American Nightmares: Social Problems in an Anxious World

American Nightmares: Social Problems in an Anxious World

by Joel Best

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In an accessible and droll style, well-known sociologist Joel Best shines a light on how we navigate these anxious, insecure social times. While most of us still strive for the American Dream—to graduate from college, own a home, work toward early retirement—recent generations have been told that the next generation will not be able to achieve these goals, that things are getting—or are on the verge of getting—worse. In American Nightmares, Best addresses the apprehension that we face every day as we are bombarded with threats that the social institutions we count on are imperiled. Our schools are failing to teach our kids. Healthcare may soon be harder to obtain. We can’t bank on our retirement plans. And our homes—still the largest chunk of most people’s net worth—may lose much of their value. Our very way of life is being threatened! Or is it? With a steady voice and keen focus, Best examines how a culture develops fears and fantasies and how these visions are created and recreated in every generation. By dismantling current ideas about the future, collective memory, and sociology’s marginalization in the public square, Best sheds light on how social problems—and our anxiety about them—are socially constructed.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520296350
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Joel Best is Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Damned Lies and Statistics, Flavor of the Month, Stat-Spotting, and Everyone’s a Winner and coauthor of The Student Loan Mess. 


Read an Excerpt


Popular Hazards; or, How We Insist Similar Social Problems Are Different

Consider things people do that might — but usually don't — result in harm. A partial list includes driving a car, owning or shooting a gun, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, having sexual intercourse, riding a motorcycle or a bicycle, using a credit card, owning a pit bull, gambling, eating junk food, consuming pornography, logging onto the Internet, and using illegal drugs. All of these are widespread activities. Some are legal, a few are or have been illegal, and several are regulated in various ways so that they are legal under some circumstances but not others. Lots of people do these things and cause little or no harm. Still, in some small proportion of cases, those engaged in these activities wind up harming — even killing — themselves or other people.

Think about cars. Automobiles are so ubiquitous that we measure traffic fatality rates per 100 million miles driven. In recent years, Americans have driven about 3 trillion miles annually. Although there are only about 1.1 fatalities per 100 million miles driven, that still works out to a fairly high body count — more than 32,000 deaths each year. Put that another way: every year, there is a traffic fatality for every 10,000 Americans (National Center for Statistics and Analysis 2014). We make a trade-off: in exchange for the tremendous freedom and convenience that cars permit, we tolerate these deaths.

How should we think about this traffic death toll? Imagine someone announcing a wonderful new invention that would make enormous improvements in virtually every person's life but would kill more than 30,000 Americans each year. Would we be more likely to welcome this new invention or to ban it?

Of course, we have an array of social policies designed to minimize traffic fatalities. We license cars after inspecting them and certifying that they are in reasonably good condition, and license drivers after testing to make sure they understand and can follow basic traffic laws. We require cars to have safety features — not just seat belts and airbags but also electric turn signals, padded dashboards, and the like — and we require manufacturers to recall vehicles found to have dangerous equipment. We design roads to safely handle traffic at posted speed limits. We have raised the minimum ages at which drivers can be licensed, introduced graduated licenses imposing special restrictions on the youngest drivers, cracked down on drivers arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, and made it tougher for aging drivers to renew their licenses. And these policies work. In 1966, there were 50,894 traffic fatalities. In the intervening half century, the U.S. population grew, as did the number of drivers and the number of miles they drove, yet the national traffic death toll actually declined and the fatality rate dropped 80 percent, from 5.5 per 100 million miles driven in 1966 to 1.1 in 2010 (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2013).

Yet people continue to die on the roadways. Much of this reflects unwise, often illegal behavior: drivers speed and drive recklessly; they don't buckle up; they drink and drive; or they text or allow themselves to be distracted in other ways. Those with good driving habits are undoubtedly at much lower risk than those who are more adventurous or foolhardy. Perhaps this is one reason we accept the highway death toll. While we know that tragedy can strike anyone who happens to be on the road in the wrong place at the wrong time, we also know that a car is usually a reasonably safe way to travel.

Notice, too, that people continue to debate traffic policies. There are advocates who call for even safer cars or tougher laws, as well as those who worry about automobiles' environmental harms and call for shifting to bicycles, mass transit, or greener cars. Others argue that current policies are too restrictive: teenagers resent today's later legal driving ages and graduated licenses that did not apply to earlier generations; manufacturers object to the costs of building cars that meet new safety standards; and some drivers call for higher speed limits. Because we live in, not just a car culture that celebrates automobility, but also a geographically big country in which most people's daily lives depend on having ready access to cars, these debates aren't all that loud. While the future may feature cars that drive themselves or don't burn petroleum, it is difficult to imagine that we will stop relying on cars of some sort anytime soon.


