Organizations and Movements

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Organizations and Movements

Doug McAdam

Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences
W. Richard Scott

Department of Sociology, Stanford University

August 2002
Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association, Chicago, IL, August, 2002. Revised draft of a paper prepared for an invitational Conference on Organizations and Social Movements held at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, May 10-11, 2002.


There is little question that two of the most active and creative arenas of scholarly activity in the social sciences during the past four decades have been organizational studies (OS) and social movement analysis (SM). Both have been intellectually lively and vigorous in spite of the fact that scholars in both camps began their projects during the early 1960s on relatively barren soil. Students of OS took up their labors alongside the remnants of scientific management, their human relations critics, and scattered studies of bureaucratic behavior. SM scholars were surrounded by earlier empirical work on rumors, panics, crowds, and mobs together with a “smorgasbord” of theoretical perspectives, including the collective behavior, mass society, and relative deprivation approaches (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1988, p. 695). In both situations, prior work provided scant theoretical coherence and little basis for optimism. Moreover, in this early period no connection existed or, indeed, seemed possible between the two fields since the former concentrated on instrumental, organized behavior while the latter’s focus was on “spontaneous, unorganized, and unstructured phenomena” (Morris 2000, p. 445).

OS began to gain traction with the recognition of the importance of the wider environment, first material resource and technical features, then political, and, more recently, institutional and cultural forces. Open systems conceptions breathed new life into a field too long wedded to concerns of internal administrative design, leadership, and work group cohesion. SM studies also began to revive because of increased recognition of the environment—not just as contexts breeding alienation or a sense of deprivation, but as the source of resources, including movement members and allies—as a locus of opportunities as well as constraints. In addition, SM scholars increasingly came to recognize the importance of organizations and organizing processes. Resources must be mobilized and momentum maintained for movements to be successful, and both tasks require instrumental activities and coordination of effort: in short, organization.

Since the onset of the modern period, then, both fields have flourished and there has been some interchange and learning. The learning to date, however, has been largely uni-directional. SM scholars have been able to productively borrow and adapt organizational ideas to their own uses; OS scholars have been far less opportunistic in taking advantage of movement ideas. (We detail this imbalance below.) Recent developments in each field, to our eyes, suggest a pattern of complementary strengths and weaknesses. If this is the case, then increased interaction of the two sets of scholars, with heightened collaboration and diffusion/adaption of ideas and methods, should be especially beneficial.

Today, as we ease into a new century, we see signs of increased interest and interaction among participants in the two fields. We seek to encourage this interchange and to help insure that the ideas flow in both directions. Both of us believe that the most interesting problems and greatest advances in the sciences often take place at the intersection of established fields of study.

In section I of this paper, we outline in broad strokes the development of the two areas, paying particular attention to weaknesses in one field that might be redressed by insights from the other, and we begin to sketch a general analytic framework that draws on recent work from both fields of study. In section II, we pursue the development of concepts designed to move from an organization or movement focus to an organizational field approach and from a static to a more dynamic examination of change processes linking movements and organizations.

In section III, we illustrate the power and generality—and, inevitably, no doubt point up the limitations—of our schema by applying it to two “cases” on which each of us has previously worked. The first case involves contention over changes in health care delivery and financing during the period 1945-1995, a situation that Scott and colleagues have studied (Scott, Ruef, Mendel, and Caronna 2000). The second case involves contention over civil rights during the period 1946-1970, a set of developments that McAdam has examined (McAdam 1982/1999). Both cases occurred in the same country, the United States, and in the same general historical period, but beyond that they differ in many ways, as our analysis attempts to make clear. If the framework can be helpful in examining these varied situations, it is likely to find applications to other times and places.

