Mayer Zald, RIP

Mayer Zald, emeritus Professor of Sociology at Michigan, passed away this morning. Mayer was probably best known for his work on social movements, pioneering the resource mobilization approach with McCarthy. He was also very influential in bringing organizations into the center of social movement analysis (for a later contribution in this direction, see this edited volume).

Despite being emeritus, Mayer was extremely active during the past few years. Last year, for example, he spoke on a panel at our recruitment weekend about the future of social movement theory. Other professors spoke for 10 minutes; Mayer spoke passionately for forty about the need to incorporate new methods of data collection, the need to continue expanding our research into conservative movements, and a dozen other important points I wish I could remember. He also continued publishing, on social movements, organizations, the need to reinvigorate the study of influential positions (or “command posts”), the relationship between sociology and philosophy and more. My favorite of his think pieces concern sociology’s status as a cumulative or progressive science and its relationship to the humanities.

I had several chances to interact at length with Mayer. He frequently attended the Social Theory workshop at Michigan. He also met with my colleague Russ Funk and I when we were trying to grapple with mid-20th century American social theory for an independent readings course. One tidbit: when we asked Mayer about the dominance of Parsons, he said, “Everyone was reading Parsons, but everyone was doing Merton.” [Meaning Merton’s “middle-range” theory approach, in contrast to Parsons’ high-theory functionalism.] While this view probably reflected Mayer’s position at the center of Midwestern Sociology (having studied at Michigan, and taught at Vanderbilt and Chicago before coming back to Michigan), it was still a nice counterpoint to the standard narrative of Parsons’ dominance.

Mayer Zald was the epitome of a dedicated, insightful, and considerate scholar. His passing was sudden, and he will be very sorely missed.

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  1. Jenn Lena

     /  August 7, 2012

    I’m just really sad to read this, but thank you for sharing the news. Mayer was always kind to me, and gave me (and Pete) the big break we needed…me to start my career, and Pete to bring his in for a soft landing.

  2. Richard Swedberg

     /  August 7, 2012

    How terrible

  3. Woody Powell

     /  August 8, 2012

    Mayer was simply a mensch, a wonderful human being, a marvelous sense of humor, an incredibly curious mind, and a good friend and even better person. He will be missed greatly.

  4. Russell Funk

     /  August 8, 2012

    I have fond memories of our meetings with Mayer. I also had the opportunity to visit him a few times while studying (alone) for my economic sociology and organizations prelim, where he provided some much needed perspective. He will surely be missed.

  5. Mayer was a great friend to a vast network of friends, a supporter when serious research needed help, and a seemingly inexhaustible source of ideas about what one might productively read.
    I have a trove of “thought of you when I read this” notes from him and his sense of my interests, though they were not exactly his, was nonetheless pitch-perfect. So many others say the same.
    When younger scholars or budding research communities needed a boost, Mayer was always to be counted on to help channel resources and to stand up for the quality of new ideas. He was a founder of the ICOS community of organizational researchers at Michigan, an interdisciplinary network that has sustained itself for decades. It’s little known that he got the original funding for it by making that a condition for his staying at Michigan when he had a generous outside offer, putting the local research community on a par with his own resources.
    And what a friend ! What a hearty smile whenever he encountered one of his far-flung army of students and colleagues. (Perhaps they were thousands. I watched him at conferences and realized it was just the same around the world as it was at Michigan.) There were always questions about one’s family. Detailed memories for that and for what were your most recent research ventures. And then questions and suggestions about how it could move forward.
    He survived many health problems in his later years, which forced him to give up his beloved tennis, but somehow they never stopped him from showing up a good talk by an interesting colleague and asking the wisest question when the ripe moment came. I remember him joking before an ICOS session about wearing the heart monitor they’d strapped on him when releasing him from the hospital.
    We were so lucky to have his friendship and scholarship right up until the end of his long, generative, and splendidly humane life.

