Beyond Theory: Locating Power in Culturally Responsive Evaluation Practice by are Jaimie Haugen and Jill Anne Chouinard

It is likely that you’ve heard issues of power discussed as an important consideration in evaluation contexts. But what does power actually look like in evaluation and what do we do about it? We are Jaimie Haugen and Jill Anne Chouinard, researchers and evaluators who are interested in the concept of power in Culturally Responsive Evaluation contexts. Jill is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Jaimie is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at The University of Central Florida. Through exploring the manifestations of power across multiple evaluations, we discovered some Lessons Learned about power dimensions and Hot Tips in addressing power in meaningful and practical ways.

Lessons Learned:

            Power is difficult to conceptualize, let alone identify. Sometimes it is visible, but it can also be hidden and invisible depending on the context, evaluation, and situation. This dynamic concept often works at various levels and dimensions as depicted in our figure below. Recognizing the dimensions through which power might manifest is the first step in being able to address power during an evaluation.

Invisible, visible, and hidden power diagram

Stickl, J., & Chouinard, J.A. (2018). Transparent, translucent, opaque: Exploring the dimensions of power in culturally responsive evaluation contexts. American Journal of Evaluation.

  • Relational Power: Power influences relationships between and among all members of the evaluation.
  • Political Power: Political agendas often shape all aspects of the evaluation process, including decisions about who can and cannot participant, goals of the evaluation, and interpretation of findings.
  • Discursive Power: Although often less tangible, power can manifest in internalized values, norms, and beliefs of evaluators and participants.
  • Historical/Temporal Power: Historical experiences often shape current realities and the past experiences of evaluators, participants, or stakeholders can greatly influence the evaluation process.

Hot Tips:

What can we do to address power in evaluation contexts? Below we outline a few suggestions in the literature that have been used to meaningfully address power in practice.

  • Evaluation Methods: Consider using mixed methods approaches to allow participants to contribute in a variety of ways. Collaborative as opposed to top down approaches can help mitigate relational power dynamics and elicit marginalized voices.
  • Start with Power Rather Than End With It: Instead of reflecting on influences of power after the evaluation, consider starting with intentional and proactive discussions on all forms of power that might impact the evaluation process.
  • Take Time to Understand Context: Make every effort to truly understand and immerse yourself in the cultural context of participants and communities when working with individuals.
  • Ask Important Questions: Before you start the evaluation process, reflect on important questions such as “how are participants selected?”, “which voices are being heard and why?”, “whose agenda is driving this process?”, “who is interpreting the findings and why; what biases might they have?”

Although power can never fully be diminished, we can take steps to address power in our evaluations, which ultimately allows us to conduct valid, quality, and inclusive evaluations.

Rad Resources:

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Theory: Locating Power in Culturally Responsive Evaluation Practice by are Jaimie Haugen and Jill Anne Chouinard”

  1. Good day to you Jill and Jaimie.

    I am writing a response to your post as a part of a task from a course I am presently taking at Queen’s University in the Professional Master of Education Program. The course itself is called, Program Inquiry and Evaluation. I previously reviewed and reflected on a post related to culture and evaluations from this blog site and found myself compelled to respond to your work.

    Firstly, I must acknowledge that I am completely intrigued by the conceptual framework you identified, related to power. While you note that power itself can be quite elusive, the palpability of its influence is certainly undeniable. This framework aptly paints a concrete picture of a somewhat nebulous term.

    The idea of “discursive power” is new to me. Reading the definition in your post illuminates its driving point, and this deepens my understanding of how the imbalance of power can affect—both—the evaluator and the evaluation itself. The American Evaluation Association shared in 2011 that, “without attention to the complexity and multiple determinants of behavior, evaluations can arrive at flawed findings with potentially devastating consequences.” The question for me becomes, how does one address the elephant in the room?

    Your recommendation to lay a foundation using, “intentional and proactive discussions on all forms of power that might impact the evaluation process,” appears to be sound advice. I can’t help but wonder about its effectiveness, though. I also think about how time-consuming this practice might be. Is there some kind of standardised way to address this complex concern (i.e. an assessment tool/activity that is used to facilitate candid conversation)? Also, given that power is likely a relevant issue for all evaluations that are performed, is this initial step a natural part of your evaluative process, something embedded into your practice? Should it be?

    The pre-evaluation self-reflective component you identified in the Hot Tips section can only be invaluable. You seek to answer questions such as, “’who is interpreting the findings and why; what biases might they have?’” I am curious to know how your answers might affect how you conduct an evaluation (or is it something you are simply aware of)? Also, are you transparent with your evaluands in sharing your reflections or are they something you hold close to yourself? There is a clear link to the value of cultural competence when these questions are reflected upon. The AEA (2011) describes one of their key guiding principles as, “to ensure recognition, accurate interpretation, and respect for diversity, evaluators should ensure that the members of the evaluation team collectively demonstrate cultural competence.” This can only happen through critical self-reflection.

    You declare that, “although power can never fully be diminished, we can take steps to address power in our evaluations, which ultimately allows us to conduct valid, quality, and inclusive evaluations.” As an evaluator, this is a powerful maxim to live by! Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    Kindest regards,

    Jamie Belec

    American Evaluation Association. (2011). American Evaluation Association Public Statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation. Fairhaven, MA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.eval.org.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Practical strategies for culturally competent evaluation. Atlanta, GA: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2014

    Davis, T. (2019, February 15). MSI Fellowship Week: Reflecting on Culturally Responsive Evaluation in Relationship to the Higher Education Context. Retrieved from https://aea365.org/blog/msi-fellowship-week-reflecting-on-culturally-responsive-evaluation-in-relationship-to-the-higher-education-context-by-tiffany-j-davis/

    Haugen, J., & Chouinard, J. A. (2019, July 14). Beyond Theory: Locating Power in Culturally Responsive Evaluation Practice. Retrieved August 8, 2019, from https://aea365.org/blog/beyond-theory-locating-power-in-culturally-responsive-evaluation-practice-by-are-jaimie-haugen-and-jill-anne-chouinard/

  2. This is one of the best posts after having been a subscriber for more than 10 years! Please post more on this topic. I find power to be always present. The more we are able to surface the hidden aspects or the areas that are the most difficult to confront, the better off we will all be.

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