how social movement theory and org theory became friends

Klaus Weber and I have a chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Sociology, Social Theory, and Organization Studies, in which we discuss the history of the connection (or lack thereof) between social movement theory and organizational theory. In writing the chapter we wanted to go back to the roots of each theory and talk about missed opportunities for intellectual cross-fertilization. Both literatures are, after all, primarily concerned with group behavior, problems of collective action and coordination, and dynamics of stability and change. Why did it take so long for the two theoretical areas to engage one another? (I should note that social movement theory has for some time borrowed ideas from org. theory, but this doesn’t really amount to full engagement in my mind.)

We argue that in the early years of American sociology, social movements and formal organizations were viewed as very distinct phenomena – social movements are irrational and disruptive and formal organizations are rational and stability-inducing – and that this characterization prevented scholars from seeing potential empirical overlap.

Research on both social movements and formal organizations was thus sparked by an interest in how individual behaviour—embedded in traditional family and societal structures as well as self-interests—is transformed in collective contexts. However, the two emerging fields focused on rather different forms of transformation. Social movement theory evolved from a subfield that saw collective action as irrational, spontaneous, emotional, and emergent (Blumer, 1957; Smelser, 1963; Turner & Killian, 1957); whereas organizational theory was largely focused on the rational pursuit of collective goals within the walls of bureaucracy (Crozier, 1964; Gouldner, 1954; Weber, 1947). Moreover, early collective action research saw spontaneous crowd behaviour as disruptive of social order, while organization theorists saw formal organizations as sources of social domination and stability. To the eyes of sociologists at the time, social movements were typically ephemeral, deviant, and potentially destructive (Couch, 1968). Formal organizations, in contrast, were purposefully organized, stability-inducing, and functional. It is no surprise that collective behaviour and organizational scholars in the 1950s and 1960s saw few commonalities.

In doing research for the paper we uncovered a really fascinating quote from a 1959 Social Problems article by Lewis Yablonsky, a sociologist studying gangs as a form of social organization. (Interestingly, before becoming a sociologist, Yablonsky claimed to have grown up on the streets and became a proficient dice and card hustler. Naturally, once he became an academic he gravitated to the study of deviant behavior.) In the article, Yablonsky explicitly compares collective behavior, like crowds and mobs, and formal organizations.

At one extreme, we have a highly organized, cohesive, functioning collection of individuals as members of a sociological group. At the other extreme, we have a mob of individuals characterized by anonymity, disturbed leadership, motivated by emotion, and in some cases representing a destructive collectivity within the inclusive social system. (Yablonsky, 1959: 108)

Yablonsky, a keen observer of social life, came to the conclusion that there are many types of organizations that exist in the middle of this continuum. Yablonsky’s insight, although he meant it to apply specifically to gangs, has since become widely shared by both social movement and organizational scholars. Social movements are much more organized, routinized, and rational than previously thought, but they are still frequently characterized by intense emotions and contagion-like processes. Formal organizations are much less permanent and stable and more emotional than a previous generation of scholars believed, but it is the  existence of routines and collective identity that allow them to resist environmental threats. The more we understand both phenomena, the more we recognize similarities. Pioneers in the field like Mayer Zald and John McCarthy realized this early on and helped make those connections. In more recent years, the bridge between the two fields has been developed more fully as organizational scholars have gone to social movement theory to re-conceptualize the organization as a political actor that is shaped by various ongoing kinds of collective action.

Our paper talks about how the two fields became friends and offers a few insights about where we think the fields are heading and what might be gained from further merging. Check it out if you’re interested.

Written by brayden king

July 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Very interesting indeed. It’s interesting that you are highlighting the (false) dichotomy in terms of organized vs. disorganized processes. I would have thought about this more in terms of a temporal dimension, i.e. social movements as ephemeral, and formal organizations more as long-term and stable phenomena. Well, I guess there a strong and relevant overlaps between these two different dichotomizing views — both of them overly simplifying what is really going on …


    Johann Fortwengel

    July 24, 2014 at 5:29 pm

  2. A memorable line that I remember from Travis Hirschi when I took a criminology class with him back in the late 1980s—something along the lines of “organized crime is an oxymoron.” Not saying he was right or wrong…but the line sure stuck in my head.


    Rory McVeigh

    July 24, 2014 at 6:29 pm

  3. How can you mention Yablonsky without also noting his greatest moment on television, as the straight man sociologist in the company of Jack Kerouac and Ed Sanders on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line? The topic? “The hippies–an understanding of which we must acquire or die painfully”



    July 25, 2014 at 12:57 am

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Johann – collective behavior scholars usually thought of crowds/movements as ephemeral. Conceptualizing movements as having continuity was another theoretical change that occurred in the 1970s. But, of course, in reality movements and organizations both vary in their temporal stickiness.

    Rory – I never got to meet Hirschi, unfortunately. He retired a few years before I arrived at Arizona, but he left his shadow on the department, as well as a couple of grad students. I never thought to associate his theory of social control with the old collective behavior theories but they do seem to be part of the same family, no?

    dr – awesome clip, thank you!


    brayden king

    July 25, 2014 at 2:44 am

  5. Yes, I sometimes think of Hirshi’s criminology class as my first social movement/collective action class. we argued about a lot of things, but it was that fun kind of arguing.


