Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Alyson Cole

Committee Members

Samantha Majic

Michael Fortner

Subject Categories

American Politics | Energy Policy | Political Theory | Public Policy | Social Justice | Social Welfare


addiction, ordinary language analysis, American political culture, public policy, discourse analysis, Hanna Pitkin


In this project I advance our understanding of how the symbolic stakes of our political debates influence material outcomes. My work brings an approach from political theory and critical studies of American political culture to bear on the problematics of discursive approaches to public policy analysis. I study public policymaking as a contest over ideas in the context of political culture––that is, investigating the possibility that some terms and narratives may be more impactful than others in a given cultural context. Specifically, I examine the concept of “addiction” as a keyword in American political culture that has been largely neglected by mainstream political science. I argue it is a keyword because of its meanings regarding autonomy, freedom, and independence––core values in hegemonic U.S. political culture. But despite the term’s resonances with these key values, the concept has not been fully explored in the political science literature. This is a gap I fill with this project.

There are a range of ways we typically use the term “addiction” to describe individual behavior. But I also encountered it being used repeatedly by actors across the political spectrum to describe U.S. oil consumption and receiving welfare. Given how we ordinarily use the term, these observations led me to ask several questions. First, how can speakers sensibly use the term “addiction” in these contexts; how do their audiences understand what they mean? Second, given “addiction’s” role in reproducing hierarchies of dominance, how are the racialized and gendered meanings of “addiction” translated from the individual to the collective level? And finally, how might the term’s consistent use by political actors in these contexts influence policy outcomes, and how the public perceives those outcomes?

Through digital archival research of news media, the Congressional Record, Presidential Papers, and other governmental and popular media sources, I collected a dataset of hundreds of instances of the term being used by politicians, pundits, and laypeople to describe each policy area under examination. I conduct my analysis of these datasets using ordinary language analysis, a novel approach that studies what a concept means by examining how it is used. This theoretically informed interpretive approach allows me to identify the ordinary meanings of “addiction” in the context of drug and alcohol use, how those meanings are translated into these new “collective” contexts, and thereby identify what political work the term is doing for the actors who employ it in these new contexts.

Ultimately, I argue that political actors consistently using “addiction” in a policy debate signals that the issue at hand is arousing long-standing anxieties in American political culture regarding subjection, dependence, and unfreedom. I find that the term is consistently used in policy debates where pundits, advocates, or politicians perceive––or want to create the appearance of––core American values being threatened by the issue at hand, and cast their policy solutions as restoring those values by eradicating the “addiction.” As a result, the policy conflicts in these areas are not just about the material interests involved, but about a perceived threat to prized values in the hegemonic U.S. political culture, heightening the symbolic stakes of these policy debates.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Tuesday, September 30, 2025

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