Sources of Organizational Heterogeneity

By Brayden King

Mayer Zald leaves a lasting legacy on our field, in part because of his great intellectual productivity and vitality – I know few people who wrote so much and so well about so many different things – but also because of his important role in bridging the worlds of organizational and social movement theory.  As many before have argued, these two fields have had a long and intertwining history and Mayer had much to do with that. He made a strong case that if we want to understand how social movements evolve over time, we need to zero in on the organizations that drive movement activity, that embody movement goals and ideals, and that sometimes thwart movements from accomplishing their original purposes. His classic 1966 Social Forces paper with Roberta Ash laid the groundwork for a broader theory of social movement organizations, which was later picked up and developed in Mayer’s work with John McCarthy and eventually crystallized as what we know today as resource mobilization theory. The central idea that ran through much of Mayer’s early work was that organizations need not be destructive and undermine movement goals, which was the common assumption at the time he and Roberta published their paper; rather organizations play a vital role in any movement, forming the connective tissue between the ideals, people, and places involved in movements and helping people to realize their values through collective action.

This perspective came to dominate the social movement field in the 1980s, but gradually it went out of fashion. Social movement scholars shifted focus to the intangible aspects of movement organizing, such as emotions, identity, and culture, or became more concerned with the outcomes of social movements than with their fundamental organizing structures. As Mayer said in a recent essay reflecting on the 1966 paper, much of the work about the cultural conditions enabling collective action was a backlash to the heavily structural biases of organizational analysis. Although there were clear outliers, organizational analysis became less central to the study of social movements than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. And despite the great influence that organizational theory had in generating the content of much contemporary social movement studies, it seemed for a while that increasingly the two fields were out of touch with one another.

But recently there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in the dynamics of social movement organizations. Organizational scholars have already turned their attention to the corporation as a target of social movements (another innovative idea proposed by Mayer and his coauthor Michael Berger), suddenly enhancing the exchange of ideas between the two fields. And recent innovations in organizational theory and new trends in organizing have made this an ideal time to revisit the organizational dynamics of social movements. I don’t see this as retreading old ground. Rather, I think we’re beginning to reconceptualize old problems in new ways, given the availability of new social technologies, organizational forms, and a richer theoretical toolkit than existed at the time of the publication of Zald and Ash.

Interestingly, despite being a highly cited paper, Mayer felt that his paper with Roberta was relatively neglected as a seed for empirical studies.  Mayer said that “as far as I know, our specific hypotheses were not subject to debate, refutation or empirical confirmation or disconfirmation” (2012: 8).  Perhaps what has been most ignored from that classic paper was its potential to highlight sources of organizational heterogeneity. The paper, inasmuch as it was focused on the problem of how organizations deal with the tension between bureaucratization and living up to one’s ideals, introduced a number of propositions about how social movement organizations may have resisted the tendency toward oligarchy. In other words, it was a paper that suggested that not all social movement organizations are alike and that we, as social movement scholars, ought to be interested in how they preserve heterogeneity. And perhaps just as important, we ought to develop explanations for the emergence of organizational heterogeneity within social movement industries. If we believe that organizations are simultaneously sources of stability and energy for social movements, then explaining where divergence in organizational structures, goals, and practices comes from is really important.

Let me just put forward a few sources of heterogeneity that I think ought to be on the research agenda. The first is organizational identity. Yes, it’s true that social movement scholars have long been concerned about collective identity and its relationship to activism, but so far there have been few studies that attempt to explain variance in the identities of social movement organizations. By organizational identity, I refer to the organization’s self-definition – i.e., how it defines its own reason for existence and purpose to its audiences, including members, adherents, and beneficiaries. This is an important source of differentiation that organizations use to position themselves relative to their peers and create a base for future mobilization. Differences in the ways that labor unions, civil rights organizations, or contemporary environmental activist groups represent themselves to the public have consequences for their ability to engage in alliances with other organizations, recruit specific types of members, and establish a competitive niche in their social movement industry. Although there is recognition about the consequences of an organization’s identity, there are fewer studies that explore the origins of these identities (for an example, however, see Downey’s study about how factions within the anti-nuclear movement spurred new organizational identities).

A second source of variance is the practices or activities that movement organizations use.  Research on repertoires of contention has greatly enriched our understanding of how new sets of practices, tactics, and strategies evolve over the course of a movement (e.g., Clemens’s work on the woman suffrage movement stands out), but we have fewer examples of how organizations develop local repertoires of action, often in isolation from one another but sometimes in competition or cooperation with one another. Why do some organizations become specialists with a narrow repertoire of activities while others become generalists or jacks-of-all-trades?

The last source of heterogeneity I’ll mention is ideology. Mayer himself argued that ideology is an under-recognized source of variance within movement organizations in his paper about ideologically structured action. Individuals’ commitment to organizations often depends on the organization’s ability to articulate a coherent ideology and their ability to frame that ideology in a way that resonates with potential participants. But we actually have very little research that examines variation in ideology – both in terms of its content and its coherence or salience within the organization. We may assume that all organizations within the same movement industry are more or less ideologically aligned but anecdotal evidence indicates this is far from true. Just look at what happened to the Occupy movement. Differences in ideology made the coalition of activists involved in Occupy unwilling to commit to a particular set of goals or even a clear agenda. Thus, even seemingly congruent activist groups may fail to take joint action due to nuanced differences in ideology. Where do these differences come from and, to Zald’s and Ash’s purpose, how do movement organizations perpetuate those ideological differences over time despite environmental pressures to become more homogenous?

Obviously the three concepts I’ve proposed are interrelated. Ideology, identity, and activities are causally interconnected. Also, I throw these questions out there not as the definitive set of problems that we should be studying as social movement scholars, but rather as questions that intrigue me today after revisiting Zald and Ash. Despite being an enormously influential paper by turning our attention to the social movement organization, I think there is still much potential to uncover the sources of organizational heterogeneity that the authors were only able to briefly touch upon in their paper.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements

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