Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 2.
Dustin Stoltz: How did you become interested in sociology and the study of culture?
Diane Vaughan: I had started as a freshman at Ohio State spring quarter, 1970, when the Kent State shootings happened. The National Guard was soon on our campus, armed with gas masks, facing down protesting students and throwing tear gas. I remember being in a history class, taking my first midterm with tear gas coming in from the Oval. I was transformed by these events. I didn’t have a major, but gravitated to a course in Social Change taught by Eva Sebo, a Columbia ABD writing a dissertation about Simmel. She was so influential. She was Hungarian, urbane, and my first woman professor. We read four major theories. We read Blau, Power and Exchange in Social Life, Blumer’s Symbolic Interaction, Coser on The Social Functions of Conflict, and the last was Simmel, On Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations. She had us write four papers that applied each theory to a reading in a Social Problems book. I learned how to think sociologically and how to theorize with empirical data. It was an incredible class. I was raising children so had not really thought about graduate school, but once I discovered sociology, other things happened. After Attica, I took a penology class that visited all the prisons in Ohio, then I worked that summer at the Ohio Reformatory for Women and kept a diary about it. My professor read it and encouraged me to go to grad school. Once there, I saw the relevance of the organizations literature to prisons and to Simmel. But if not for Eva Sebo, my future might have been different. I used my notes from her class to prepare for my master’s exams and my generals. Every class I teach I have students apply theories to data. And Simmel on social forms I have been using ever since, in what I call analogical theorizing, looking for similarities and differences across examples of similar events or outcomes in organizational forms that vary in size, complexity and function. Simmel wrote about culture and social forms, but I only discovered culture later, as I developed analogical theorizing across cases and saw how culture affected individual decision making. A long answer to your question, but I guess you could say that my data drove me to it.
DS: What work does culture do in your thinking, and what do you see as the benefits and limitations of your approach as compared to alternatives?
DV: It worked the other way, that my approach has let me discover how culture works in other people’s thinking. I started looking at how things go wrong in organizational forms of different size, complexity and function, and only when I got to the point of analyzing complex organizational systems did I have the data that let me see how culture affected individual interpretation, meaning, and choice. The analogies are that both Challenger and Dead Reckoning join institutional theory, cultural beliefs, and cognition in the explanation. Both show occupational habitus in practical action. And both show the development and transmission of culture over time. But each book shows culture working in different ways. It’s complicated, but in Challenger, there’s the production of a cultural belief in acceptable risk at the micro-level, pushed forward by the culture of production at the macro-level, as well as the culture of professional engineering acquired in their training that led them to make a fatal mistake. The central concept is the normalization of deviance.
Challenger was a retrospective analysis based on archival data and interview transcripts from the official investigation, and my interviews. Dead Reckoning is field work in four facilities. I forgot to say that this book is not about how things go wrong in organizations. In the cross-case comparison, I chose this as the fourth and negative case, about how they get things mostly right. My main questions are what makes air traffic control so safe, and what do controllers do that technology can’t replace, so from the outset cognition was central to the analysis. Culture works differently on cognition in every chapter. Because the airspace is different for each facility, the architecture, technology, and task vary, so produce a different culture at each place. The institutional logics of the system become embodied during their training, so cultural understandings affect distributed cognition. It’s not all top down, though. Controllers create cultural understandings that mediate the difficulties of working in this system. Risk and stress, for one, but also they construct symbolic boundaries that mediate the inequalities of the formal stratification system and set the moral boundaries of their work. Boundaries and boundary work are central concepts.
So again a long answer, but I think one benefit of my approach is in having organizational forms as the units of analysis and being able to compare across cases. Each case produces different kinds of data, often at different levels of analysis, so lends itself to theory development within and across cases. Also, thinking analogically, the patterns and differences found can be compared with results from cultural analysis in other organizational forms, so you could use cross-case comparison to understand, say, the emergence or change of culture of a gang in a neighborhood, or the culture of Catalonia in Spain. The obvious limitation is that there are many approaches to understanding culture and depending on the problem, level of analysis, and the research method that the researcher prefers, something else could work better.
DS: How does your approach to culture shape your choice of research topics, settings, and methods?
DV: I have learned a lot from this work. From Challenger I learned how the organizations we inhabit inhabit us. Dead Reckoning has reinforced that, but also shows how people create cultures that help them mediate system effects, including inequalities. Next I would like to know more about this. A single case. Something small, not a decade of work. Dead Reckoning is the comparison.
DS: What most excites you about the future of cultural theory and analysis in sociology?
DV: I love that over the course of my career, the work has become so sophisticated and gone in so many directions. We have progressed from culture as a fuzzy general concept to having theories and concepts that travel from one social situation to another, using everything from visual sociology, historical analysis, narrative, ethnography and interviews to John Mohr’s innovative “Measuring Meaning Structures” and now on to computational methods. In particular, I am excited about how culture is shaping organizational analysis and new work on culture and cognition. It’s integrated into field theory, for example. At a Berkeley conference last spring on “Fields, Logics, Frames, and Cognition,” we had common readings and small group and collective discussions about progress and challenges. It was inspiring.
Diane Vaughan is a Professor of Sociology and International and Public
Affairs at Columbia University. She completed her doctorate at Ohio State (‘79) under the direction of Simon Dinitz. Her dissertation applied theories of deviance to organizations, resulting in her first book, Controlling Unlawful Organizational Behavior (Chicago, 1983), followed by her second book, Uncoupling (Oxford, 1986). The Challenger Launch Decision—which went on to garner numerous awards and publicity including a nomination for a Pulitzer—contributed to the general theme of her previous work in analyzing how things go wrong in organizations by exploring the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Many years later, after the explosion of the Columbia Space Shuttle upon re-entry in 2003, Vaughan was invited to join the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, demonstrating NASA had not learned from the previous accident as the normalization of deviance also lead to the 2003 incident. As a result of her extensive work as a public intellectual, she won the 2006 Public Understanding of Sociology Award from the ASA. Her fourth book, Dead Reckoning: System Effects, Boundary Work, and Risk in Air Traffic Control (currently in review), is a negative case: an organization where things mostly do not go wrong. Her theoretical approach, influenced by Simmel’s formal sociology, has lead to several theoretical articles on the use of analogy, and her next work will be a book length discussion: Theorizing: Analogy, Cases, and Comparative Social Organization.