Mayer Zald: A Mensch Ahead of His Time

By Calvin Morrill

With a twinkle in his eye and a couple of questions, Mayer Zald appeared in the doorway of my office in the Sociology Department at the University of Arizona late one afternoon in 1997 during one of his many winters teaching in Tucson.  His questions?  When can you have lunch and could he borrow a copy of a book I had written on organizational conflict.[i]  He also suggested that I read his 1978 AJS piece[ii] on social movements in organizations since we had mutual interests in social conflict.  A week or so later at lunch, we talked about what he found most intriguing about my book – the near absence of collective action among managers across the thirteen organizations in the study.  He then pivoted the conversation to a sociology-of-knowledge puzzle about his own career: the dramatically different trajectories of his most famous piece, his and John McCarthy’s 1977 ASR[iii] article on resource mobilization and social movements, and the 1978 social movements in organizations piece. While the resource mobilization piece became a near-instant classic upon its publication (and continues to enjoy iconic status to the present), the 1978 article, as Mayer put it, “fell into an intellectual black hole” and was cited less than a dozen times over the next decade.  The puzzle was why?

We came up with several possible explanations (which I happened to take notes on because it was so interesting being on the backstage with such a well-known scholar introspectively examining his own work in this way).  One explanation built on what Mayer found most interesting in my work on managerial conflict in organizations; that so much of organizational conflict is disaggregated rather than aggregated into collective action.  He claimed that his and Berger’s approach had “cut them off” from much of the reality of organizational conflict and had suppressed what might have been the most interesting question of all, the conditions under which disaggregated conflict in organizations becomes aggregated.  Another explanation focused on the “internalist” orientation of the 1978 piece and the late 1970s historical contexts of both organizational and social movement theory.  At a time when the open systems revolution had swept organizational studies and in a few short years, the neo-institutionalist wave would begin to crest, the social movements-in-organizations article seemed to harken back to an earlier, almost quaint, era when organizations were conceived of and studied as encapsulated wholes with self-contained political systems.  By not connecting to the external environment, the 1978 piece, so Zald argued, also cut itself off from the mechanisms through which social movements most often affect organizations via laws, regulations, and institutional fields. Yet another explanation peered into the thicket of social movement research just then gaining steam in the fields of sociology, political science, and history.  Although Zald and Berger used analytic terms explicitly borrowed from collective action research (e.g., “insurgency” and “mass movement”), the collective actions they selected in the piece as examples still didn’t look much like the collective actions that concerned mainstream social movement scholars.  Where were the street protests and the police?  The tear gas and water hoses?  Mayer noted that perhaps there was something “antithetical” for social movement scholars in importing the theoretical tools of social movement analysis into corporations.  And yet he remained convinced that many of the change processes we observe in organizations, markets, and fields are the results of collective action rather than diffusion or rationalization.  And finally, Mayer and I talked about the fact that perhaps he was simply ahead of his time; that organization and social movement scholars simply didn’t read each other’s work back in 1978 and that the piece fell into the crevice between the two sub-fields.

Some of this critique made it into Mayer’s wonderful 2005[iv] essay recounting how he resuscitated the social-movements-in-organizations idea by directly recruiting younger scholars into the fold, especially Huggy Rao and myself as co-authors on multiple pieces, and scores of others into the intellectual boundary-crossing that became a booming industry in social movement-organization theory scholarship.  By the early 2000s, the intellectual and social context had changed.  Organizational scholars were searching for new theoretical resources to explain organizational and institutional change, especially in a world of increasingly permeable organizational boundaries, globalization, and non-bureaucratic organizational forms.  They found some of those new resources in social movement theory.  A new generation of social movement scholars, already steeped in organizationally-inflected resource mobilization theory, began looking to neo-institutional theory as a way to expand their analytic visions beyond “movements” toward broader social terrains – especially institutional fields – on which movements emerged and through which they effected change.  In retrospect, the intellectual timing for the engagement of social movement and organization theory was ripe, but it would not have been so without Mayer’s own mobilizing work.