Cars are a popular hazard — popular in the sense that many millions of people own and use them, yet a hazard in that they also involve real dangers and harm some people. In calling them popular, I intend to convey two qualities: first, I am referring to common activities involving lots of people; and second, these activities often engage those people on some emotional level — they are things that people enjoy or value, and that they would prefer to continue doing. Cars, for instance, are popular in both senses: many millions of people drive cars; and, beyond valuing cars' utilitarian qualities, many of those people are attached to driving — they depend on being able to do it, but they also enjoy it and may even build their identities around cars (think of low riders, hot-rodders, sports car enthusiasts, and NASCAR fans). By referring to popular hazards, I acknowledge that these activities involve real risks, that they do lead to harm for some people, including those killed or injured in traffic accidents.

The category of popular hazards includes many of the deviant exchanges Schur (1965) called crimes without victims, such as illegal drug deals and illicit sexual exchanges, but it is much broader. Many popular hazards are perfectly legal. Think about drinking alcohol or using credit cards: most people manage to do these things legally and without serious problems, but small proportions of drinkers and credit-card users wind up ruining their lives. Guns are not that different: there are probably more than 300 million working firearms in the United States (nearly half of Americans live in households with guns), yet only a tiny fraction of those guns wind up hurting people.

Describing popular hazards in this way might seem to emphasize their objective qualities, but of course these phenomena are understood — constructed — through subjective processes (Best 2017; Loseke 2003; Spector and Kitsuse 1977). All cognitive categories are produced through social interaction, including our definitions of what is a car — or a harm. Analysts necessarily bracket some categories and accept the relevance of social context. In order to proceed to more interesting issues, we can agree that there are a great many cars, and that using them is understood to involve substantial harms. That is, we can accept that popular hazards are activities recognized as being both popular and hazardous, and move on to consider how, within that cultural context, people construct claims for dealing with such activities.

Analyses of social-problems construction tend to be case studies that focus on particular claimsmaking campaigns (Best 2015). Comparisons tend to be modest; they examine claims about the same troubling condition made at different times or in different places, or about different conditions that share some underlying theme (e.g., threats to children), or that are made by claimsmakers who share an ideology (e.g., feminism). But the concept of popular hazards invites us to compare the construction of cases that might seem to have very little in common. On the surface, popular hazards seem to be very different from one another: they span a continuum from legal to forbidden; some are the focus of active policy debates, while others seem to attract little attention, let alone concern; and different popular hazards are viewed as problematic — or not — by very different sectors of society. It is not uncommon for individuals to support restrictions on some popular hazards, even as they oppose restricting others.

The category of popular hazards draws our attention to the social context — the social organization of activities — within which social problems are constructed. Popularity and hazardousness can be understood in different ways. Is an activity's popularity a sign that it is a legitimate part of our culture, or evidence that there is a major problem? Are harms a regrettable but inevitable cost of having a popular choice, or unnecessary and intolerable? The question is: How can we explain the very different ways we understand and deal with various popular hazards?

Discussions of popular hazards usually proceed on a case-by-case basis: we talk about regulating cars and about regulating guns, and we view each of those conversations as unrelated to the other. I want to consider whether we can understand these debates better if we think about them as instances of the broader category of popular hazards, and whether we can find patterns in the rhetoric adopted in advocates' campaigns about apparently unrelated issues. We can begin by identifying some important similarities among these apparently disparate phenomena, then explore patterns in the rhetoric people use to understand popularity and hazardousness.


Just how popular — and how hazardous — are popular hazards? Table 1 gives some rough estimates, located through online searches. These statistics come from a variety of sources, and they need to be handled with care. Some data are counts, collected or compiled systematically by government agencies, and should be fairly accurate, but even here caution is in order. For instance, we can probably have reasonable confidence in the number of licensed drivers because we know that states make an effort to ensure that all drivers are licensed and keep records of the number of active licenses (if only to collect the licensing fees), and there are penalties for driving without a license. Still, even this pretty-good figure has problems. Some states have had debates about whether undocumented immigrants should be eligible to receive licenses (Stewart 2012). Prohibiting individuals from receiving driver's licenses is no guarantee that they will not drive, and enough unlicensed drivers escape notice to account for about one-eighth of drivers involved in fatal crashes (Foundation for Traffic Safety 2011).

Other statistics are clearly rough estimates. Because firearms need not be registered, it is impossible to know the number of guns in working order. Nor do gun owners need to be licensed, so statistics on gun ownership come from surveys asking whether the respondent — or someone in the respondent's household — owns a gun. But we can imagine that some people may not answer such questions honestly, either refusing to acknowledge that they own a gun or claiming to own guns when they do not.