Two Bodies of Work
No attempt will be made to provide detailed overviews of what have become two substantial, diverse literatures. Rather, our brief review is intended to identify broad trends as well as lacunae or weaknesses in each area that might be addressed by strengths and insights in the other. We conclude this section by noting some recent signs of convergence.
Social Movements

Beginning in the mid-1960s, a group of young scholars, including Gamson, Tilly, and Zald, began to formulate more explicit organizational and political arguments to account for social unrest, converting the earlier focus on “collective behavior” to one on “collective action”, “social movements”, and, even, “social movement organizations” (Gamson 1968; 1975; Tilly and Rule 1965; Zald and Garner 1966). Some of this work usefully built on a theoretical perspective spearheaded by the early OS scholar Philip Selznick (1948; 1952), that employed an institutional perspective to examine the ways in which tensions between value commitments and survival concerns shaped the development of an organization (e.g., Zald and Denton, 1963). SM scholars reframed the view of protest and reform activities from one of irrational behavior—a flailing out against an unjust universe—to one involving instrumental action. Rather than stressing common grievances, SM theorists focussed attention on mechanisms of mobilization and opportunities to seek redress. While sharing broad similarities, two somewhat divergent approaches gradually emerged.

Zald and colleagues, in crafting their resource mobilization perspective, privileged organizational structures and processes (Zald and McCarthy 1987). Drawing on developments in OS, these theorists stressed that movements, if they are to be sustained for any length of time, require some form of organization: leadership, administrative structure, incentives for participation, and a means for acquiring resources and support. Embracing an open systems perspective, the importance of the organization’s relation to its environment—social, economic, political—was underscored. Following the early lead of Michels (1949 trans.), analysts were sensitive to the contradictory and complex relation between organizing and bureaucratizing processes and retaining ideological commitments (McCarthy and Zald 1977). More so than in mainstream OS, this work stressed the central role of power and politics, both within the organization and in its relation to the environment (Gamson 1975; Zald and Berger 1978).

A complementary political process perspective was pursued by Tilly and his associates. Though probably best known for its stress on shifting “political opportunities,” (and constraints), this “external” focus on the political environment was always joined with an “internal” analysis of the “critical role of various grassroots settings—work and neighborhood, in particular—in facilitating and structuring collective action” (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996, p. 4). In many situations, the seedbed of collective action is to be found in preexisting social arrangements that provide social capital critical to the success of early mobilizing processes when warmed by the sunlight of environmental opportunities that allow members to exploit their capital (Tilly 1978; Tilly, Tilly, and Tilly 1975).

Organizational Studies

Foundational work by Simon (1945) and March and Simon (1958) provided important building blocks in identifying the structures and processes that undergird “rational” decision-making, supporting the systematic collective pursuit of specified goals. The differences between organizations and other, “nonrational” collectivities was stressed. This seminal micro administrative behavior approach was soon joined by a number of more macro perspectives emphasizing the relation of the organization to its environment. An early and still widely employed modern, macro perspective on organizations, contingency theory, emerged in the mid-1960s as a guide for research on the adaptation of organizations to their environments (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967; Thompson 1967). Organizations that were better able to match their structural features to the distinctive demands of their environments were expected to be more successful. Contingency theory continued to focus on those organizational features and processes that were thought to be most distinctive to organizations, allowing them to serve as rationally-constructed collective instruments for goal attainment.

Within a decade, however, a number of alternative theoretical perspectives were developed—we focus on developments at the macro level—that shifted attention to less rational, more “natural” political and cultural conceptions of organizations. The organizational ecology perspective, applied primarily at the population level of analysis, resembled contingency theory in its focus on the material-resource environment. However, emphasis shifted to organizational survival, rather than efficiency or effectiveness, with analysts expressing skepticism regarding any straight-forward linkage between performance and persistence (Aldrich 1979; Hannan and Freeman1977). Resource-dependence (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978) and conflict theory (Collins 1975; Clegg and Dunkerley 1977) directly challenged rationality-based conceptions of organizational design and operation, arguing instead the central role played by power. Resource-dependence theorists directed attention to the political implications of asymmetric exchange processes while conflict theorists resurrected and refurbished Marxist arguments viewing organization as fundamentally structures of dominance and exploitation. Neoinstitutional theory (Meyer and Rowan 1977; DiMaggio and Powell 1983) emerged during the same period, calling attention to the role of wider cultural and normative frameworks in giving rise to and in sustaining organizations. These theorists asserted that organizations are evaluated in terms of their “social fitness” as well as their performance: legitimacy and accountability are as important, if not more so, than reliability and efficiency.

