Mayer Zald’s influence on the study of social movements and organizations

All of us who knew Mayer Zald were deeply saddened by his passing on August 7, 2012.  I am fortunate to count myself as one of Mayer’s students, proteges, colleagues, collaborators, and friends.  Mayer was an enormously influential scholar of social movements, and he was a central contributor to the study of organizations.  He also helped engineer a friendly merger between these two domains, although it took much longer than he expected, as I describe below.

Mayer was a pioneer in the study of social movements as organizational phenomena.  In an organizational society, social movement activity typically takes place through social movement organizations, which in turn can comprise a social movement industry.  His long collaboration with John McCarthy documented this across a variety of settings.  But there was also a deeper affinity between movements and organizations.

Social movement scholars were familiar with movements aimed at changing state policies.  But Mayer argued that similar movements arose to challenge corporate policies, and that there was a strong analogy between movements within societies and movements within organizations.  Organizations were not just the vehicles for social movements – they were often the objects and contexts for social movements.  He stated this case in a 1978 article with Michael Berger titled “Social movements in organizations: coup d’etat, insurgency, and mass movements.”  He illustrated his point with a series of intriguing examples, and waited.

In retrospect, it is clear that this article was far ahead of its time.  This is confirmed by ISI, which shows that the article had fewer than 50 citations in the first 15 years after it was published.  In the late 1980s, I remember Mayer ruing the fact that this article, which he had regarded as one of his best, had been largely overlooked by the profession.

Yet Mayer was clearly on to something important, as movements aimed at corporations were increasingly prevalent.  These movements took on several forms.  Boycotts demanded an end to deceptive sales pratices for infant formula peddled to mothers in impoverished countries.  University students sought divestment from corporations doing business in apartheid-era South Africa.  Institutional shareholders formed groups to demand accountability from corporate managers who were abrogating powers and overpaying themselves (Davis and Thompson, 1994).  LGBT employees banded together to seek health insurance coverage for their families equivalent to that provided to straight employees, and these tactics diffused from firm to firm (Scully and Creed, 1999).  And companies found that protests against them resulted in drops in their share price, the one metric that cannot be ignored by contemporary executives (King and Soule, 2007).

It is now widely recognized that corporations have many of the same properties as polities, including their susceptibility to social movements from within and without.  The movement among scholars of social movements and organizations has been legitimated by a collection of essays Mayer and colleagues published in 2005 (with Cambridge University Press) and by a special issue of Administrative Science Quarterly published in 2008.  Notably, almost every author of the articles published in the special issue of ASQ was untenured at the time.  It appears that the world has begun to catch up with Mayer’s insights.  A new generation of scholars takes for granted the idea that social movements happen in and around organizations.

What came next was a surprise even to Mayer.  Those of us who teach in business schools are frequently nudged to demonstrate our impact on “practice.”  But what exactly does a scholar of social movements in organizations do to influence practice?  In my case, the answer was to teach a class on applied social movements in the corporate sector.  (In unguarded moments I call it “Saul Alinsky for MBAs.”)  That is, how can we apply what we know about movement organizing to promoting social justice within business itself?

The theoretical framework will be familiar to students of social movements: how to read the political opportunity structure; how to frame one’s initiative in a way that resonates within this setting; how to map the social terrain to locate potential allies and opponents; and how to use tools for mobilization.  (The class is somewhat heavy on software and online tools, as befits a post-Arab Spring world.)  Slightly less familiar are the “objects” promoted by the movement: products such as fair trade goods; processes such as greening the supply chain; people management practices oriented towards making a more just and rewarding workplace; and means of community engagement that bring about mutual benefit.

To everyone’s surprise, the class has been quite successful, drawing overflow enrollments and yielding a book contract with Harvard Business Press.  When I announced this to Mayer over lunch a few months ago, he was surprised and pleased to find that one of his countless insights from decades ago would once again find an unexpcted audience.  Perhaps one of the morals of the story is that even the less renowned works of first-rate minds like Mayer repay close reading.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements

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