Ph.D., Ohio State, 1979
Diane Vaughan received her Ph.D. in Sociology, Ohio State University, 1979, and taught at Boston College from 1984 to 2005. During this time, she was awarded fellowships at Yale (1979-82), Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford (1986-87), The American Bar Foundation (1988-1989), The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1996-1997), and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2003-04). She came to Columbia in 2005.
Her interests are organizations, work and technology, science, knowledge, and technology, deviance and social control, sociology of culture, and field methods. The prime theoretical focus of her research is how the social - history, institutions, organizations - affect individual meanings, decisions, and action. Culture is the important mediator in this process, making ethnographic methods, supplemented by interviews, the best means of understanding these relationships. In addition to joining institutional and organizational factors to understand what Geertz calls "the native view," she uses historical ethnography as a method, which allows her to study systems and processes by locating social actors and outcomes in their changing context and temporality.
Since 1980, she has been working on analogical theorizing: developing theory from qualitative data based on cross-case analysis. The goal is to compare cases of similar events, activities or phenomena across different organizational forms in order to elaborate general theory or concepts. This project has focused on the "dark side" of organizations: mistake, misconduct, and disaster. Her interest in how things go wrong in organizations has thus far resulted in Controlling Unlawful Organizational Behavior, Uncoupling, and The Challenger Launch Decision. Although very different in size, complexity, and function, all three cases were of organizations - a relationship being the smallest organization we create. Morover, in common across cases they had a common pattern: each had a long incubation period with early warning signs that were either missed, misinterpreted or ignored until after some unanticipated negative outcome.
The analogical theorizing project has led her now to an ethnography and interview-based study of air traffic control. She is examining it as a negative case: how controllers are trained to recognize early warning signs and anomalies as signals of potential danger and correct them, so that little mistakes do not turn into catastrophes. Comparing four air traffic facilities, the focus is the work that air traffic controllers do and the interface between institutional,organizational and technological factors and human cognitive and material practices in a highly standardized system that is full of variation. Much of the viability of air traffic control depends upon the human component, as individuals do boundary work, negotiating institutional, organizational, and air space boundaries in order to keep the system going. The fourth book in the project, Dead Reckoning: System Effects, Boundary Work, and Risk in Air Traffic Control, in now nearing completion.
The product of this comparative work will be Theorizing: Analogy, Cases, and Comparative Social Organization. Both Dead Reckoning and The Challenger Launch Decision are historical ethnographies. Her NASA analysis was awarded the Rachel Carson Prize, the Robert K Merton Award, Honorable Mention for Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship of the American Sociological Association, and was nominated for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. As a result of her analysis of the Challenger accident, she was asked to testify before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003, then became part of the Board's research staff, working with the Board to analyze and write the chapters of the Report identifying the social causes of NASA's Columbia accident.
"Theorizing: Analogy, Cases, and Comparative Social Organization," in Richard A. Swedberg (ed.) Theorizing in Social Science. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2014: 61-84.
"Analytic Ethnography," in Peter Hedstrom and Peter Bearman (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009: 688-711.
"Bourdieu and Organizations: The Empirical Challenge," Theory and Society 37, 1, 2008: 65-81.
"NASA Revisited: Theory, Analogy, and Public Sociology," American Journal of Sociology 112, 2. 2006.
"Theorizing Disaster: Analogy, Historical Ethnography, and the Challenger Accident," Ethnography 5, 3: 2005: 313-45.
"History as Cause: Columbia and Challenger." Ch. 8. Report. Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Vol. 1. August 2003.
"Intimate Work: Teaching Sociologists to Write," Teaching Sociology: July 1988: 275-78.