Susan Silbey is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at MIT. She has receceived numerous prizes and awards and she isDoctor Honoris Causa from Ecole Normale Superieure de Cachan. She is also past President of the Law & Society Association, and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. She is distinguished for her work on law and society, and her research at the intersection of science and law, looking in particular in scientific laboratories.
Beginning with the death of a student in a university chemistry laboratory, this book provides a detailed analysis of the consequences for health and safety of the increasingly complex division of labor in contemporary organizations. Complex bureaucracy was the engine of productivity for several centuries but may now be the source of persistent organizational failure. Although this book focuses on scientific laboratories, it is a challenge for all services and production – from banking, medicine, transportation, energy, to managing big buildings, stadiums and even parks. All depend on tightly linked but distinct responsibilities that require almost perfect communication for the entire organization, or system, to work.
Imagine organizations where the links and nodes have specialized expertise and are expected to make discretionary decisions applying their expertise to individual cases. How does such a system, such an organization, insure that each actor is actually doing her job well and passing along the appropriate information or material to others?
We used to think about these kinds of problems as the province of extraordinary technologies like nuclear power plants, or air traffic control. Now, these kinds of coordination and responsibility issue are just about everywhere and it is almost impossible to insure accountability for when things go wrong, and they always do.
The data come from more than a decade of observation in scientific laboratories trying to contain environmental, health and myriad safety hazards such as radiation, biohazards, various pollutants to prevent environmental contamination and death of lab workers.