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SETIG Week: Systems in Evaluation Principles: The Lineages Project by Marah Moore and Beverly Parsons

Hi there, this is Marah Moore (Director of i2i Institute) and Beverly Parsons (Executive Director of InSites), writing about what the SETIG foresees as next steps in our Systems in Evaluation journey.

Developing the Systems in Evaluation Principles required a deep dive into the interaction between systems thinking and evaluation practice. While we recognized other paths that could be used to bring together systems with evaluative thinking and practice, the SETIG chose to draw from concepts based in the systems field.

Lessons Learned:

While the SETIG worked on the principles, several members explored the historical roots of current day practices among those who self-identify as part of the systems field. They found that the field has evolved considerably in its ways of thinking and talking about systems and that such thinking drew from many different disciplines. They recognized that this was also true of the evaluation field.

Evaluation Theory Tree

For example, Culturally Responsive Evaluation (CRE) is aligned with many aspects of systems thinking but uses different “language” to describe similar root concepts. Both CRE and systems thinking explicitly recognize that evaluators’ attitudes and biases can shape how an evaluator interacts with programs and stakeholders. Similar comparisons can be made between other evaluation approaches and systems thinking.

Systems Field diagram

Ison articulated the development of systems approaches, identifying seven general theory categories and the disciplines that contributed to each. What is important is engaging in systems thinking to gain useful understanding of a situation, identify opportunities for change and inform practice.

Lessons Learned:

So far, we’ve learned:

  1. Not all evaluators are aware of the storied history of evaluation theory and practice;
  2. Many evaluation approaches are aligned with systems thinking but “speak” a different language. As a result, evaluators using these evaluation approaches don’t necessarily think about how their work intersects with the field of systems thinking.
  3. On the flip side, many evaluators who are deeply connected to systems thinking don’t make the connections to evaluation approaches that are implicitly, but not explicitly, aligned with systems thinking.

Next Steps:

Moving forward, we want to map out the historical lineage of the evaluation field alongside the historical lineage of the systems field. We’re calling it (surprise!) The Lineages Project. Our goals:

  • to understand how similar historical moments and movements may have shaped both systems thinking and evaluation theory and practice;
  • to understand how different orientations to evaluation practice might align well with complementary orientations in the systems field; and
  • to broaden our understanding of how systems thinking is both implicitly and explicitly aligned with evaluation practice and where evaluation approaches can continue to be enhanced by further integration of systems thinking.

Rad Resources:

  • Systems practice: How to act in a climate-change world by Ray Ison
  • Culturally responsive evaluation meets systems-oriented evaluation by Thomas and Parson
  • The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems by Fritjof Capra
  • Developmental evaluation: Applying complexity concepts to enhance innovation and use by Michael Quinn Patton
  • Evaluation roots: A wider perspective by Marvin Alkin

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating this week with our colleagues in the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from SETIG members. 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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