    Rory McVeigh

    July 25, 2014 at 12:22 pm

  6. I ran across an interesting excerpt from Charles Tilly’s codebook for his French contentious politics project that he did as a new professor. The excerpt comes from John Krinsky’s and Ann Mische’s recent Annual Review paper about Tilly.

    Here’s the bit from the codebook:

    In the FORMATION SEQUENCE codes, treat the subformation as a formation for the period of its collective activity—but place 01 (“formation does not exist as such at this time”) in the intervals before and after. If two or more subformations comprise the entire membership of the formation from which they emerge, place 01 in that formation’s code for the intervals duringwhich they are acting. But if a small fragment breaks off from a larger formation, continue to record the activities of the main formation as well as the new subformation. If a formation breaks up, reforms and then breaks up in a different way, assign new subformation numbers the second time. If fragments of different formations merge into new formations, hop around the room on one foot, shouting ILLEGITIMIS NON CARBORUNDUM.1 (Tilly 1966, p. 95)

    I love that because it shows that Tilly was struggling with the tension that exists between the enduring and ephemeral forms of collective action. At the time Tilly was breaking ground in empirically tracking the different types of action/actors that engaged in contentious politics. It’s apparent that from the beginning researchers like Tilly found that the phenomena they observed was somewhere in the middle between a formally organized structure and a semi-cohesive crowd-like entity that assembled for particular events. It’s interesting though that Tilly explicitly linked the more permanent formations with the more ephemeral subformations, recognizing that they were causally linked.


    brayden king

    July 25, 2014 at 8:42 pm

  7. Brayden, I haven’t read your chapter yet, and so I may be missing the nuances of your point, but at least SOME of us organization theorists were well aware of the social movements literature & its contributions to understanding organizational emergence & change already, back in the 1960s & 1970s. As a double check on my aging memory, I went back & looked at my 1979 book (actually written in 1976-78), Organizations & Environments, and found references to 5 publications by Mayer Zald — his 1963 paper with Patricia Denton & his 1966 paper with Bobbi Ash were particularly influential in my thinking. Check out my chapter 8. “Social movements” didn’t get many listings in the index. but that was an oversight by my editor — I think the book is awash with ideas from that literature. I’m not claiming I was prescient — a bunch of people were there with me, including Ken Benson & Joyce Rothschild.

    My point: the field of OT is, and has been, cognizant of the significance of the social movements folks for a long time! Never hurts, however, to remind us again of this lasting legacy.


    Howard Aldrich

    July 26, 2014 at 4:19 pm

  8. Howard – Of course, there wasn’t a lack of awareness. But I wouldn’t say that the fields were actively engaged with one another. Respect from afar isn’t the same thing as saying the two fields are engaged in a fruitful conversation.

    Lis Clemens and Deb Minkoff wrote in a paper that from the 1970s to the early 2000s the conversation was mostly one-sided anyway. Social movement folks would borrow ideas from organizational theory but it rarely went the other direction. I don’t think you could say that there was a mutual sharing of ideas that led to new theoretical development. The latter is more likely to happen (or is happening) now.

    I’m open to being wrong though – what concept from social movement theory most influenced your own theoretical perspective? Did you alter your own theories about organizations in any way by borrowing theoretical mechanisms that come from social movement theory?


    brayden king

    July 26, 2014 at 9:23 pm

  9. Brayden, this might be a conversation best continued over a meal(!), but here’s one quick thought: looking back to my conversations with Mayer in the late 1960s & early 1970s, I realize I never thought of “social movements” as a free-standing theoretical edifice — I saw what my friends were doing as the study of organizing & organization, within the umbrella of organization studies. Networks, diffusion of innovations, recruiting, managing membership, transformation, etc. were concepts/principles/issues about which people like Zald & Denton and Zald & Ash had intelligent things to say, and we learned from them.

    I suppose I’m rejecting the premise of your initial post! The dichotomy you offer is much too extreme for my taste. But let’s discuss…


    Howard Aldrich

    July 27, 2014 at 1:11 am

  10. Great, we’ll have a lot to talk about it seems. I think one thing we can agree on is that the dichotomy is problematic. As both a social movement and organizational scholar I am really excited by research that explores the movement-like qualities of formal organizations as well as studies that examine the organizational backbone of movements. I’ve dipped my toes in both types of research too.

    For readers who may be more confused than ever after reading these comments, I should be clear about this point – there is actually a social movement “theoretical edifice” that is distinct from (despite occasional overlap) mainstream organizational theory. The political process model, for example, offers a very useful way of conceiving of how political mobilization occurs and subsequently influences social change. The political process model was influenced by resource mobilization theory, of course, but I doubt that any social movement scholars would say that it is derivative of it. Similarly, the new social movement theory that emerged in Europe Other than theoretical synthesizers like Howard or European neo-Marxists, organizational scholars have only recently began to engage these ideas.


    brayden king

    July 27, 2014 at 10:16 pm

  11. Looking forward to the discussion!


    Howard Aldrich

    July 28, 2014 at 12:15 am

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