Some of these figures are contentious, and estimates may come from advocates likely to favor numbers that seem to support their positions (Best 2012). In general, those who endorse some popular hazard are likely to favor high estimates of its popularity and low estimates of its harms, while critics of the same hazard may prefer estimates that minimize its popularity and maximize its harms. In short, none of the numbers in table 1 can be considered perfectly accurate, yet we can still use them to get a general sense of the extent of the popularity and hazardousness of various popular hazards.

This is because the overall pattern in table 1 is quite clear. The left-hand column shows that, for each of the popular hazards listed in the table, the estimates of popularity are in the millions; for the most part, tens — if not hundreds — of millions of people are involved with each of these popular hazards. The number of people exposed to the hazards' risks must be even larger: roughly two-thirds of Americans are licensed drivers, but the vast majority of those who do not themselves drive find themselves passengers riding in motor vehicles or pedestrians walking on or near roads. Some estimates of harm specifically include those who are not directly involved in the hazard; for instance, table 1's estimate for tobacco-related deaths includes victims of secondhand smoke.

Neither a popular hazard's popularity nor its associated risks need be distributed evenly across society. People make decisions to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, or to own a gun — or to not do those things — and there are large social scientific literatures showing how age, gender, race and ethnicity, social class, religiosity, and other variables affect rates of involvement in different popular hazards (cf. Slovic 2000, 2010). Risks and harms also are unevenly distributed. For many popular hazards, a disproportionate share of harms are experienced by young males (sometimes identified as being most "at risk"), and there are other large literatures offering explanations for the varying propensities to take — or at least be exposed to — risks. For instance, inexperience with a popular hazard may make it harder to assess and manage its dangers. This helps explain the many programs designed to give the young formal instruction in risks and the need for thoughtful decision-making, such as sex education, driver education, and alcohol and drug education.

The right-hand column of table 1 reveals two things: first, in most cases substantial numbers — tens or even hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions — of people can be considered harmed by each of the popular hazards; but, second, the numbers harmed are relatively small fractions of those involved. Thus, compared to the ubiquity of automobiles, relatively few people die in traffic accidents. Debates over popular hazards revolve around this basic issue: What should be done about things that are extremely popular but which also cause substantial damage? How should we weigh their costs and benefits? That is, we must consider the rhetoric people use in policy debates about popular hazards.


Critics of popular hazards often invoke melodramatic warnings. Figure 1 presents a classic 1846 print from Currier and Ives titled The Drunkard[']s Progress. It depicts a deviant career, an arc of nine stages through which a drunkard proceeds, beginning with "A glass with a Friend" and ending with "Death by suicide"; in the background we see an abandoned wife and small child, their home in ruins. This plot of self-destruction is familiar: when advocates warn about the seductive, corrupting experiences that endanger youths who experiment with alcohol, tobacco, sex, gambling, or marijuana ("the gateway drug"), they are warning that first missteps may — perhaps quite often — lead to terrible consequences.

Obviously, Currier and Ives's drunkard represents a worst-case scenario. Many, many people share a drink with a friend, but relatively few go on to kill themselves. Suicide is not a certain, or even a particularly likely, outcome of drinking. A drinking career should not be conceptualized as a sort of railroad track that leads inevitably to the next, ever-more-terrible station. There are options — every opportunity to drink offers a choice, and people's choices lead to a broad array of outcomes. Some people never drink alcohol, others drink on rare occasions or in limited amounts; some may drink enough to become impaired, but only infrequently. And we also speak of functioning alcoholics who drink regularly and may depend on alcohol yet manage to avoid wrecking their lives, as well as of recovering alcoholics who halt their drinking and focus on not resuming. Every popular hazard involves a similar range of outcomes.

The drunkard's suicide is certainly a devastating consequence, as are fatal outcomes of other popular hazards, such as gunshots and traffic accidents. But most popular hazards involve a range of harms. As a general rule, the more devastating the harm, the rarer it is. For any popular hazard, we can envision a pyramid of harms, with a broad base denoting the most common but least serious harms, with successive layers, each narrower and representing increasingly serious but decreasingly common harms, until we reach a fairly narrow peak representing the relatively small number of devastating harms. Figure 2 illustrates this pattern using motor vehicle accidents and firearm incidents as examples.


Excerpted from "American Nightmares"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Joel Best.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Popular Hazards; or, How We Insist Similar Social Problems Are Different
2. American Nightmares; or, Why Sociologists Hate the American Dream
Written with David Schweingruber


3. Evaluating Predictions; or, How to Compare the Maya Calendar, Social Security, and Climate Change
4. Future Talk; or, How Slippery Slopes Shape Concern


5. Memories as Problems; or, How to Reconsider Confederate Flags and Other Symbols of the Past
Written with Lawrence T. Nichols
6. Economicization; or, Why Economists Get More Respect Than Sociologists
Afterword: The Future of American Nightmares


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