Diane Vaughan (* 1950) received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Ohio State University in 1979 and taught at Boston College from 1984 to 2005. During this time, she was awarded fellowships at prestigious institutions such as Yale, the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford, the American Bar Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the ASA award for Public Understanding of Sociology. In 2005, she joined Columbia University.
Influenced by Georg Simmel's work on social forms as a graduate student, she developed the concept of analogical theorizing—a method for developing general theoretical explanations through cross-case comparisons of similar events, activities, or phenomena across different organizational forms. Her work primarily focuses on understanding how things can go wrong in organizations, spanning topics such as controlling unlawful organizational behavior, relationship dynamics, and high-stakes events like the Challenger disaster.
Diane's research centers on institutional persistence, change, culture, cognition, and agency. She delves into the production of scientific and technical knowledge in complex socio-technical systems over time and space. Her theoretical framework explores system effects—how events in the institutional environment influence organizations and vice versa, affecting workplace architecture, technology, tasks, culture, cognition, and individual and group responses to these institutional contingencies.
In her groundbreaking work on the Challenger disaster, Diane revealed the concept of the "normalization of deviance," where clearly unsafe practices become considered normal if they do not immediately lead to catastrophic consequences. This concept was instrumental in explaining the sociological causes of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, shedding light on the long incubation period preceding catastrophic events with early warning signs often misinterpreted, ignored, or missed.
In contrast to her analysis of the Challenger case, which focused on top-level decision-makers, her work on air traffic control highlights the agency of workers lower in the organizational hierarchy. Controllers respond to political pressures and the challenges posed by technological and organizational innovations by making decisions that contribute to system resilience.
Diane Vaughan's contributions extend beyond academia, as her research has important implications for understanding and preventing organizational failures, whether in relationships, space exploration, or other high-risk endeavors. Her work emphasizes the significance of the organization itself in shaping behavior, shifting the focus from individual responsibility to systemic influences.
Vaughan's research has made her a renowned figure in sociology, shedding light on the dark side of organizations and emphasizing the need to understand the systemic factors that contribute to failures in various contexts. Her work continues to inspire both scholars and practitioners to explore the intricate relationship between organizations, culture, cognition, and the normalization of deviance.