Theories of Evaluation TIG Week: Ontology in the Time of Climate Emergency by Eric Einspruch

Hi, I’m Eric Einspruch, an AEA member since 1991, and one of the founders and a past President of the Oregon Program Evaluators Network . I am the Principal of ELE Consulting, LLC, which provides research, evaluation, and technical assistance services that balance rigor and real-world constraints to generate meaningful and actionable results. I have also taught graduate-level program evaluation courses. Below I offer some ideas gleaned from recent readings and conversastions about about ontology: the study of the nature of existence and/or reality

Lessons Learned

What we care about drives our behaviors. Stufflebeam and Coryn (2014) noted that a value is “a defensible guiding principle or ideal that should be used to determine an evaluand’s standing …  value is central to determining the criteria for use in judging programs or other entities” (p. 711, italics theirs). Patton (2021) discussed values and valuing in evaluation, revisited Stake’s (2004) article on evaluator values, linked the importance of values to the current climate emergency, and provided a reflective practice framework and tool for illuminating evaluators’ values.

How we answer the question What is real? affects what we value. Ontology is the study of the nature of existence and realty which seeks answers to the question What is real? Billman (2022) discussed the importance of ontological competence, which requires that we as evaluators “(a) continuously interrogate our ontological stance, (b) be open to changes in our ontological stance, (c) be knowledgeable and respectful of the ontological stance of others, and (d) commit to not privileging our ontological stance over that of others” (p. 3). Ontological competence is important since “values reflect beliefs and beliefs reflect ontological assumptions” (p. 12). She also provided ontological standards for evaluation upon which ontological competence is grounded.

Consider these two different ways of answering the question What is real?

Realism assumes an external reality that can be objectively investigated through the senses, and uses deductive methods to generate knowledge (Chilisa, 2020, p. 35).

Relational ontology assumes “the social reality that is investigated can be understood in relation to the connections that human beings have with the living and the nonliving … Ubuntu [states] ‘I am we; I am because we are; we are because I am’ … Reality implies a set of relationships” (Chilisa, 2020, p. 24).

It is not that one or the other of these two ontologies is better or more correct. Rather, there is opportunity in being able to operate from either one, depending on context or task at hand. Evaluators need to understand that stakeholders and rights holders may have different understandings of what is real. Better yet, we could benefit from being able to simultaneously hold different ways of knowing (see, for example, Bartlett, et al., 2012 or Hall and Dell, 2015), gaining a sort of depth perception analogous to the depth perception obtained by seeing through two eyes.

The time is now. The current climate emergency demands our attention. In thinking about policies and behaviors (individual, local, and global) necessary to address this emergency, let us also revisit our understanding of reality (i.e., our ontology) to seek one(s) most likely to generate a sustainable and equitable world.

Rad Resources

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Theories of Evaluation (ToE) TIG week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from AEA’s ToE TIG. 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 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.

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