In Remembrance of James March

Legendary Sociologist James (Jim) March passed away on September 27th at the age of 90. Jim was a member of BSPA’s board and we wanted to pay tribute to his legacy by bringing together some of the remembrances written over the past several weeks, including a personal tribute by John W. Payne.

From the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where March was on the faculty for five decades:

He is best known for his research on organizations, organizational decision-making, and organizational behavior. A trilogy of works published within a span of seven years led to the opening of an entirely new and broad field of study. His seminal book, Organizations, written jointly with Herbert A. Simon in 1958, and five years later, Behavioral Theory of the Firm with Richard M. Cyert in 1963, and the edited volume, Handbook of Organizations, injected uncertainty and internal resource allocation problems, among other complexities. The book coauthored with Cyert challenged prevailing assumptions that firms exist to maximize profit and have perfect knowledge. His later research focused on understanding risk-taking, decision-making, learning, and leadership, drawing lessons from literature and literary classics.

March held professorships at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Graduate School of Education, and School of Humanities and Sciences. He is credited with transforming the fields of political science, economics, management, psychology, sociology, and education.

In addition to his prolific academic writing, he authored 11 books of poetry and two films. Throughout his career, he remained an inspirational teacher, winning Stanford’s Walter J. Gores Award for excellence in teaching in 1995.

“The scope of Jim’s research interests was breathtaking, as was his passion for teaching,” said Jonathan Levin, Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business. “He was determined to break down interdisciplinary walls, insisting that as a condition of accepting the job offer to come to the GSB in 1970 his courses be open to students from any department of the university. As a result, he probably had more students in his classes from outside the GSB than inside.” At Stanford GSB, March was Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Management, Emeritus.

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The University of Bergen, in Norway, where March visited several times and held an honorary Doctorate, puts his contributions in perspective and ends with these remarks:

Jim often argued that one should not exaggerate the role of individuals in history. He was a believer in organizations and institutions more than heroic leaders. Nevertheless, as one who knew Jim for half a century, I have no doubt that he was a great leader, respected and loved by colleagues and friends around the world.

Oleg Komlik, writing at Economic Sociology, writes a lovely piece about March’s love for poetry and includes a poem by March:

“Success” by James G. March


No one needs him

after he’s gone.

No one who stays

depends on him,

if he has done it right;

No one asks

why flowers grow,

or how a summer ends,

or notices long

that he has gone, quietly

into the dark.


March, James G. 1980. Pleasures of the Process. London: Poets’ & Painters’ Press. (p. 98)


The Strategic Management Division also includes several personal remembrances (see pages 21-24) in their Fall newsletter.

And finally, here are John Payne’s remarks, written shortly after his mentor’s passing:             


In Jim March’s Memory

John W. Payne

Let me start my remarks in memory of James (“Jim”) G. March with the following question: Who was Jim March? Was Jim a psychologist, an economist, a political scientist, a sociologist, an organizational (business) theorist, an educational theorist and leader, a poet or film writer? I could go on and on, but the point is made; Jim was all of the above in his long professional life, not to mention his roles as a husband, father, friend, and mentor to many. Consequently, I will limit my remarks to a very personal perspective on Jim March. I could not hope to review all of Jim’s many scholarly accomplishments.

One of the nicest compliments I ever received was when Jim told people at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) that I was one of his students. This felt like a great honor to me although to be completely accurate I only ever took one course under Jim. That course was the first-year introduction to Social Sciences during 1965-66, when I was a freshman and UCI had just opened. It is another honor to have been asked to write a few words in memory of Jim March, and very humbling as well. To paraphrase a very old and often used phrase, I have benefited greatly by “standing on the shoulders of giants” such as James G. March.

Three things I learned in that freshman course with Jim March were the value of interdisciplinary research, the importance of formal modeling, and an appreciation of good social science applied to real problems. Moreover, although my formal coursework with Jim was limited, he was one big reason why my undergraduate degree at UCI was in the Program of Mathematical and Computer Models in the Behavioral Sciences (the Formal Models program, for short). He was also indirectly one of the reasons I went to Carnegie-Mellon University for a postdoc and got to know Herbert A. Simon (another genius in addition to Jim March, on whose shoulders I have stood, and a co-author of Jim’s). Therefore, even though we have not seen each other in the recent past, I do feel a great obligation to Jim for the success I have had in my academic career.

To me, scholarly genius requires not only great depth of impact but also breadth of impact across fields of study and across time. Jim March had both depth and breadth of impact. I should note that Jim was an academic for a long time. To paraphrase Jim again, he (and later I) went into kindergarten, decided school was a good place, and never left.

Now I know that when you write or speak in memory and honoring someone you are to say only nice things. Nevertheless, let me be honest, Jim could also apply his genius to saying very critical things in stark terms. In his role as the Dean of the School of Social Sciences at UCI, Jim was famous for his biting memos. To illustrate, while Jim was once nice enough to call me his student,  he also called me a “tinkerer”, referring to his assessment that I had only tinkered around the edges of the rational man model of decision-making. Specifically, he felt that my efforts to incorporate cognitive effort into models of human decision behavior had not gone far enough. His view was that actual human decision-making was more fundamentally different than the highly stylized rational man conception than I was allowing for in my research. As usual, Jim was probably right in both his assessment of my research and his view of human decision behavior.  Although to be a bit fair to myself, we did agree on the idea that human beliefs and preferences frequently are “constructed” not just revealed. We both thought that human information processing limitations (costs) made the existence and order (task and context invariance) of beliefs and preferences, often assumed by economists, essentially impossible. For an early written statement of this perspective on constructed preferences see March (1978). For a more recent (2013) verbal statement of this perspective by Jim, see the video interview here. Jim’s humor also comes across in that video.

I am not about to try to summarize all of Jim’s MANY theoretical contributions in this short piece. It would be impossible. The video clip of Jim’s interview mentioned above does a much better job of summarizing his contributions in his own words than I could ever do in my words. However, let me mention two examples of the broad view of decision-making that Jim advocated. One perspective, illustrated in Jim’s work with Herb Simon, is the close connection that exist between the study of individual decision behavior, and its limitations, and how organizations actually make organizational level decisions, a connection made by Jim between psychology and organizational theory. The other perspective is how often decisions simply reflect the roles that people adopt. Sometimes the decisions we make simply reflect the role that is most salient in our minds at the time of decisions. That is, we sometimes make decisions in our roles as a man or woman or our various ethnic backgrounds or professionally as a plumber or as a professor without much, if any, thinking of consequences. In other words, role salience can be primed without awareness, a connection made by Jim between psychology and sociology. Although I don’t know if Jim ever also made this connection, but it also seems to me to be related to the point in Danny Kahneman’s (2011) book on thinking fast (System 1) and thinking slow (System 2). Kahneman is another genius in my field, and I am happy to say I have also stood on his shoulders. While System 2 thinking is often, in my opinion, heuristic in processing, it is the type of thinking most closely associated with the classic rational man or woman models found in economic theory. System 1 thinking, on the other hand, is more “intuitive” using a variety of heuristics like “representativeness.” I would just go farther and suggest that the kinds of stimulus-response, quick, often unaware, and low effort thinking that is seen in the role-based decisions emphasized by March is also a form of what we now referred to as System 1 thinking.

To close, let me just say thanks in memory of Jim March. Jim influenced the lives of many people professionally and personally, and I was extremely fortunate to be one such person.