Social Work TIG Week: Evaluation Theory in Social Work Practice: Beyond Application by Aaron Kates

I am Dr. Aaron Kates. I am a clinical social worker and an independent evaluation consultant from Northwest Indiana. I am a recent graduate of the Interdisciplinary PhD in Evaluation Program at Western Michigan University. 

“I just want to help people.” 

This was the mantra I heard over and over again from my fellow students in my social work courses, and one I continue to hear. 

I resonate with the sentiment. The reason I entered the field was for the express purpose of making a difference in the world. I wanted to have the sense that what I was doing really mattered.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) states the goal of Social Work is to: enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.

This immediately raises questions:

  1. What constitutes human well-being?
  2. What are basic human needs?
  3. How can I differentiate needs and wants?
  4. How do I identify which people are vulnerable, oppressed, and impoverished?

While seemingly self-evident, the answers to these questions are as elusive as they are important.

Social workers are taught the importance of evaluation to delivering good services. Unfortunately, how this is backed up in coursework is a laundry list of methods. Social workers are taught how to make a logic model, how to create a survey, and told that this is evaluation. 

What is missing?

Every social worker who truly cares about evaluation needs to develop an understanding of evaluation theory, beyond just methods. As the word implies, evaluation is about the application of values. This is far more complex than simply measuring inputs and outputs and expecting this to demonstrate we have done a “good” job. Instead, we must do the hard work of grappling with the values that we, our clients, and other stakeholders hold. Often, when we have done our work, we don’t come out with a clean answer, a binary “yes” or “no” to the question, “have I done a good job?” Instead, we may come up with more questions than answers. 

Where would an aspiring social worker/evaluator look for guidance to become more steeped in evaluation theory? One might be tempted to look at texts specific to evaluation in social work practice. While many of them paint an accurate picture of many of the methods used by evaluators, they often fall far short in that they fail to point students to the foundational issues and concepts in evaluation. 

Instead, I would direct people to texts that are transdisciplinary. Follow citations and get to know theorists. Are you familiar with names like Michael Scriven, Yvonna Lincoln, Michael Patton, and Carol Weiss? If not, you have not done all your homework. Those interested in diving into the wide world of evaluation theory might start with these two Rad Resources.

Rad Resources

Evaluation Foundations Revisited: Cultivating a Life of the Mind for Practice: Schwandt, Thomas: 9780804786553: Amazon.com: Books

Tom Schwandt is a giant of evaluation theory. This book is a sure-fire way to get you up to speed with the critical philosophical issues underpinning evaluation practice. This will get you thinking like an evaluator. Pay attention to the citations and follow those rabbit trails deep into the literature.

Evaluation theory is who we are – ScienceDirect

This 1998 article by Will Shadish gets to the core of what I’m talking about here. It outlines why evaluation theory is core to who we are as evaluators. Again, follow those citations and get curious.


The American Evaluation Association is hosting SW TIG Week with our colleagues in the Social Work Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our SW TIG 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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 thought on “Social Work TIG Week: Evaluation Theory in Social Work Practice: Beyond Application by Aaron Kates”

  1. This post resonates with me! Just last week, an elementary school employee asked me for feedback on her quick Google form survey intended to assess the needs of the school’s low-income families. Where to begin?! Your post will help me explain the complexity of this and other such endeavors.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.