Taming Prometheus: Talk About Safety and Culture

Silbey, Susan S.
Annual Review of Sociology

Talk of safety culture has emerged as a common trope in contemporary scholarship and popular media as an explanation for accidents and as a recipe for improvement in complex sociotechnical systems. Three conceptions of culture appear in talk about safety: culture as causal attitude, culture as engineered organization, and culture as emergent and indeterminate. If we understand culture as sociologists and anthropologists theorize as an indissoluble dialectic of system and practice, as both the product and context of social action, the first two perspectives deploying standard causal logics fail to provide persuasive accounts. Displaying affinities with individualist and reductionist epistemologies, safety culture is frequently operationalized in terms of the attitudes and behaviors of individual actors, often the lowest-level actors, with the least authority, in the organizational hierarchy. Sociological critiques claim that culture is emergent and indeterminate and cannot be instrumentalized to prevent technological accidents. Research should explore the features of complex systems that have been elided in the talk of safety culture: normative heterogeneity and conflict, inequalities in power and authority, and competing sets of legitimate interests within organizations.