Some of this mobilizing work unfolded in Tucson beginning as early as the late-1980s as Mayer connected with Neil Fligstein, Doug McAdam, and Woody Powell to plan a conference about social movements and organizations.  Although this conference never occurred due to institutional resource constraints (again, ahead of its time?), Mayer helped galvanize what by the mid-1990s might in retrospect be loosely called the “Arizona School of Sociology” at the nexus of political sociology (especially social movement theory) and organizational theory (especially of the neo-institutional sort).  In this Arizona nexus to various degrees and across overlapping periods worked: Mark Chaves, Elisabeth Clemens, Neil Fligstein, Doug McAdam, Calvin Morrill, Woody Powell, Marc Schneiberg, David Snow, Sarah Soule, Yvonne Zylan, and visiting scholars, Heather Haveman, Charles Perrow, and, of course, Mayer Zald.   Although this nexus long-ago ceased to be located in Arizona and dispersed to multiple universities around the country, its members continue generating cutting-edge work building on ideas which emerged from that period.[v]  To facilitate these developments, Mayer himself co-taught multiple courses at Arizona during the late 1990s that featured aspects of the social movements-organizations nexus, including a course with me entitled, “The Politics of Organizations: Power, Conflict, and Collective Action,” in which we tried out a number of nascent ideas from the Zald, Rao, Morrill collaboration and taught at least two students who have gone on to make considerable reputations for themselves at the intersection of social movement and organizational theory: Jennifer Earl and Tim Bartley.  By the 2000s, Mayer helped spur on further collective action as the long-sought-after social movements/organization theory conferences came to fruition under the leadership of Jerry Davis at the University of Michigan.  The Michigan conferences resulted in an edited collection, Social Movements and Organization Theory,[vi] and inspired a special issue of Administrative Science Quarterly on social movements in organizations and markets[vii] for which Mayer wrote the afterward.[viii]

What the resuscitation-and-eventual-success-of-an-idea-that-didn’t-at-first-take-off demonstrates is not only perseverance, the power of networks (and Mayer, of course, was one of the key nodes of intellectual cross-traffic among multiple social science and humanities disciplines for better than fifty years), and the importance of timing, but also the practical efficacy of social movement and organization theory for effecting change in intellectual fields.[ix]  By mobilizing networks and institutional resources, developing resonant frames, identifying political/organizational opportunities and then helping to construct rationalized structures to sustain the social movements/organizations intellectual movement, Mayer put his ideas into resounding action.  But these dynamics, however necessary, would have been insufficient without Mayer’s everyday touch as a true mensch – a man of integrity, honor, generosity, and humor.  His ability to connect with scholars, be they the most famous senior scholar or the greenest graduate student, was truly a gift.  Mayer is a man I deeply miss whose work will inspire generations and whose legacy as a person will touch all who knew him for as long as they live.


[i] Calvin Morrill. 1995. The Executive Way: Conflict Management in Corporations.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[ii] Mayer N. Zald and Michael Berger. 1978. “Social Movements in Organizations: Coup d’Etat, Insurgency, and Mass Movements.” American Journal of Sociology 83: 823-861.

[iii] John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Sociological Review 82: 1212-1241.

[iv]  Mayer N. Zald. 2005. “The Strange Career of an Idea and Its Resurrection: Social Movements in Organizations.” Journal of Management Inquiry 14: 157-166.

[v] Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam’s A Theory of Fields (Oxford University Press, 2012), for example, is one of the latest works to build on the Arizona nexus.

[vi] Gerald F. Davis, Doug McAdam, W. Richard Scott, and Mayer N. Zald. 2005. Social Movements and Organization Theory. NY: Cambridge University Press.

[vii] Gerald F. Davis, Calvin Morrill, Hayagreeva Rao, and Sarah A. Soule. 2008. “Introduction: Social Movements in Organizations and Markets.” Administrative Science Quarterly 53: 389-394.

[viii] Mayer N. Zald. 2008. “Epilogue: Social Movements and Political Sociology in the Analysis of Organizations and Markets.” Administrative Science Quarterly 53: 568-574.

[ix] Interestingly, Scott Frickel and Neil Gross (2005) built in part on Zald and Berger (1978) in their article, “A General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements” (American Sociological Review 70: 204-232) – a paper for which Mayer expressed great admiration (personal communication).

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Organizational Theory and Social Movements

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