  6. James Crowfoot

     /  August 8, 2012

    Mayer made so many, many contributions and remained generous, approachable and always thoughtful, engaging, and a stimulating and creative thinker. I miss him and opportunities to be with him. I extend condolences to Joan and to their children in this time of loss and grief. Jim Crowfoot

  7. Sue Ashford

     /  August 8, 2012

    Mayer Zald was not only the founder of ICOS, but the true “norms and values” setter for this important institution. He represented at all times what I love most about Michigan – incredible energy, wide-ranging curiosity, warm generosity, and (the true Michigan element) incredible modesty all bundled within one wonderful person. My favorite Mayer story concerns ICOS’s beginnings. As I was told the story, he was being recruited by another school and Michigan dearly wanted to keep him. In their retention efforts, they took the standard approach and offered him more salary. He is reputed to have said that he did not want more money for himself, but wanted more community. He asked for funds to build a living intellectual community around the the general topic of organizations at Michigan. A letter was sent to every University of Michigan faculty member and doctoral student seeking those interested in organizations. Over a 150 individuals responded and thus a cross-disciplinary intellectual community that is the envy of universities worldwide was born.

    Mayer always appealed to the best of us – our most sacred aspirations, our best work, and being the best for each other. Michigan has lost a giant today.

  8. Gretchen Spreitzer

     /  August 8, 2012

    I got to know Mayer when I was a PhD student first in the 1990s and again in the 2000s as a faculty member at Michigan. I thought to myself that he wouldn’t remember me after I was away from the Michigan community for 10 years. But the first time I saw him when I returned, he warmly greeted me with a hug. He was an intellectual giant but even more importantly a warm human being. I will miss him.

  9. Jane Banaszak-Holl

     /  August 8, 2012

    My thoughts and prayers are with Joan and the rest of Mayer’s family as they manage through this time. Mayer was a great person and colleague and as others have said, always had a warm thought and encouraging comment for others! He also is the bridge that initially connected many people. I loved having the time to write on social movements in health with him and that he introduced me to Sandy Levitsky and other modern social movement researchers.

  10. Tom Gerschick

     /  August 8, 2012

    Mayer hired me to coordinate the graduate program while I was a graduate student and then served as my dissertation chair. I remain forever indebted to him for his support during this stage of my career. He was a terrific person and a model scholar. May he rest in peace.

  11. As a graduate student at UMich, I had the good fortune to land in ICOS early on, and subsequently “took” the course for 3 units, then 2, then 1, and then just sat in thereafter. I loved ICOS, and met and spoke with Prof. Zald a number of times while he was sitting at the back of the room, always inquisitive and thoughtful. I’m lucky. I was able to meet him in person, and to know the man behind the voluminous and important work is a blessing. Although I was merely a student, and he the esteemed professor, he always made me feel valued, included, and a part of the conversation. Certainly, I was not as deeply connected in friendship as many others, particularly those closely aligned with the founding, development and running of ICOS. Even so, as a part of the social movement he helped generate, I felt swept up in it, and gladly so.

  12. Gelaye Debebe

     /  August 8, 2012

    I am still in a state of disbelief and great shock about this news and it is with deep sadness that I accept it. Mayer was my advisor, model, and friend. He was so very kind, respectful, and able to bring out the best in everyone around him. His intellectual curiosity, depth and breadth were simply amazing. His humor and wisdom were always very helpful to me. My family and I will greatly miss him. But the many lessons I learned from him as well as the many memories I have are a source of inspiration. I am holding his family in my heart at this time.

  13. jerrydavisumich

     /  August 8, 2012

    I have long been honored to count myself among Mayer’s friends and intellectual running buddies, a group that extends around the world and includes most of my favorite people. It is a sad day for all of us. Mayer was a profound intellectual, a truth-teller, an institution-builder, a mentor, and a great and loyal friend.

