Mayer Zald on organizations and bureaucracy

Mayer Zald helped to shape the field of organizational behavior in the United States, beginning with his time as a faculty member at Vanderbilt and continuing through his long career in sociology at the University of Michigan. In 1971 he published an early version of some of his thinking on this subject in a short book, Occupations and organizations in American society: The organization-dominated man?. Zald received his PhD from Michigan in 1961, so this book reflects his thinking and state of development during the first decade of his professional career.

As we examine the triple spectra of gigantic bureaucracy, of everyone a professional, and of guild-like professional associations, we must keep in mind that technology, client demands, economics, and politics are the underlying forces that shape the world of work. These basic factors not only shape professional autonomy and prestige, but also reshape organizations. Obviously, there is some truth in the image of man as organization-dominated, but American society is too diverse and complex to be summed up by this aphorism. (3)

One thing that this passage calls out to me is an emphasis on fluidity and heterogeneity in basic social institutions.  There are pulls and pushes that change institutions and practices over time, and they work through the activities of various of the actors involved in the system at a given time. This has a lot in common with the very recent ideas about “strategic fields” that McAdam and Fligstein have been developing in A Theory of Fields (link).

Much of the focus of Zald’s book is on the professions — the ways in which professions are shaped and propelled by a variety of forces within a given political economy. His work on this question pre-dates Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor by seventeen years (link); and though it isn’t as detailed a study as Abbott’s, it certainly contains many interesting insights into the topic.

Here is how Zald distinguishes between “profession” and “occupation”:

Professions tend to be among the more prestigious occupations; they are commonly viewed as based on a relatively abstract body of knowledge. Whether a profession is based on a scientific discipline or not, usually, it is based on a fairly extensive abstract body of principles and practices that require a long training period to master. (17)

In Table 2 Zald provides a list of examples of “established” and “in process” professions, and he provides a set of important benchmarks in the development of a profession:

  • Established: accounting, architecture, civil engineering, dentistry, law, medicine
  • In process: nursing, optometry, pharmacy teaching, social work, veterinary medicine
  • Doubtful: advertising, funeral direction

Here are the benchmarks that he singles out as important markers in the emergence of a profession: date of becoming a full-time occupation, first training school, first university school first local professional association, first national professional association, first state license law, first code of ethics.  And he expects these to occur in roughly the chronological order in which they are listed.

It is worth reflecting on the conjunction that Zald brings together in this short book: occupation and organization. The connection between these two concepts isn’t entirely obvious; one has to do with specializations of work, and the other has to do with the social systems through which activities and work are conducted. So why are they conjoined here?

It seems that Zald has a somewhat complex set of ideas in mind: the specialization of skill and technique is a prerequisite to more complex forms of organization; but likewise complex organizations are necessary in order to support the training and indoctrination that is associated with the development of individuals’ skills and knowledge. So each of these social factors presupposes the other. This reading of the conjunction seems to be born out here:

A system’s centralization or decentralization affects the growth and development of organizations and occupations for managing and coordinating the components of the system… As long as American society permits major product innovation and development to reflect consumer sovereignty, occupational and organizational change and growth will be closely linked to the taste buds of mass society. (15)

The other side of the conjunction is organization and bureaucracy. Zald doesn’t exactly say what he means by an organization; rather, he talks about larger and smaller organizations. But it is possible to piece together what he has in mind. An organization is an extended group of individuals dedicated to bringing about a specified set of outcomes: make and sell automobiles, provide emergency room services, distribute and sell groceries, collect tribute from dependent tribes, enforce religious injunctions throughout an extended territory, … 

For example, a band of pirates is a small organization with direct control and supervision exerted by the pirate captain and with a small list of specialized functions: scan the horizon for prey, load the ammunition, attack the ship, distribute the booty, keep order among the pirates. But as scale increases, more complex social mechanisms are needed to maintain coordination of behavior by subordinates and to maintain effective exercise of the purposes of the organization. A manufacturing company with multiple factories requires a variety of kinds of specialists: engineers, designers, factory managers, auditors, tax specialists, marketing specialists, sales representatives. These are specialized “occupations” within the organization; and they require specialized forms of oversight and control if the specialists are to be expected to carry out their functions in the interest of the “management” (the guiding purposes of the organization).

