Punctuated Equilibrium Theory and the Diffusion of Innovations
Boushey, Graeme, Policy Studies Journal
In recent years, studies of public policy diffusion have documented considerable variation in the speed and scope of public policy adoption across states (Boushey, 2010; Makse & Volden, 2011; Nicholson-Crotty, 2009). Although most policies spread gradually, in a manner consistent with incremental policy learning and emulation, a significant subset of innovations trigger policy outbreaks, as states across the country mimic a popular new initiative. In this regard, the process of policy diffusion produces patterns of policy change consistent with negative and positive feedback cycles familiar to punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). As Baumgartner and Jones (2009) observed, "policy diffusion, with its S-Shaped curve, is remarkably like a punctuated equilibrium model in which the system shits rapidly from one stable point to another" (p. 17).
Surprisingly, the triggers of these punctuated dynamics have been largely over-looked by extant research in public policy diffusion--the formal study of how ideas move from one jurisdiction to the next in political systems. Although researchers have suggested that policy diffusion results from decision-making processes as distinct as incremental policy emulation (Berry & Berry, 1999; Boehmke & Witmer, 2004; Gray, 1973; Volden, 2006; Walker, 1969), rapid policy imitation and mimicking (Boushey, 2010; Mooney & Lee, 1999; Savage, 1985), and federal agenda setting and coercion (Allen, Pettus, & Haider-Markel, 2004; Karch, 2006, 2010; Welch & Thompson, 1980), most of this research has focused on identifying the specific mechanism of influence leading to innovation diffusion rather than distinguishing between the causes of comparative diffusion dynamics. Recent research has moved toward a more complete understanding of the factors leading to variation in the speed and scope of diffusion; however, this research has largely focused on the differences of innovation attributes (Makse & Volden, 2011; Nicholson-Crotty, 2009) rather than broad interactions leading to policy outbreaks across state governments.
This article integrates research from punctuated equilibrium theory to distinguish between different decision-making processes leading to punctuated diffusion dynamics. Building on recent advances in the study of agenda setting and decision making (Baumgartner & Jones, 2009; Jones & Baumgartner, 2005; Workman, Jones, & Jochim, 2009), the article argues that variation in the speed of innovation diffusion should be understood as resulting from the disproportionate allocation of political attention in the United States. In the majority of cases, diffusion occurs through the gradual formulation and adjustment of policy across state legislatures. At other times, state policymakers are faced with growing public demands to pass an emerging "fad" policy implemented in neighboring states. Often, new policy problems are revealed by exogenous shocks (Baumgartner & Jones, 2009; Kingdon, 1984) or new policy solutions are demanded by the federal government (Karch, 2006). These distinct pressures systematically lead to very different temporal patterns of diffusion.
To capture the dynamic processes of innovation diffusion, this article estimates Bass (1969) mixed influence diffusion parameters for each of 81 policies that have spread across the United States. Applied to the study of public policy diffusion, the Bass mixed influence model provides a method to distinguish between the rate of policy adoption driven by state exposure to a common exogenous stimulus, such as a federal mandate or a mobilizing event, and the rate of contagion that measures policy adoption associated with endogenous influence as policies spread through interstate communication and influence. Aggregated across public policies, the Bass model provides valuable information on the standard rate of diffusion in the United States and also produces …
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Publication information: Article title: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory and the Diffusion of Innovations. Contributors: Boushey, Graeme - Author. Journal title: Policy Studies Journal. Volume: 40. Issue: 1 Publication date: February 2012. Page number: 127+. © 1999 Policy Studies Organization. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.