IPE TIG Week: On the Slipperiness of Culture by Vidhya Shanker

Greetings! I’m Vidhya Shanker, a doctoral candidate in Evaluation Studies at the University of Minnesota. Writing during Thanksgiving week, from the birthplace of the American Indian Movement—surrounded by the largest urban Native and largest refugee communities–as the daughter of immigrants from a colonized country, I offer this exploration of culture to everyone committed to struggles for self-determination. Because I represent the settler in this colonial state, I frame it in terms of colonization, not indigeneity.

Since AEA members approved the Statement on Cultural Competence in 2011, many efforts demonstrate evaluators’ interest in cultural competence. This led me to ask:

  • When do evaluators draw from culture in ways that strengthen colonized groups’ enactment of self-determination?
  • When do evaluators deploy culture in ways that reinforce colonial dynamics?

Lesson Learned: Culture is slippery.

We often call differences between colonized groups and institutions built by/ for dominant groups “cultural.” This suggests that a difference in culture is the problem, when the problem is actually a difference in power. Dominant groups have long learned about colonized groups’ cultures to advance the colonizing project. This led me to ask:

  • Is the competency that evaluators need really cultural? Or is it critical—the competency to analyze the exercise of power?

Lesson Learned: Agency matters.

Practicing one’s culture under conditions of cultural imperialism represents a decolonizing act. When dominant groups take the cultural practices of colonized groups, culture loses its emancipatory power. Evaluators from dominant groups who incorporate decontextualized elements of colonized groups’ cultures into their evaluation practice risk engaging in cultural appropriation and reproducing the colonial relationship between the knower and the known.

For example, interdependence is sometimes fetishized as part of colonized groups’ “culture” that can be incorporated into otherwise conventional evaluations to demonstrate cultural competence. But interdependence is more than cultural: It is legal, political, economic, social, environmental, and spiritual. Understanding and treating people and nature as relatives rather than resources in all these realms would mean the demise of the settler colony in which we live.

Hot Tip:

Every evaluator can reflect on our motivations for seeking–and the impact of exercising–cultural competence. Depending on our social location, are we displacing colonized groups’ knowledge and agency?

Culture is not a static “thing” attached to people. Colonized groups have survived by individually and collectively developing the ability to change our ways of speaking, behaving, thinking, depending on the context, while maintaining ties to our communities and histories.

This ability to respond interculturally has become necessary in institutions that are led and evaluated by an increasingly professionalized class who often shares no frame of reference with participants. Institutions have long asked individuals who can respond interculturally to facilitate or defuse situations that they failed to anticipate without necessarily changing institutionalized dynamics of dominance. The ability is now considered worth learning among individuals from dominant groups. Like culture, though, cultural competence risks becoming commodified when sought by dominant groups pursuing the professional rewards that certification ushers in.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Indigenous Peoples in Evaluation (IPE)  TIG week. All posts this week are contributed by members of the IPE Topical Interest Group. 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.

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