Institutional Persistence, Change, and Agency: The Case of Air Traffic Control

Diane Vaughan, Columbia University

This paper explores the relationship between institutional persistence, change, and agency, based on an historical ethnography of air traffic control that encompasses the life course of the system. I focus on system effects: the relation between historic events, conditions, social actors and actions in the external environment, as they impacted the air traffic control system, changing it, and how in turn those changes affect the workplace, the work, and the actions of air traffic controllers. In short, the focus is on how the past materializes in the present. Far from a top-down model, the analysis focuses on the agency of air traffic controllers as they respond to system effects on their work, contributing to institutional persistence and change across time and social space. Based on ethnography, interviews, and archival records, I studied four air traffic control facilities in the New England Region. The initial field work during 2000-2001 was followed by two revisits: post-September 11, when the two high-jacked planes out of Boston Logan were handled by 3 of my 4 facilities, then in 2017, when two historical trajectories begun in the past intersected in the present, creating a new crisis. Each time, I witnessed how the past materialized in the present and controllers engaged in system repair. My theoretical framing and analytic strategies including analogical comparison and situated action, allowing multiple comparisons across units of analysis, time, and social space. The life course of the system was "event-full," typified by incremental change, historic contingency and unanticipated consequences.The system was always vulnerable, subject to periods of decline in addition to two major shocks, but still survived, maintaining safety and its original form. So how does it persist? Two examples show how controllers enact system resilience, even during resistance contributing to change and persistence.

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 Presented in Session 107. Institutions and Social Change