The idea of a principal-agent problem is central here: how does the central management ensure that its agents are performing their duties in ways that conform to the organization’s goals, rather than using their positions to improve their own interests?

Zald puts this set of organizational challenges in terms of a set of fundamental questions:

Even though each industry has developed its own techniques, almost all large-scale organizations in America have come to grips with problems created by the transformation of organizations and occupations described in the last two sections. (1) Given the increasing size and complexity of organization, how is authority to be delegated? (2) Once delegated, how are the units to be controlled? (3) given the increasing size of the labor force and the distance between top managers or owners and lower-level workers, how is labor to be harnessed by incentive, by organization, and by ideology? (4) Given the increasing complexity of occupations, the emergence specialized techniques and professions, with their own concepts of professional teases and procedures, how are professions to be harnessed to organizational goals? (51-52)

What is a bureaucracy? A bureaucracy is a particular kind of organization; but what kind? Zald gives a simple definition: “the archetypical bureaucracy controls through rules and hierarchical supervision” (36). So codified rules and a well defined authority structure are key components of a bureaucracy.

It would appear that these features make innovation and creative responses to changing circumstances more difficult than they would be in a more opportunistic and fluid kind of organization. A more cellular form of organization, with an alignment of goals and values across cells but substantial local autonomy, seems to be one that has more potential for rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.

We can try to apply these ideas in unexpected places. Were the Black Panthers a bureaucracy, with central management in Oakland and a set of inspectors and enforcers who visited the “franchises” in Chicago or Detroit? Or were they more of a viral organization, with a loose set of shared goals but great diversity of activity, local organization, and effectiveness? What about Al Qaeda or the Taliban — are these organizations “bureaucracies”? And what about the Occupy Movement?

Here is a history of the dissemination of the Black Panther Party that provides a basis for answering the first of these questions; Judson Jeffries, On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities across America. And much of the treatment Jeffries offers suggests the bureaucratic interpretation; for example —

In response to a critical letter sent in 1969 allegedly from a Detroit Panther and forwarded through Chicago, Landon B. Williams and Rory Hithe were dispatched to Detroit from the Oakland office to investigate a laundry list of allegations involving money and food coming up short, papers not being sold, money not being sent to the West Coast, and the disintegration of the NCCF into a dysfunctional and cliquish club of petty jealousies and dissension. Inspection tours from Oakland were not unheard of; in fact, Raymond “Masai” Hewitt and Donald Cox were reported to have visited numerous branches across the country as part of a regular inspection of each branch’s books and operations. Nonetheless, the arrival of Williams and Hithe was understood to be different, as the letter itself seems to have broken the protocol and chain of command whereby communication with Oakland was routinely done by phone and then only by two authorized officers — the communications secretary and defense captain. Moreover, Charlie Diggs Jr., for one, recognized the inspectors as what he referred to as “the goon squad from California” who were not there to examine the branch’s checkbook but to take the locals out into the alley and break their legs. “These guys you have to be scared of,” Berry remembered Diggs saying, “because that is why they sent them, if anything goes wrong in the chapter …. These guys come from out of town and wax you; they take care of you.” (156-57)

This passage captures many of the aspects of an organization that Zald highlighted — the need for control of the agents by the principals, the enforcement of rules of behavior within the organization, the need for supervision and oversight, and the need for internal processes of punishment for infractions. So it seems fair to say that the Black Panther Party of the 1970s was indeed an aspiring bureaucracy — paradoxical as that sounds. Here is another interesting collection on the history of the BPP; Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazerow, Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.


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