Reflections on the Nexus of Social Movements and Organizational Studies

By Sarah Soule

Mayer Zald’s passing has left many of us with a great sense of sadness and loss. We have lost one of the great leaders of sociological thought at the intersection of organizational and social movement studies. And, we have lost a dear friend and mentor. During the two years preceding his death, Mayer and I corresponded fairly frequently about an article that I was working on for Organization Studies. These discussions had a great impact on what I was writing and this short essay summarizes some of the ideas that Mayer and I discussed during this period.  Since these ideas are really suggestions for future research at the intersection of social movements and organizational studies, it seems appropriate to share them with the readers of Mobilizing Ideas.

First, if we take seriously the classic 1978 paper by Zald and Berger, we ought to spend more time focusing on movement dynamics within organization. One idea that Mayer and I talked a fair bit about was inspired by the work of the political scientist, James Scott, whose early work focused on the tactics used in peasant revolts – the so-called “weapons of the weak.” Several scholars of movements within organizations have focused on the idea of resistance in the workplace. Resistance, in this work, encompasses a variety of more passive tactics (e.g., sabotage, recalcitrance, foot-dragging, and so on) used by relatively powerless employees and are designed to buck authority and eventually (ideally) make change within the workplace. Of course, there are other movement dynamics within organizations, such as repression, that are also understudied by organizational scholars. On this point, Mayer and I discussed bringing ideas from social movements studies of state repression to bear on organizational responses to activism. How do firms retaliate against their employees for activism?  Do they reprimand them for their activism? Dismiss them? Use private security forces against them? And, when will firms retaliate against their employees for activism? What kinds of threat are more likely to produce a repressive response by firms?

Second, flashing back to some of Mayer’s early work on social movements and religion, we talked a lot about the intersection of social movements, organizational studies, and the sociology of religion. While there are certainly some exemplars of work at the intersection of movements and the sociology of religion, we both felt that there was ample room here for a deeper conversation with organizational scholars. As many have recognized in recent years, religious movements and organizations in the United States have long been engaged in trying to get for-profit firms to change their policies and practices. For example, many of the shareholder resolutions submitted in the United States over the past two or three decades were sponsored by religious organizations. Or, religious organizations have been active the Peace movement targeting weapons-producing companies and more recently in the Occupy Movement, criticizing the financial sector of many Western nations.  Clearly there is room at the intersection of social movements and the sociology of religion for the work of organizational and economic sociologists. Such a conversation would be beneficial to all three of these areas.

Third, I made the case to Mayer that much of the recent work in organizational studies on identities and categories was deeply relevant to social movements. And we both wondered why this literature had not yet made its way into social movement studies. In particular, we were both captivated by work on moral authenticity of organizations. Firms that have moral authenticity are those that are founded with some moral mission that then encapsulates and defines the organization for years to come (think: Ben & Jerry’s, for example). Moral authenticity of organizations has been found to increase their appeal and the appeal of their products in the market.  This has implications for social movement scholars in that we might argue that social movements that are perceived of as inauthentic (i.e., coopted movements, movements that have “sold out”) may, in fact, be less appealing and may, in turn, be less able to draw participants or may garner less media attention or have lower survival rates.

Another idea from the categories and identity literature that Mayer and I discussed is the finding therein that organizations or products that span two or more recognized categories suffer penalties in the market (for example, films classified as “Western Musicals” have lower box office ratings than do those classified as Musicals or Westerns).  This idea also has interesting implications for movement organizations that span categories. For example, Catholics for Free Choice or Feminists for Life span opposing movement boundaries and may be less well understood than organizations associated with a single movement (or two less opposing movements).  Organizational theories of categories and identities offer compelling hypotheses about the expected outcomes and trajectories of this kind of boundary-spanning organization.

Finally, Mayer and I discussed insights from organizational studies on organizational learning and how these could inform the growing literature on movement coalitions.  Our discussions were informed by one of his earlier writings (1980, RSMCC), which focused on the cooperative relations among movement organizations. We discussed the way in which much of the social movements literature on coalitions has focused on coalitions as a dependent variable; that is, the focus has been on the determinants of coalition formation.  But, we discussed the way in which coalitions also produce connections between organizations, which can then serve as a channel for organizational learning and the diffusion of best practices. This theme was also picked up in a recent paper I wrote with a graduate student, Dan Wang.

Those of us who knew Mayer well recognize that he was a man who was generous with his time and with his ideas. I am thankful to have had these discussions with Mayer over the past two years and I feel blessed to have known him and to have been influenced by him in such profound ways. I know that I am not alone in this feeling.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements

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