In sum, OS experienced a highly creative period during the past four decades that witnessed the development and testing of several somewhat conflicting, somewhat complementary theoretical perspectives. Rational system models were joined and challenged by political and cultural models; but all embraced open systems assumptions (Scott 1998). The general trend in theoretical frameworks and research designs has been both up and out: “up” to encompass wider levels of analysis and “out” to incorporate more facets of the environment.

Complementary Strengths and Weaknesses

Even this brief review begins to showcase some of the obvious strengths of past theoretical work in the two areas and to suggest important differences. (See Table 1) First, many SM theorists had the perspicacity to embrace OS concepts and arguments fairly early and adapt them for use in their own theories. But, in doing so, they retained their distinctive focus on social process. They have given particular attention to such phenomena as the mobilization of people and resources, the construction and reconstruction of purposes and identities, the building of alliances, and the crafting of ideologies and cultural frames to support and sustain collective action. By contrast, OS scholars have devoted more attention to structure, including both informal and formal—but with increasing attention to the latter—within as well as among organizations. While there are important exceptions that feature process approaches—e.g., case studies such as those of Selznick (1949), Blau (1955), and Barley (1986); change-oriented analyses such as those by Fligstein (1990), Pettigrew and Whipp (1991), and Van de Ven et al. (1999); and ecological and evolutionary studies such as Hannan and Freeman (1989), Baum and Singh (1994) and Aldrich (1999)—the vast majority of OS works up to the present focus on structure. More so than their SM counterparts, OS scholars have emphasized organizations over organizing, structure over process.

[Insert Table 1 about here]

A closely related difference pertains to the origins of organizations. Only very recently have OS students concerned themselves with the creation of organizations—with entrepreneurship and organizational “genetics” (see Aldrich 1999; Suchman forthcoming; Thornton 1999). SM scholars, in contrast, have spent much time and effort attempting to discern the conditions under which new (movement) organizations arise and do or do not succeed in gaining sufficient mass and momentum to survive and flourish.

A third difference pertains to the scope or level of analysis employed by the two sets of scholars. Although there are important exceptions, most SM scholars have been relentlessly movement-centric in their research designs, focusing either on a single movement organization—e.g., the Knights of Labor (Voss 1993) or on organizations of the same type (an organizational population), such as chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (McCarthy et al. 1988). Even though McCarthy and Zald (1977) were quick to appropriate the concept of industry (or organizational field) from OS, they and others have generally employed it to examine the effects of other, alternative and rival, movements on a focal movement organization and population rather than consider the industry or field itself as the subject of analysis. Exceptions to this generalization include McAdam’s (1982/1999) study of the civil rights movement, which included an examination of the major movement organizations and their sources of resistance and support, and Clement’s (1996) analysis of the alternative forms utilized by groups active in the American labor movement during the period 1880-1920.

While OS scholars have conducted many studies of individual organizations and organizational populations, they also in recent years have expanded their concern to the industry or organizational field level. In this respect, the concept of organizational field developed by OS students represents a valuable new analytic lens. As defined by DiMaggio and Powell (1983, p. 148), a field refers to:

those organizations that, in the aggregate, constitute a recognized area of institutional life: key suppliers, resource and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar services and products.

(See also, Scott and Meyer 1983; Scott 1994) The concept of field identifies an arena—a system of actors, actions, and relations—whose participants take one another into account as they carry out interrelated activities. Rather than focusing on a single organization or movement, or even a single type of organization or movement (population), it allows us to view these actors in context. Representative studies include DiMaggio’s (1991) analysis of the high culture field of art museums, Fligstein’s (1990) study of the transformation of corporate forms in the US during the 20th century, and Dezalay and Garth’s (1996) examination of the emergence of an institutional framework for transnational commercial arbitration.

