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Sociology translates to public action . . .

This new occasional column highlights projects that (or people who) successfully engage sociology in the civic arena in service to organizations and communities. Over the years, members of ASA and sociologists as individual professionals and citizens have sought to make the knowledge we generate directly relevant to our communities, countries, and the world community. Many sociologists within the academy and in other sectors practice the translation of expert knowledge to numerous critical issues through consultation, advisement, testimony, commentary, writing, and participation in a variety of activities and venues. Readers are invited to submit contributions, but consult with Managing Editor Lee Herring (, 202-383-9005 x320) prior to submitting your draft (1,000 to 1,200 words maximum).

Forthcoming columns include one by Arthur Shostak, Drexel University, writing about American labor unions.

How Theory Travels: A Most Public Public Sociology

by Diane Vaughan, Boston College

The tragic disintegration of NASA Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, sent me on an unexpected and remarkable eight-month journey in public sociology. Hours after the accident, I was deluged with press calls stemming from my study of the causes of the 1986 Challenger disaster and book, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (Chicago, 1996). Recognizing the teaching opportunity and professional responsibility, I tried to respond to everyone.

I was teaching the theoretical explanation and key concepts of the book, linking them to data about Challenger and Columbia as changing press questions dictated. Because the investigation went on for months, these conversations became an ongoing exchange where the press brought me new information, and I gave a sociological interpretation. I noticed that the concepts of the book—the normalization of deviance, institutional failure, organization culture, structure, missed signals—began appearing in print early in the investigation and continued, whether I was quoted or not.

Investigation Board

The book also led to my work with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Two weeks after the accident, the publicity director at Chicago sent a copy of The Challenger Launch Decision to retired Admiral Harold Gehman, who headed the Board’s investigation. As the Admiral later told me, he read it mid-February, along with my jargon-free condensation published in a management journal. Persuaded of the relevance of the sociological analysis to Columbia, he sent copies of both to the Board. The Admiral and the eight original Board members were experienced accident investigators, trained to look beyond technical causes to human factors, but the organizational focus and concepts of the book were new to them, helped make sense of their data and led them to other social science sources.

Before the final four Board members were appointed, the Admiral already thought that a large part of the report should focus on social causes. The initial outline of chapter topics, based on their data, paralleled my data and causal model. The new centrality of sociological ideas and the connection with the Challenger accident were not lost on the media. In press conferences, Gehman stressed the importance of the social causes. When he announced that I would testify before the Board in Houston, the field’s leading journal, Aviation Week and Space Technology, headlined “Columbia Board Probes the Shuttle Program’s Sociology,” while the New York Times ran “Echoes of Challenger.”1

I met separately with the Board’s Group 2 investigators—assigned the decision-making and organization chapters—to discuss their data and analysis, then gave the Board a pre-testimony briefing, which turned into a three-hour conversation with a Board receptive to sociological analysis. My testimony covered the causes of the Challenger accident, comparison with Columbia, and identification of systemic common institutional failures. The book’s theory and concepts traveled farther as my testimony—like that of other witnesses—aired live on NASA TV and video-streamed into TV, radio, and internet outlets.

When the Board began writing the report in June, I worked with Group 2. The outline identified the impact from the foam debris on the Columbia as the proximate cause in Part I. Part II announced the Board’s expanded causal model, but distinguished the three social cause chapters by declining importance: “Beyond the Proximate Cause,” “Factors that Contributed to the Loss,” “The Accident’s Underlying Causes.” Emboldened by the Admiral’s openness to sociology (witness my presence) and democratic practices that defied military stereotypes, I proposed an outline that instead gave these chapters substantive names, made the social causes equal, and showed their causal connection.

The Admiral endorsed the outline but believed that history was a scene-setter, not a cause. Citing examples from the Challenger case, I explained how historic decisions in NASA’s political and budgetary environment changed the organization structure and culture, ultimately affecting risk decisions, thus contributing to both accidents. He was dubious, so I proposed a writing experiment that would show the causal links between the history, organization, and decision-making chapters. “How do you know you can do that?” he asked. “I’m trained to do that,” I replied.

Working under deadline, the experiment began. Information and ideas flew fast and freely between people and chapters. Extraordinary investigative effort, data, analysis, and insights were integrated into my writing; sociological connections and concepts became integrated across chapters. The Admiral, it turned out, was “delighted” with the result. The Board, too, accepted “History as Cause: Columbia and Challenger” as a chapter, along with its implications for the expanded causal model.

The New York Times announced the equal weight the report would give to technical and social causes, identifying me as the source of the Board’s approach and author of Chapter 8. The language of sociology became commonplace in the press. The theory of the book traveled one more place that August week. An AP wire story, “NASA Finally Looks to Sociologist,” revealed that NASA had invited me to headquarters to talk with top officials, who shifted from denial to acknow-ledgement that the systemic institutional failures that led to Challenger also caused Columbia.

Never did I foresee the extent of my involvement nor my impact. My experience is surely idiosyncratic in its very publicness, but is appropriate to this column, celebrating and exploring the varieties of public sociologies, elucidating principles that bring sociology alive, out of textbooks, academic monographs, and classrooms and into the public consciousness and policy debates.2 Sociology was the instigator of it all. The theory and concepts that explained Challenger led to these connections because they were an analogical fit with the Columbia data and made sense of what happened for journalists and the Board.3 My book and university affiliation gave me the opportunity to engage in ongoing dialogic teaching—akin to daily grass-roots activism—but with these two tribunals of power with authoritative voice. Together, the press and the Board were a “polished machinery of dissemination,” as Burawoy calls powerful advocacy groups,4 translating the ideas of the book into grist for critical public dialogue.


  1. To give an idea of the extent of public and press interest in a sociological interpretation of the disaster’s causes, I had been quoted in print 50 times by the end of May, according to Boston College Office of Public Affairs.
  2. For examples and critical consideration of disciplinary context, see Burawoy, M. (forthcoming, February 2004) “Public Sociologies: A Symposium at Boston College,” Social Problems.
  3. Vaughan, D. “How Theory Travels: Analogy, Models, and the Diffusion of Ideas.” Paper presented at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA, 1998.
  4. Burawoy, M. (January 2003) “Public Sociologies: Reply to Hausknecht,” Public Forum, Footnotes.