Control of Industries” was the paper that would make his reputation.  Reread, the motivating questions are uncannily current:  “How do societies get rid of bad schools?  Or do they? . . . When does the performance of hospitals or of automobile manufacturers become so unacceptable that agents of the central government change the authoritative bases upon which these organizations have functioned?” (p. 79).  Although cast in a different theoretical vocabulary, his comments about surveillance and performance curves foreshadow much of the lively current work on categories, comparison, and commensuration with all their reflexive effects on organizational practice and outcomes.  What seems most anachronistic is the assumption that societies would find a way to control industries, a loosely functionalist statement of faith that is difficult to sustain in this post-crisis era.  Perhaps if this paper had energized a research community, we all would have been in a better position to think through the devastating lack of social control of industry that has characterized the past few years.

Mayer’s characteristic ambition—simultaneously rigorously analytical, political, and moral—infuses the piece, staking out a project of “unraveling a broad but important societal process, the realization of values through norms and social control” (p. 100).  But, reflecting on his own argument two decades later, Mayer was clear-eyed about the reasons for the greater impact of the social movements paper:  there was an audience in sociology, the argument generated doable problems, and it resonated with the political mood, still consumed with the political protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, but disillusioned with the possibilities of state-led social control at a moment of sweeping deregulation.  Your work, he insisted, lives in the world, in conversation with others and their concerns.  But Mayer’s genius was to know that one person could help to constitute an audience if conditions were even slightly favorable, through infectious enthusiasm and endless, unexpected acts of generosity.

Although clear-eyed about the reasons that his ambitions for “The Social Control of Industries” were not realized, he was not defeated.  Indeed, I suspect part of the reason for including that paper on the syllabus was that he was looking for his next collaborator, a new conversation partner to bring into his seemingly inexhaustible portfolio of literatures to be discussed and papers to be co-authored.  The subsequent careers of a number of the students in those seminars suggest that he enjoyed more than a bit of success in this endeavor.  So, in the spirit of Mayer, the point of all this was to tell a story with a message.  I remain deeply grateful for so many great stories as well as for the conversations with no point beyond the pleasure of one another’s company.  I will miss those the most.


[i] The adjectives are taken from two essays by Murray S. Davis that Mayer introduced to the syllabus:  “That’s Interesting!  Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1 (1971): 309-44; “That’s Classic!  The Phenomenology and Rhetoric of Successful Social Theories,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 16 (1986): 285-301.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements

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