Systems Week: Susan Wolfe on Adding an Ecological Perspective to Evaluation

My name is Susan Wolfe and I am the owner of Susan Wolfe and Associates, LLC, an independent consulting firm that applies Community Psychology principles to strengthening organizations and communities. Our services include program evaluation. We have found an ecological perspective useful for thinking through evaluation designs and analyzing the results. One ecological framework I have found useful is James Kelly’s (1968) ecological conception of preventive interventions, and many of Kelly’s later works that expanded on his ecological thinking. Kelly’s ecological conception consists of the four principles described below.

Principle 1:  Functions within a social unit are interdependent (The Ecosystem Principle). Measuring outcomes without considering the interdependencies of participants or organizations can lead to erroneous or invalid conclusions. Interdependencies may contribute to program success or undermine it.

Hot Tip:  Include measurement of interdependencies in your evaluation design, particularly those that might affect the outcomes. Examples might be social networks or other services or education programs used by participants.

Principle 2:  The cycling of resources. Identifying efficiencies in resource use can be useful information for programs to plan for sustainability.

Hot Tip:  Include measures of resource use and efficiency in your evaluation design. Assess the extent to which each component contributed to success, whether there are unnecessary positions or materials, and whether work could be reorganized more efficiently or whether resources may be available through collaborations with other entities.

Principle 3:  The environment affects styles of adaptation. Understanding environments and programs includes understanding the adaptive skills individuals and organizations use to survive and thrive.

Hot Tip:  Include an assessment of the program’s environment and how the organization or the program participants adapt to it. Determine the extent to which the program has adapted to the needs of the individuals or groups it serves and whether further adaptation (e.g., hours, content) may further program success.

Principle 4:  The succession principle: the evolution of natural communities. Understanding how change has occurred in a community or organization over time makes it possible to anticipate the rate and direction of change in the future.

Hot Tip:  Include an examination of changes in the program or community it serves over time, including a historical view. This can help the organization to understand the direction it may need to take, or reasons why certain tactics may not work well within a specific community.

Rad Resource: Kelly, J.G. (2006). Becoming ecological:  An expedition into community psychology. New York:  Oxford University Press.


Kelly, J.G. (1968). Toward an ecological conception of preventive interventions. In J.W. Carter, Jr. (Ed.). Research contributions from psychology to community mental health. New York: Behavioral Publications.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Systems in Evaluation Week with our colleagues in the Systems in Evaluation AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Systems TIG members and you may wish to consider subscribing to our weekly headlines and resources list where we’ll be highlighting Systems resources. You can also learn more from the Systems TIG via their many sessions at Evaluation 2010 this November in San Antonio.

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