Jean Eells on Institutional Ethnography

My name is Jean Eells and I am an independent evaluator in central Iowa.  I am drawn to projects that are complex and have seemingly intractable problems, due in part, because we always look at them in the same way.  Being able to see clearly is sometimes half the challenge of designing an evaluation.

Hot tip: When designing an evaluation for a complex of services or institutionalized systems, consider using Institutional Ethnography (IE) by Dorothy Smith as a methodology to orient your evaluation.  It has been used to investigate systems as large as forestry policy of the United Nations (Eastwood, 2002), and smaller systems such as local land use planning (Turner, 2003).  Although Smith’s IE was not invented to produce evaluations for clients, two characteristics of Institutional Ethnography practice can be useful to evaluation, 1) lowering defensiveness of agencies under the lens of investigation (reducing gate keeping) and, 2) efficiency in zeroing in on what matters.  IE is ready made for process evaluations, and the de-emphasis on personnel performance can improve evaluation use by people within all levels of the institution.  I used IE orientation to evaluate the institution of agricultural conservation in Iowa with regard to women farmland owners and was delighted to be able to take in the entire scope of the topic with full participation of all NGOs and agencies, and open up specific problems in a new light.

Rad resources: For more information:

  • Eastwood, L.  (2002).  The social organization of policy:  An institutional ethnography of the United Nations Intergovernmental Forum on Forests. Ph. D. dissertation, Syracuse University, United States–New York.  Retrieved June 12, 2008, from Dissertations & Theses:  A&I Database. (Publication No. AAT3046824).
  • Eells, J. C. (2008).  The land it’s everything:  Women farmland owners and the institution of agricultural conservation in the U.S. Midwest.
  • Smith, D. E.  (2006).  Institutional ethnography as practice.  Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Turner, S.  (2003).  Municipal planning, land development and environmental intervention:  An institutional ethnography.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto (Canada), Canada.  Retrieved June 12, 2008, from Dissertations & Theses:  A&I Database. (Publication No. AAT NQ78465).

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to

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