A fourth difference pertains to the treatment of power in the two literatures. SM scholars have from the outset emphasized the crucial role of power and politics in social life. These studies are replete with discussions of activists, bloodshed, conflicts, contentious uprisings, challenges to authority, polarization, rallies, repression, riots, sit-ins, strikes, and tactics. For their part, thanks to the enduring legacy of Max Weber and Karl Marx, OS scholars also recognize that organizations are systems of domination, so that issues of centralized decision making and control loom large. However, with only a few exceptions—e.g., scholars such as Clegg and Dunkerley (1980), Perrow (1986) and Pfeffer (1981; 1992)—OS students have opted for the Weberian rather than the Marxist framing. Their subject has been institutionalized power: power coded into structural designs and bolstered by widely shared cultural norms and ideologies. They have attended less to the ways in which power in and among organizations operates in unintended or unconventional ways to challenge or change existing structures. In general, the benign frameworks of administration and management—of authority, technology, and rational design—or those of institutionalists—of taken-for-granted beliefs, normative systems, and entrenched routines—have trumped naked power and politics in OS.

Thus, while both camps attend to power, they focus on different aspects of power, on different moments of power processes. SM scholars have tended to limit their purview to what McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (2001) term “transgressive contention” —change efforts that require the conscious mobilization of marginalized or disenfranchised elements. By contrast, OS students have largely restricted their attention to “prescribed politics” (McAdam 1999), involving the activation and reproduction of institutionalized authority.

One final difference between the two scholarly areas can be identified. While SM students have focused on incipient or nascent power to the neglect of established power they, somewhat paradoxically, have concentrated on collective action aimed at influencing official governmental policies and systems—the authoritative structures of public order—to the neglect of more localized and specialized regimes. Their preferred subjects of study have been broad, society-wide movements aimed at affecting politics with a capital “P”. OS students have been more willing to examine the operation of governance activities and structures that are targeted to specific sectors of the polity involving more delimited policies and players, such as professional and trade associations. Wholey and Sanchez (1991, p. 743) develop a closely related distinction, differentiating between “social” and ”economic” regulation. Social regulation pertains to governmental policies that “cut across industries,” affecting all workers, the environment, civil rights. Economic regulation tends to be “industry specific, focusing on market structure and firm conduct within markets.” SM theorists have focused their studies on movements aimed at influencing social regulatory policies; OS scholars have emphasized forces and factors affecting economic regulation. We view this distinction as congruent with our own but slightly narrower, since its exclusive concern is governmental policies. We, of course, attend to governmental policies, but also to the actions of what Selznick (1969) has termed “private governments”: organizations and associations that are empowered to exercise governance functions in specified arenas—e.g., professional or trade associations.

In sum, OS and SM arrived on the scene at about the same time, but have tended to go their own ways, rather like twins separated at birth. As summarized in Table 1, OS has concentrated on stability; SM on change; OS on existing forms, SM on emerging forms; OS on prescribed politics, SM on contentious politics; OS on sector-specific, SM on society-wide systems. Finally, OS has been more hospitable to employing field-level approaches while SM has favored movement-centric models aimed at affecting national policies.

Looking Forward

Our objective in this review is not to diminish past efforts or to take sides but, drawing on the strengths of each camp, to discern promising directions for future work. Learning from the SM scholars, we are convinced that future approaches will benefit from embracing a process framework. Studies of structure need to be augmented by greater attention to structuration. Learning from OS scholars, we believe that the organizational field level represents a particularly promising vantage point from which to view organization change. If treated longitudinally, the field level is particularly hospitable to the study of dynamic systems. As the boundaries of single organizations (including movements) and organizational populations become more blurred and permeable, as new forms arise and as new linkages are forged between existing forms, a field-level conception becomes indispensable to tracing the complexities of contemporary changes.

