When I was first heard about evaluation theory, I was confused. My understanding of theory was based largely on what I learned in my undergraduate and master’s programs in sociology. Sociological theories help explain societal functioning and human interactions. They provide lenses and frameworks for understanding and investigating social phenomena. Theories in other disciplines serve similar purposes. Psychological theories explain and predict how people behave, think, and feel. Quantum theory explains and predicts the behavior of the tiniest parts of the universe. Theories in these and many other fields are usually about the phenomena the discipline was constructed to understand, not about the discipline itself. That is, sociological theory is not about doing sociology, it’s about understanding the social world. In contrast, evaluation theory is about doing evaluation.
As Tom Schwandt explained in Evaluation Foundations Revisited, “theory of evaluation does not mean scientific theory, but rather refers to an organized set of ideas about what evaluation is—its goals, aims, methods, and so on” (p. 23). Evaluation theory is pretty much a catch-all term for describing scholarship about how evaluation ought to be done.
1) Evaluation theory may be different from the theories you are familiar with and that’s OK. If you came to evaluation from a discipline that employs theories for understanding and predicting natural or social phenomena, just accept that evaluation theory has a different function. The good news is that you can draw on theories from other disciplines to inform your evaluation practice. For example, theories of health promotion and disease prevention can help frame evaluations of public health programs. Systems theory can help program planners and evaluators understand the complex environments in which programs operate.
2) The distinctions between theory, models, and approaches are fuzzy. These terms are often used interchangeably in evaluation. According to the definition of evaluation theory above, any set of ideas about how evaluation ought to be practiced and what purposes it should serve may be regarded as theory. Splitting hairs over what counts as a theory vs. model vs. approach is less important than understanding the key concepts undergirding these “organized sets of ideas” about how evaluation should be conducted.
3) The best approach to any evaluation is probably a hybrid of multiple evaluation theories. Some theories about evaluation have manifested in prescriptive frameworks, such the CIPP model and the utilization-focused evaluation approach. You may feel as if you have to pick one “approach” to use for a given evaluation. This is not the case. Treat evaluation theory as an ample pantry from which you can select ingredients to cook up an evaluation, not a packaged meal you pick off the shelf and prepare according to the directions on the box. Take what is appropriate from a variety of theories based on the needs and preferences of those whom you are serving.
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