Mayer Zald: The Johnny Appleseed of Organization Sociology

By Huggy Rao

Johnny Appleseed or John Chapman, as his recent biographer, Howard Means (2011:9) notes was unique among his contemporaries because “he had an uncanny sense of where the frontier would migrate next. He would load up with seeds each winter at cider presses in southwestern Pennsylvania. Then, as the spring thaw came on, he would follow waterways and Indian trails into unclaimed land, make a clearing of a few acres, plant his seeds, and surround the nursery with a brush fence to keep the deer out. When the settlers arrived a few years later, his seedlings would be waiting for them”.[i]

Like Appleseed, Mayer Zald was unique, because he was blessed with an uncanny nose for interesting problems and phenomena. If Appleseed planted seeds and created nurseries, Mayer planted stories and conversations over lunch or in the classroom incubated new ideas. If Appleseed followed waterways and Indian trails, Mayer followed the weather; winter in Arizona or Santa Barbara, and the rest of the time in his beloved Ann Arbor.

So it seems appropriate to begin this short account with a story – one that instantly crossed my mind when the editors of Mobilizing Ideas asked to me to write a short essay outlining directions for future work stemming from Mayer’s ouvre. If I recall right, we (Cal Morrill, Mayer and I) were in Arizona, and Mayer quipped, “I have one more AJS article in me before I die” – it was less a declaration of a goal, but more an affirmation of his engagement with the community of scholars who study social movements and organizations. What matters is not whether Mayer wrote an AJS article before his sudden passing, but really how his oeuvre has sparked new lines of work.  The previous essayists have provided excellent accounts of how each of his key papers has led to additional papers not only in AJS but also ASQ and other journals. I will confine myself to how his conversations for me were seedbeds of ideas and possibilities for future work on movements and organizations.

1. Movement Sources as Movements Outcomes?: While Mayer’s work with John McCarthy is justly influential as an account of how organization was a predecessor of protest, he was also equally sensitive to how organization may well be an outcome of movement activity. In some of our conversations, he questioned whether collective identity was an antecedent of movements, or an outcome as well. Mayer did not use the language of endogeneity or causal identification – instead, he surfaced these issues by talking about how the social context when he wrote the paper with John was very different from the contemporary social context – as he alluded to these issues. A key take-away for me, from these conversations, was the idea of exploiting exogenous variations or shocks to organizing ability or collective identity to understand their causal role. Sunasir Dutta, a graduate student at Stanford and I, recently completed a study of how religious festivals were exogenous shocks to collective identity and empowerment and triggered the mutinies of soldiers in the Bengal Native Army of 1857 in India.[ii]

2. Collective Behavior and Social Movements: Mayer was also concerned about the separation of collective behavior from the study of formally organized social movements. He felt that crowds, riots, and even fads deserved their place in the study of social contention and that they had receded to the background given the growing emphasis on formal organizations that launch protests. Contemporary events such as ethnic riots in China or India, or crowds marching in Tahrir Square and fueling organized protest, or flash mobs brought together by cybermedia only serve to suggest the complementarity between collective behavior and social movements.

3. From Streets to Suites: Mayer felt that it was inadequate to think of movements as a shock, and implementation as a response, and spoke about opening up the black box of how movements get inside organization. He felt that the boundaries of organizations targeted by protest were porous, the organizations themselves divided and multi-layered, and wanted researchers to understand the subtle ways in which movement influences penetrated the economy and polity of the firm. Dick Scott, my colleague, refers to this as the question, “getting from the streets to the suites.” Mayer motivated Cal and I to build our contribution to the Cambridge volume on Social Movements and Organization Theory in this direction.[iii] The adoption or rejection of technologies, and sustainability or gender diversity in firms certainly beckon attention as interesting cases of movements from the streets or the courtroom getting into the corporate suites.

4. Covert Collective Action in Firms: Mayer felt that much of protest in organizations was covert – whether it took the form of humor, compensatory theft or even sabotage. His interest in this issue led Cal Morrill and I to join him in thinking about covert protest and its instrumental and symbolic manifestations in firms.[iv]  I routinely make it part of my doctoral course, and I recall one student informing me that in one gourmet food store where she worked, new employee socialization was not what the HR department did – employees had their own insurgent version, in part because they felt exploited by the management. New employees were told by veterans to misprice products (e.g., high end cheese) to make them more affordable to employees, or to declare goods damaged (e.g., muffins) so that they could be consumed by other employees. A complicated calculus of gift–giving ensued between different departments (e.g., cheese and the bakery) to ensure that there was no ‘free-riding’ on such compensatory theft.

I hope these four fragments give a sense of Mayer’s role as the Johnny Appleseed of organizational sociology.  Appleseed not only planted seeds to populate America with enough apple orchards so that people would not go hungry, he also was a minister who spread the gospel. It exemplifies Mayer’s numerous accomplishments that have already been recounted elsewhere – he played a key role in our invisible college – he spread the gospel – and so devoted unflagging attention to the youngest and newest in the profession.


[i] Means, Howard. 2011. Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, and the Story, NY: Simon and Schuster.

[ii] Rao, Hayagreeva and Sunasir Dutta. 2012. “Free Spaces as Organizational Weapons of the Weak: Religious Festivals and Regimental Mutinies in the 1857 Bengal Native Army, Administrative Science Quarterly, Forthcoming.

[iii] Zald Mayer, Hayagreeva Rao and Calvin Morrill. 2005. “The Impact of Social Movements on Organizations: Environment and Responses” pp. 253-279 in Gerald Davis, Doug McAdam, W. Richard Scott and Mayer Zald (eds.) Social Movements and Organizations, New York; Cambridge University Press.

[iv] . Cal Morrill, Mayer Zald and Hayagreeva Rao. 2003. “Covert Political Conflict in Organizations: Challenges from Below” Annual Review of Sociology 30: 391-415.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements

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