    Mayer also had a remarkable capacity to see things that the rest of us missed. He found deep sociological significance in the damnedest things, like professional sports, the structure of leveraged buyouts funds, the YMCA, hip replacements…and he was always right. We all know his blockbuster contributions to social movements and organization theory. But some of us have made careers out of mining Mayer’s overlooked insights, like the fact that social movements happen INSIDE organizations in ways that look like “real” social movements (Zald and Berger, 1978). I expect generations to be mining his oeuvre for more gems to be polished.

    Mayer took me under his wing in 1986 when he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford and I was an unrestrained and over-caffeinated grad student. He and Bob Kahn had embarked on a project to save the world from nuclear Armageddon by using organization theory. It was a modest agenda, and they were persuaded we could pull it off. (Vindication: since that work was published, there have been no nuclear wars.) Mayer and Bob graciously offered to take me on as a co-author, and I learned that Mayer’s sweet impishness and evident goodwill allowed him to be forthright in telling people things that might sound bracing (not to say devastating) coming from other people. First comment: “Have you ever read Strunk & White? You should. You use long words when short ones will do and you are too show-offy. Your reader doesn’t have to know everything you know to get your point.” I don’t actually recall the subsequent points, for some reason…but he had swiftly conveyed messages that needed to be heard. (Note the lack of an object in that sentence — some habits die hard.) Generations of students received the same benefit.

    Omnivorous curiosity, a capacity to see meaningful patterns that others overlooked, and a commitment to telling it straight, combined with a sweet impishness and generosity to make Mayer one of a kind. Our community mourns his loss.

  14. Paula Caproni

     /  August 8, 2012

    I’m saddened to hear of Mayer’s passing, and my sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones. I have many fond memories of Mayer. The one that I remember most is from about 20 years ago when we were at a meeting to recruit new faculty. As we were discussing all the characteristics and accomplishments we wanted in new faculty, Mayer reminded us – in his most humble, kind, and direct way – to remember that we shouldn’t consider ourselves to be too “precious” (his word) because doing so might exclude some wonderful candidates who had much to bring to the table. We listened to Mayer’s wise words, and I have done my best to take his humbling advice to heart throughout the years. Thank you, Mayer, and rest in peace.

  15. I will always remember Mayer with a twinkle in his eye, and that twinkle appeared when he got excited about a new idea, was encouraging one of his (legions) of students, talked about tennis, or asked about one’s family. He was generous with his time, his insights, his enthusiasm. I had the good fortune to have him as a teacher, then mentor while on my dissertation committee. But his influence on my work went well beyond that time period — I continue to draw from his articles, old and new. What a genuine privilege to have known him, study with him and learn from him. He is irreplaceable. — Cheryl Hyde

  16. Charles Perrow asked me to post the following remembrance:

    “I am fortunate in having known Mayer longer, I expect, than any of his vast number of friends and colleagues that will mourn his passing. In 1958, with a half-finished dissertation in hand, I left Berkeley for Michigan to take a position as project director for a comparative study of six juvenile delinquent homes. Mayer was one of the graduate students on the project, and we quickly became fast friends. I may have served on his dissertation committee (probably chaired by Morris Janowitz), but in any case we followed each other’s work closely from the start, and exchanged detailed critiques and encouragements. I especially appreciated his organizational approach to social movements, and his awareness of power. My last contact with him was when he was the commentator on a thematic panel I organized dealing with global warming for the 2011 meeting. As we have come to expect from him he was well versed in the literature, even though it was far from his specialty, and he brought a macro orientation to the subject.

    We enjoyed tennis whenever the occasion allowed it, and for some years we lugged our rackets and tennis shoes to the annual ASA meetings, and set aside a couple of hours to play. He was a vigorous opponent, even after two hip operations.

    The main thing I cherish about our long friendship was that it exemplified the best of colleagueship. I could call him at any time (or, later, email him) and ask for professional advice, try out ideas, or get references to books or articles in areas unfamiliar to me. The breath of his interests and knowledge was astounding. Just as people in many areas knew his work, he knew theirs.

