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Memorial Week in Evaluation: Participation as Buzzword by Akashi Kaul and Rodney Hopson

We are Akashi Kaul, third year graduate student at George Mason University, and Rodney Hopson, former AEA president and professor at George Mason University. Our reflection for this Memorial Day series is on what “participation” means. We highlight three things: (1) the ambiguity around participation’ since it exists in evaluation as both theory and method; (2) the need for discussing power when talking about participation in evaluation; and (3) the need to refer to intersectional literature when referring to these concepts.

Participation is the latest buzzword in evaluation – from impact assessment to democratic evaluation – there has been a growing focus on this word. Cousins and Whitmore (1998) distinguished “transformative participatory evaluation” from “practical participatory evaluation.”  Yet, there remains ambiguity about the ‘why,’ ‘who,’ ‘how,’ ‘what’ and ‘for whom’ of ‘participation’. For starters, the fact that participation is used in evaluation as a method and a theory renders the division between the ‘transformative’ and ‘practical’ paradigms a little perfunctory, since not all evaluation processes that employ ‘participation,’ use ‘participatory evaluation’ theory. Further, the primary distinction between transformative and practical participatory evaluation, that the later ‘aims to increase the use of evaluation results through the involvement of intended users’ (Smits & Champagne, 2008) is one that is necessary for the former too. Finally, there is much to be said about whether participation is a means or an end in and of itself and how that impacts evaluation.

Then there is the finding that participation is still an evaluator-driven process (Cullen, Coryn & Rugh, 2011), sometimes excluding the spirit of ‘participation’ entirely. Recent writings on culturally responsive evaluation (Hood, Hopson & Freirson, 2005), a process that innately includes participation of all stakeholders, raises questions about the role of culture for understanding variations in participation (also see Chouinard and Hopson (2016) for how ‘participation is used as a proxy for culture).

The larger questions with respect to participation in evaluation are around power, voice, and the identification of ‘stakeholders’. That evaluation is a political process, conducted in political environs with political ramifications is articulated often enough. However, such discussion around power are both general and sparse. Evaluation can learn from other disciplines about power and participation.

Rad Resource: Planning studies, for example, use the ladder of citizen participation, which could easily span the realm from ‘practical’ to ‘transformative’ – clearly making the practical to be non-participation or tokenism.

Rad Resources: Power is discussed and argued about in literature from Marx to Gramsci to Foucault to Fanon to Bourdieu – thinkers, we rarely use in evaluation.

Tough questions: Is power limited to capital i.e. donors, or is it ubiquitous a la Foucault? Is it cultural capital that counts or colonial/postcolonial/neocolonial thought pervasiveness? These are tough questions that evaluation, in the United States and abroad, needs to consider going forth.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Memorial Week in Evaluation. The contributions this week are remembrances of evaluation concepts, terms, or approaches. 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.





2 thoughts on “Memorial Week in Evaluation: Participation as Buzzword by Akashi Kaul and Rodney Hopson”

  1. I read your post with great interest as it is helping me put the puzzle pieces together in relation to my understanding of the practice of evaluation. Like Akashi, I too am a graduate student (Queens University: Kingston, Ontario, Canada).

    In recent discussions with my grad-student peers I’ve suggested that Evaluation has matured into a Profession as illustrated by the presence of ethical standards, a body of knowledge described by a competency framework, training at a high level and public recognition.

    I believe the movement (?) towards a model-based framework for practice is an additional sign of maturity for the profession. My undergrad is in economics and through that lens, I appreciate the various economic models that describe and provide a framework for practice. Models help to conceptualize highly complex theories.

    Notwithstanding the importance of research and theory, eventually there needs to be practicality. In my humble opinion, the attempts by Saunders and Smits/ Champagnes (and others) to develop models of practice, based on research and theory, is a positive step for the evaluation profession. If we assume that the act of inviting evaluation is itself a participatory step – which to me seems logical – and we accept that participatory evaluation (PE) is beneficial, than having a tool-kit that includes generally accepted evaluation practices related to PE contributes to legitimacy, validity, predictability and (hopefully) use of participatory evaluations.

    With the above in mind, I’d be interested in your thoughts on: whether developing generally accepted evaluation practices (models) might influence power and participation?

    Smits, P and Francois Champagne (2008). An Assessment of the Theoretical Underpinnings of Practical Participatory. American Journal of Evaluation 2008 29: 427

    Saunders, M. (2012). The use and usability of evaluation outputs: A social practical approach. Evaluation, 18(4), 421-436.

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