Mayer Zald: 1931-2012

Mayer Zald

The academic world has lost one its most important figures, someone who lifted a previously obscure area of study from oblivion and made sociological insights about political processes relevant–rather than deviant. Mayer Zald was a consummate intellect, who read everything he could and took seriously what he read. He was the opposite of the ideologues who wanted to delimit the field of social movements to groups of a particular persuasion or of a limited level of resource mobilization. Mainstream politics became a sociological topic because of Mayer Zald, and sociology reclaimed some of its intellectual import into the realm of politics because Mayer coaxed us out of the backwaters of non-institutionalized political action. Mayer also made substantial contributions to the connection between religion and politics, and seminal forays into organizational analyses used the YMCA as a case study—lest we forget that the YMCA is a Christian organization. His insights that religious organizations are theological crucibles forging ideologically structured action provide us with a framework for analyzing the intersections between religion and politics into the 21st century. His wisdom lives on.

When I started my career, resource mobilization theory was both  dominant and controversial. Partisans on both sides were dismissive of alternative perspectives to explain movement formation, actions, and success. And discussions of rational motivations for collective action tended to get downright ugly.  Yet, when I first met Mayer Zald in Spring of 1988, it was at the Southern Soc. Society meetings, and he was a presenter and discussant in the main session on social movements. I was presenting a synthetic paper on how RM and frame analytic perspectives might explain movement activism following a natural disaster (co-authored with Jean Blocker and Burke Rochford, neither of whom were there, as I recall). I was expecting fireworks and harsh criticism. Instead, Mayer offered very cogent criticism and effusive support for my research. I was floored. Here I was, a first year grad student expecting to get slapped by the evil genius of RM, and instead he said “yeah, I really think we need to have more cultural perspectives on why people do or do not get involved.”

Not long after, I had the privilege to meet Mayer in more informal settings at Tony Oberschall’s seminars at UNC. Mayer came down at least once a year to see his old colleague from Vanderbilt, and it was always an event when he did.

Mayer was a strong supporter when I went to Vanderbilt, and while he and Tony warned me of the political pitfalls, both of them were active in helping me throughout my career. Mayer was especially influential, and I’m sure his recommendation helped sway people like  Ernie Campbell, Bill Rushing, and Pete Peterson to vote for my early promotion.

I still marvel at how Mayer maintained his focus on scholarship and his commitment to the discipline. It is easy to quit. I think about quitting a lot. Mayer never quit.

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