Rather than choosing between the other two dimensions—established vs. emergent power and society-wide vs. sector-specific arenas—we prefer to propose a framework that encompasses both. If we cross-classify them, we can characterize in broad strokes the fundamental division of labor that has developed between OS and SM scholars. (See Figure 1) Generally speaking OS analysts have concentrated their energies in quadrant 1: the study of established organizational forms operating in specialized sectors or arenas, such as education or the automobile industry. For their part, SM scholars have focused primarily on quadrant 4: the study of emergent and challenging social movement organizations targeting society-wide concerns, such as women’s or worker’s rights. What of the two remaining quadrants? Quadrant 2, established society-wide governance structures would seem to be more the realm of general and political sociologists, although SM theorists must take these systems into account, as context, since they provide the background of opportunity and constraint for any social movement. Quadrant 3, emergent industries, has received relatively little attention until recently but is currently a growth area in OS and economic sociology, as detailed below.

[Figure 1 about here]

This division of labor appears to be serviceable enough although, on reflection, it can be seen to be too tidy and overly simplified. First, societal sectors and broader societies are not air-tight containers, but interdependent and interpenetrated. A social movement originating in a specialized arena—e.g., consumer safety concerns in the automobile industry—can be generalized—as consumer rights—and diffuse into other specialized sectors as well as national debates. Second, all the quadrants are composed of both established and emergent organizational forms, although their numbers and influence will vary greatly over time. The so-called “established” arenas—whether entire societies or sectors such as healthcare services—can undergo fundamental change, as prevailing conventions are questioned and entrenched interests challenged. In such situations, attending to the structure and actions of both established and emergent players is critical to understanding subsequent processes and outcomes. Relatedly, it is wrong to concentrate on either contentious or prescribed politics as if they were mutually exclusive. Transgressive contention occurs in established organizational settings, as Zald and Berger (1978) have insisted. And social movement organizations clearly confront and themselves utilize prescribed politics. In short, OM scholars need to be more attuned to the suppressed or emergent forces at work while OS scholars, for their part, need to sensitive to the actions and reactions of established organizations as well as to the increasing institutionalization of power within SM organizations. And, of equal importance, may there not be other types of power processes, currently overlooked or understudied, that would be illuminated if the lens of SM and OS scholars were employed in combination?

Returning to Figure 1, and focusing on those quadrants that do not represent the natural territories of either SM or OS scholars, there has been promising recent work in both quadrants 2 and 3. A number of scholars have drawn freely on both organizational and movement ideas to consider organizational change at the societal level (quadrant 2). Important studies by Fligstein (1990), Davis and colleagues (Davis and Greve 1997; Davis and Robbins 2001), and Palmer and colleagues (Palmer, Jennings and Zhou 1993; Palmer and Barber, forthcoming), among others, depict changes over time in the structural forms and strategies pursued by major American corporations as a consequence of contests between owners and various breeds of managers, the networks in which they embedded, and shifting norms and cognitive models. These studies all focus on the largest U.S. corporations, treating them as a single, society-wide organizational field. As for quadrant 3, a growing number of organizational scholars—primarily evolutionary and institutional sociologists—have examined the multiple forces at work—technological, economic, political, institutional—in creating and sustaining a new type of product or a new industry. (See Aldrich and Fiol 1994; Powell 1999; Suchman, forthcoming; Van de Ven et al. 1999). All of this work recognizes the importance of both established and challenging actors with their contending interests, as well as established and challenging ideas and norms that inform, motivate and constrain action.

We applaud this work and can learn from it, but our primary interest is in strengthening research in the more conventional areas of OS and SM—quadrants 1 and 4.. It is our hope, then, that these two research arenas can be combined—or, at least, brought into closer juxtaposition enabling more productive intercourse between the two fields. Our aim is to begin to craft a broader and stronger foundation for describing and explaining organizationally mediated social change processes in modern societies.

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