Normalizing accidents: cars, carnage and the disappearance of social problems
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This dissertation probes critical questions about the relationship between the production of cultural meanings, social power, and material objects. By using the public discourse on traffic accidents in the United States as a historical case study, this study investigates in particular the various ways by which social groups respond to unintended technological consequences and dangers within definitional processes of collectively constructing a social problem. The textual-thematic analysis draws largely upon theories from social problems literature and science & technology studies, as it looks at a number of salient historical claimsmakers, sites of discourse production, and cultural vehicles of meaning making. Specifically, the contributions of the private insurance industry, safety establishment, consumer market, automobile clubs, and printed media are closely dissected to flesh out the contours and content of the accident problem's construction and development through time. In line with a contextual constructivist approach to social problems analysis, the research has observed the emergence, evolution, and eventual waning of the accident issue along several structural anchors that provide possible explanations for some of these dynamics. To a great extent, the traffic accident problem has gradually 'disappeared' in America throughout the twentieth century - a disappearance that is not physical but conceptual. Specifically, it means that the troubling social condition is defined as something to live with, a necessary evil of which there seems to be limited ability or desire to substantially affect or eradicate. The sociological concept I employ to name this particular trajectory towards problem attenuation is normalization. Applied to the case analyzed here, the findings offer a way to understand the processes by which traffic accidents become nom1alized in America as an acquiescent price to pay for the benefits of the automobile. Theoretically, these conclusions have laid the groundwork for producing a hypothetical model of social problems normalization. The model highlights the role played by several cultural devices of claimsmaking in affecting issue attenuation or 'disappearance.' When the problem is constructed through highly technicizing, commensurating, commodifying, and socially controlling modalities of sense making, the likelihood of its normalization and eventual floundering increases.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University