LAWG Week: Scott Tharp on Increasing Cultural Competence in Assessment

Hello fellow culturally-responsive evaluation lovers! My name is Scott Tharp and I am the Associate Director for the Center for Intercultural Programs at DePaul University. It’s a simple fact that we live in a multicultural world where multiple values and experiences are present. While some might think evaluation is inherently “neutral”, it never is.

Social identities (e.g. race, gender, class), experiences, value systems, and beliefs will influence the assessment process in many ways. From how you word survey questions to the assumptions that inform your data analysis, social identities matter. Because not all people are the same, we must increase our cultural competence to ensure our assessment processes effective and respectful.

To define it simply, cultural competence is the level of knowledge, awareness and skill you have to engage in effective cross-cultural interactions. Pope & Reynold’s wrote a great article back in 1997 entitled Student Affairs Core Competencies: Integrating Multicultural Awareness Knowledge and Skills. While they speak from their context of higher education, the insight applies to non-profits and corporations alike.

They offer specific competencies related to each of the three domains for you to consider as you continue to enhance your culturally responsive evaluation practice. Because cultural competence in assessment begins with cultivating your own cultural competence, this is where we all must begin. This is a life-long process that takes time and dedication to self-work. Here are some useful questions to help you along the way.

Hot Tip #1: Start with yourself. How knowledgeable are you about your own social identities beyond a label? Are you self-aware enough to articulate how your social identities influence your values and worldview? Do you have skills for critical self-reflection that you practice daily? Many people refer to this simply as your “self-work”

Hot Tip #2: Learn About Others. How knowledgeable are you about social identities different from your own? Does your knowledge extend past material culture and into their values and histories? Are you self-aware enough to identify assumptions and biases towards others? Do you have the skills to challenge your own assumptions and biases before they become stereotypes?

Hot Tip #3: Consider the Systemic. How knowledgeable are you about diversity and social justice concepts and the history of social identity categories? Are you aware of social inequalities around you, or do you dismiss them as “just the way things are?” Do you have the skills to address social inequality so that you do not replicate interactions that create harm to others?

Taking time to increase our knowledge, awareness and skills related to ourselves, others, and the social environment we live in will sensitize us to social and cultural differences that will lead to better data, better conclusions, and better decisions.

We’re looking forward to November and the Evaluation 2015 annual conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). 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 contribute to aea365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to

4 thoughts on “LAWG Week: Scott Tharp on Increasing Cultural Competence in Assessment”

  1. Hi Scott,

    Thank you for this engaging post on how to increase cultural competence in assessment. I’m a master’s student currently taking a course in program evaluation and I’m interested in finding ways to be more culturally inclusive in our evaluation practices.

    Your first hot tip, to start with yourself, is often overlooked when people and organizations try to become more interculturally competent. We assume that just looking to others and noticing differences will lead to some kind of meaningful change in our understanding, but without a certain level of cultural self-awareness, it can often result in tokenization and well-intentioned stereotyping.

    Intercultural sensitivity is about more than just visible culture (clothes, art, food etc.), it’s about the internalized worldview of cultural groups – how they see the world, why this is, and how it manifests itself in behaviour. In order to develop an understanding of someone else’s worldview, we need to first understand our own so that we have a point of comparison.

    I wonder, though, how a well-developed sense of intercultural competence can be manifested in an evaluation. We need to find a way to move past basic cultural acceptance and appreciation, and towards integration. How do we bring different worldviews into the evaluation process? What if it seems like a particular worldview goes against our systemic, scientific understanding of the evaluation process? What kind of compromises might we have to make?

    Thanks for getting me started on this train of thought!


  2. I really enjoyed your post today and it was very timely. In October, I’ll be giving a workshop showcasing the work of the National Consensus Panel on Emergency Preparedness and Cultural Diversity and some local work I facilitated using their guidebook. This workshop is for public health professionals at the Washington State Public Health Association (WSPHA) Conference. I want this workshop to be very interactive and was wondering if I could borrow your “hot tips” questions to stimulate discussion. By the way, I like to refer to this life-long process as developing cultural PROFICIENCY rather than competency. I think competency is a stage on the way to proficiency but it’s not good enough to be merely competent. Maybe you would agree?

    1. Hi Susan! I’m glad you found my post useful. You (and others) are more than welcome to use the hot tips from this post song with a citation to this post.The more we share, he more we learn!

      I also appreciate your questioning my use of competence versus proficiency. I agree that it is important to distinguish basic versus advanced levels of development. As I read and interpret the work of those who study cultural competence, I believe they use the word to describe overall levels of proficiency, not a specific stage in one’s development. I imagine they would argue the point as you, but use different words. I say this because their work sometimes includes a framework for beginning, intermediate, and advanced competencies (which may map more closely to how you differentiate between competence and proficiency as more advanced). That said, I support using any words that effectively support the life-long development of these skills.

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