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.
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.
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