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American Nightmares

Social Problems in an Anxious World

Joel Best (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 256 pages
ISBN: 9780520296350
January 2018
$29.95, £24.00
Other Formats Available:
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.

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

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. 

“American Nightmare offers a brilliant study of the narrative of gloom that pervades contemporary culture. Joel Best has written an important sociological study of how America’s social problems are constructed.”—Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Kent, Canterbury
“Joel Best reflects on one of the central and enduring paradoxes of U.S. civic culture: that collective anxiety—for the past, present, and future—shrouds the unabashed optimism of the ‘American dream.’ With his typical even-handedness, Best shows how activists and elites, liberals and conservatives use this anxiety to advance their competing agendas. American Nightmares is a book of and for these times. It articulates the tensions and fears underlying U.S. politics and provides a careful, sociological perspective on them.”—Jared Del Rosso, author of Talking about Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate
“If you’re tired of overheated and polarized arguments, American Nightmares provides an edifying respite. Joel Best’s brand of critical thinking helps us see through pessimism coming from the left and the right—and from social scientists as well. In clear and engaging prose, Best shows how ‘diametrically opposed’ advocates often employ nearly identical rhetorical strategies to persuade audiences to take stances against perceived dangers. Politicians on the left and the right, journalists and activists, natural and social scientists—no one is off-limits in Best’s pursuit of rationality and reasoned dialogue.”—Scott R. Harris, author of How to Critique Journal Articles in the Social Sciences

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