Diane Vaughan

Principal Investigator

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 the sociology of organizations, sociology of culture, deviance and social control, field methods, research design, and science, knowledge, and technology.  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.

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.  The product of this work is a book in progress, Theorizing:  Analogy, Cases, and Comparative Social Organization.

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 the Columbia accident.

The analogical theorizing project has led her now to an ethnography and interview-based study of air traffic control. In particular, 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 human cognitive abilities and technology in a highly standardized system in which risk and safety are their responsibility.  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.

Columbia Affiliations
Center for the Management of Systemic Risk (CMSR)