Connecting the Intra/Inter/Structural Week: As above, so below; as within, so without by Vidhya Shanker

Greetings! I’m Vidhya Shanker, an interdependent evaluator of South Indian, oppressive-caste ancestry settled on the traditional homelands of the Dakota.

In dark night live those for whom
The world without, alone, is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within,
Alone, is real. The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So have we heard from the wise. - Isha Upanishad, 9-11

I’m writing about the latest iteration in my quest to unlearn the binaries inherent in colonial knowledge systems and (post)positivism, which continue to underlie most evaluation and social sector work.

Some false dichotomies in Research/Evaluation: “female,” “male”
“east,” “west”
“qualitative,” “quantitative”
“subject,” “object”
“emic,” “etic”
“oppressed,” “oppressor”
“incremental,” “fundamental”
“reform,” “revolution”
“individual,” “structural”
“selves,” “systems”

I’ll offer some examples that illustrate the relational dynamic between “selves” and “systems,” then share two models that have helped me conceptualize, practice, and measure liberatory work in ways that acknowledge “individual” and “structural” change as distinguishable and dialectical without resorting to false dichotomies. Relational dynamics between selves-and-systems/ individuals-and-structures become clear when we think about the mutuality between a fetus and the pregnant body that serves as its natural environment—while being shaped by it. That pregnant body simultaneously helps constitute a larger body politic—while being shaped by it.

Efforts toward equity increasingly include “unconscious” bias trainings to raise our awareness of associations, which we have all internalized, between whiteness and authority and between blackness/brownness/indigeneity and need. “Unconscious” suggests that these associations are instinctive rather than learned patterns of association. The people that we repeatedly see—and show—exercising agency and producing knowledge are disproportionately white in a country, within a world, that is not. The people that we see, and show, receiving services or consuming knowledge are overwhelmingly black/brown/indigenous. This is structural and institutional. Because we perceive individuals as the start of change, however, we invest in anti-racism trainings and like to believe that structural changes will naturally ensue from increased understanding among individuals without considering the possibility that changes in individuals could ensue from changes in structures.

Critical race scholars have noted that efforts toward increased understanding among individuals have yielded no changes in racially stratified structures—social segregation as well as educational, employment, income, wealth disparities by race are higher today than before Civil Rights legislation. What if shifting who occupies positions of power could disrupt the racialized patterns of association, or biases, that we all learn? This possibility that changing structures could change individuals underlies affirmative action in the USA and reservation in India.

Lawsuits against higher education institutions have effectively undermined affirmative action in the USA as discourses focused on individuals replaced group-based discourses of compensatory justice. Rather than righting historical wrongs, “the business case” for diversity and inclusion emphasizes the competitive advantage of entrée into otherized communities. Trainings assist historically homogenous institutions in “managing” their new experience of heterogeneity, largely at the interpersonal level, without necessarily addressing the structural arrangements that actively produced, and continue reproducing, that homogeneity.

Unlike affirmative action, reservation is enshrined in India’s constitution. But little concerted effort to change internalized attitudes and interpersonal behaviors has accompanied its structural- and institutional-level efforts. Dr. Ambedkar, architect of India’s constitution, anticipated this concern by distinguishing between—and yet tying together—social exclusion and economic exclusion. The latter can more easily be legislated, because the former can be couched as custom or culture, but the two feed each other.

Hot Tips:

Mechanisms connect nested layers  (starting with an outer circle, moving into smaller circles)- structural, institutional, inter-personal, intra-personal.
Graphic by Vidhya Shanker

Reskin’s mechanisms-based model of ascriptive inequality calls attention to the structural mechanisms that mediate interaction among layers—exacerbating or mitigating intergroup inequality. The layers are:

Structural: What is going on between organizations, schools, workplaces, and the media?
Institutional: What is going on within organizations, schools, workplaces, or the media?
Inter-personal: What is going on between individual people?
Intra-personal: What is happening with an individual person—including how they understand, feel about, and respond to what is happening to them?

Mechanisms in each layer can either amplify or blunt the effects of intentions to discriminate against otherized groups in the layers nested within it. They can also either amplify or blunt the effects of intentions to advance justice.

Waking Up: An incident, or tipping point of incidents, leads us to question what we see that does not match our core sense of right and wrong.
Getting Ready: We deepen that authenticity as we gain inspiration from others. We build our consciousness and tools for analysis.
Reaching Out: We begin to name what we see and seek corroboration and calibration.
Building Community: Having spoken up and reached out, we heal, individually and collectively. We refine our analysis and channel our anger.
Coalescing: We share ideas and leadership. We move toward organizing and action.
Creating Change: We create alternative cultures that change definitions, rules, and entire institutions.
Maintaining: We celebrate the fruits of our change work, which bear seeds that reach new people who are just Waking Up and help them with Getting Ready.

Harro’s Cycle of Liberation shows a trajectory from individual to structural change:

Graphic by Vidhya Shanker

As a cycle with multiple entry points, and multiple directions, it can be oriented to show how structures shape individuals.

You can wake someone who’s sleeping,
But you can never wake someone who’s pretending to sleep. -Malayalee proverb

Rad Resource:

The Hip Hop Xpress provides an excellent example of both models.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Connecting the Intra/Inter/Structural Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from authors who are exploring intuition and the thread that connects the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and the structural in evaluation.

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. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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