    Just this week I was going to email him to set aside a time to chat at the Denver meetings, since we failed to at the last one. I would have gotten an enthusiastic report on the Center he established at Michigan, of which he was rightfully so proud. Very few of us will leave such a rich intellectual and institutional legacy.”

  17. Elisabeth Clemens

     /  August 9, 2012

    Like so many others, I’m overwhelmed by both the loss and the memories of Mayer. At some point between graduate school and tenure – I can’t remember just how or when –, Mayer decided to become a presence in my life. From that moment forward, he never failed to provoke, support, and push me; to incorporate me in the community of “friends of ICOS” beyond Michigan, to secure invitations to great conferences, to co-teach seminars at Arizona, and to amaze me constantly with his omnivorous reading. I hope that I reciprocated in some small measure. Above all, he showed me a way of being in this life. Mayer was a man who encompassed so many virtues, rarely found combined in the same person: intellectual ambition and strong opinions, humanity and great good humor, constant curiosity and seemingly endless generosity. I’m not sure how he held all those parts together (although I’m certain that Joan had much to do with maintaining the balance), but to know that all these can be combined is quite something in itself. I am deeply in his debt and grateful for his friendship.

  18. Jane Dutton

     /  August 9, 2012

    Mayer Zald was Michigan at its best. People’s recollections all point to the same sparkly essence that was the Mayer we all knew. He made such a difference as a person and scholar in all that he did. He has left a lasting imprint on our scholarship and our lives. We will deeply miss him. I hope Joan and his beloved family will take some comfort as they hear the words of his colleagues who held him in such high regard. Jane Dutton

  19. Monica Worline

     /  August 9, 2012

    As one of the legions of students who benefited so greatly by knowing Mayer, I have read these memories and stories with a warm heart, full eyes, and a renewed sense of how lucky I was to study with him and spend time in his presence. The best part of his incredible graduate seminar on social movements was the last half hour, when he would gather up all the loose threads of our discussion and tie them up into an organic, wise, critical synthesis of everything we had read. I remember leaving that room in awe each and every week.

    So I, too, had so many instances of conversations where I grew by virtue of Mayer’s ideas. But my favorite memory of talking with him wasn’t actually a discussion about social movements or organizations; it was a serious inquiry into the metaphorical significance of the dementors in the Harry Potter novels! I remember Mayer with gratitude for such a spirit, who knew the power of a twinkling eye as well as the importance of relating with the dementors as the measure of full human being. And I also remember with gratitude and care the family who generously shared Mayer with so many others of us. – Monica Worline

  20. Debra Meyerson

     /  August 12, 2012

    I am so sad. Mayer was a great mentor, colleague and true friend. I already miss him. Debra Meyerson

  21. I feel the loss of Mayer so deeply and in so many ways. We together, along with Bob Kahn and Karl Weick started ICOS on a shoestring when we saw that there was a conversation about organizations waiting to happen at Michigan. His excitement about the project and his endless network of organizational scholars both at Michigan and all over the world was the critical fuel that helped first ignite and later sustain ICOS. He was a vocal and energeic enthusiast about people and especially their ideas. I miss his knowing laugh. I miss our talks about books we had just read or interesting things that were bubbling up in the field. I miss Mayer.

  22. Martha S. Feldman

     /  August 31, 2012

    I have been so sad since hearing that Mayer had passed. He was a truly good soul and a profound intellectual. I have many fond memories of conversations with him and of his insights into both individuals and fields of study. Of the many things I miss about him, perhaps I miss the most his role as connector. He had an uncanny way of grocking individuals and then telling them about the person they needed to talk with or the book they needed to read. He enriched the worlds of those lucky enough to come into contact with him. I find it hard to believe that I won’t have the pleasure of another conversation. – Martha Feldman

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