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Diane Vaughan Award Statement

Professor Diane Vaughan is the 2006 winner of the ASA’s Public Understanding of Sociology Award because she has had exceptional influence as a public intellectual for the past several decades. Indeed, she makes precisely the sort of contributions that the ASA had in mind when it established this award.

Professor Vaughan, who has published three important books and more than forty articles, chapters, and book reviews, has had an impressive role as a public intellectual. She has stated that she is a “public sociologist by accident” and that she started her practice of public sociology in a “low-profile way” because she knew of some professional sociologists’ disdain for it. As her career unfolded, however, it is clear that her public intellectual role is marked by unwavering intention and commitment.

One of Professor Vaughan’s earlier works, Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (Oxford University Press, 1986 – translated into at least six languages), which made important intellectual contributions to the field of sociology, was of widespread popular interest. This book received extensive media coverage, including appearances on Phil Donahue’s television program, two of the three major network morning shows, and a full-page story in the Washington Post. Uncoupling continues to sell after twenty years in print – by now it has reached such an extensive audience that it ranks among sociology’s best sellers.

Professor Vaughan’s widely acclaimed book, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (University of Chicago Press 1996), was a complex, detailed analysis of the processes that led to America’s first Space Shuttle disaster. It was one of the rare sociological works to receive a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review, as well as extensive commentary in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker articles. It won three book awards, including the Rachel Carson Prize and the Robert K. Merton Award, and was nominated for several others, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Vaughan’s thesis – that NASA’s culture had normalized risk in ways that created a catastrophe – received considerable attention and revised history. Ultimately, in order to get the press to understand the tragedy, she had to teach the sociological perspective.

As a result of her Challenger research and her expertise in the field, Professor Vaughan received great visibility in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry. In addition to responding to hundreds of media requests, Professor Vaughan testified before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and then became a member of the Board’s research staff, working to analyze and write the section of the Report identifying the social causes of the Columbia accident. She helped to show how the accident resulted from a failure of NASA’s organizational system, and how the social causes of Challenger had not been fixed. Vaughan made sure that the social causes were given equal primacy with the technical causes of Columbia’s tragic demise. The report’s important conclusions were shaped by Professor Vaughan’s tireless involvement in the project, her insistence on a sociological frame for the findings, and her commitment to bring her research findings and intellectual insight to the policy table.

In the Columbia aftermath, Professor Vaughan’s respected expertise about what had happened enabled her to get a Board composed of engineers, scientists, military officers, and officials to recognize that there were organizational – that is, sociological -- processes that had shaped these events. Her theories and concepts – such as the normalization of deviance, institutional failure, organizational culture, structure, and missed signals – became alive in public discourse and appeared in press accounts, even if she was not quoted.

Her work on the Columbia case is a remarkable instance of visible public service by a sociologist. Her current research is on air traffic controllers and the interface between human cognitive abilities and technology in a highly standardized system in which risk and safety are their responsibility. It seems clear that this work, like her previous projects, will lead to a greater public understanding of a sociological phenomenon.

Diane Vaughan has been an important public intellectual for twenty years. She is acknowledged as an expert on both the demise of intimate relationships and on the failures of organizations to manage their behavior. In particular, she has helped to steer public debates toward the recognition that accidents in the space program are, in fact, social problems. Professor Vaughan’s career has been a model of how thorough research, intellectual efforts, and personal dedication can lead to a greater public understanding and appreciation of sociology.