Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 37, Issue 3, pp 345–367 | Cite as

Quantifying Accidents: Cars, Statistics, and Unintended Consequences in the Construction of Social Problems Over Time

  • Itai VardiEmail author


This paper investigates the potential effects of a single cultural means of claimsmaking—quantification—on the construction of a social problem through time. By analyzing salient historical uses of statistics in public debates on traffic accidents in the United States, the study seeks to advance the understanding of the role played by numerical claims in the broader dynamics of problem evolution and development. Specifically, key employments of numbers by early automobile clubs, the private insurance industry, safety movement and establishment, and printed media are closely traced and interrelated to flesh out their impacts on dominant representations of the issue over the long term. While numerical claimsmaking produced divergent, often contradictory effects on the construction of the problem, I argue that figures ultimately contributed to the gradual waning of the moralist and political zest that characterized much of the claimsmaking activities on the issue in the first half of the twentieth century. The argument provides one explanation of how traffic accidents can come to be defined in contemporary society as a “necessary evil”—a regrettable yet largely unalterable price to pay for the benefits of the automobile. To the extent that many of these quantification effects are unintended, they are linked to both the nature of statistical argumentation employed in this case and its institutional contexts.


Social problems Quantification Statistics Contextual-constructionism Unintended consequences Accidents Automobility 


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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