Greetings! I’m Vidhya Shanker, an interdependent evaluator of South Indian, oppressive-caste ancestry settled on the traditional homelands of the Dakota.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Harro’s Cycle of Liberation shows a trajectory from individual to structural change:
As a cycle with multiple entry points, and multiple directions, it can be oriented to show how structures shape individuals.
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.
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