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Celebration of Scholarship and Creative Activity 2020

The Impact of Cultural Penetration on Alternative and Renewable Energy Policy in the United States”

Crystal Soderman

Graduate, Master of Public Administration


Despite increasing concerns over climate change, the United States has been slow in adopting national policies for the use of alternative and renewable energy. In public policy literature, punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) suggests that the policy process is characterized by periods of stasis and incremental change, which are interrupted by short periods of punctuated and intense change. Ultimately, PET is a theory of organizational information processing where the extent of punctuated bursts of policy activity are determined by an adjustment in the type and amount of information coming into the political system. Current research into PET explains the information behind punctuated change; however, few have examined the impact of changing cultural values. This study builds on PET research by examining the relationship between changing American cultural values and their impact on the adoption of alternative and renewable energy policy. When new values successfully penetrate a culture, they have achieved cultural penetration. Previous studies have illustrated that one method of measuring cultural penetration is through the written works of a culture. Using the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) databases to measure cultural penetration, this study found that cultural penetration was negatively related to alternative and renewable energy law adoption, suggesting that cultural penetration of sustainable energy terms does not result in punctuated policy change.

About The Process

I chose to pursue this study based on my interest in the work of Fowler, Neaves, Terman, and Cosby on cultural penetration and energy policy in the United States. This area of study is relatively new in the field of public policy and provides a unique perspective on potential impetuses for policy change. While their study focused on comprehensive energy policy, I narrowed my focus to alternative and renewable energy policy. This was chosen as a focus because, despite the importance placed on the need for changing values to adopt climate change policy, little research has been conducted to examine the relationship between these values and policymaking. This study fills this gap by focusing on changing cultural values regarding one method of reducing GHG emissions and addressing climate change, alternative and renewable energy sources, and their impact on policymaking at the national level of the United States.

The most difficult part in conducting this study was determining how to measure cultural penetration in a way that was reliable and could be replicated. The work of Fowler et al. utilized Google’s Ngram Viewer; however, this dataset did not provide consistent information on use of sustainable energy terms over the same timeframe. After a comprehensive search, the COHA and COCA databases were chosen based on the amount of texts included (for example, spoken and fictional works, magazines, and academic texts) and access.

The next step in the process was determining which terms to use that represented alternative and renewable energy sources for inclusion in the analysis. These were selected based on their usage in the articles cited in the literature review and through a Google search using the keywords “alternative and renewable energy sources.” The terms in Table 1 represent the top 10 sources mentioned, along with the variations in their descriptions (for example, wind power and wind energy are used interchangeably and are thus searched separately).


Table 1: Alternative and Renewable Energy Search Terms

Alternative Energy Solar Power Hydroelectric Power
Renewable Energy Biofuels Hydroelectric Energy
Wind Power Biomass Energy Tidal Power
Wind Energy Geothermal Power Tidal Energy
Solar Energy Geothermal Energy Hydrogen Power


Once the database and terms had been identified, the next steps were to conduct the analyses and document the results. Throughout the process, my faculty mentor was consulted for guidance. Dr. Larson was instrumental in helping me to establish the research parameters and analytic approach. The final results of the study were informative, and, despite its limitations, provides a useful example for future research on the relationship between culture and policy-making.

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