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Introduction - The politics of evaluation: an overview

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2022

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Summary

Evaluation: an inherently political activity

Evaluation research should be understood as inherently political. That is this book's starting point. While most commentators recognise that evaluation operates within political constraints, we go further and suggest that evaluation itself is socially constructed and politically articulated. As a practice aimed at producing scientific knowledge, we see evaluation as materially and discursively constituted. It is given meaning within wider social and political relations. We believe this approach avoids some of the deficiencies to be found in recent academic debates about the politics of evaluation research. It does not weaken our belief in the importance of evaluation or the role of evidence in reaching judgements about social policies and programmes. Rather, it suggests that these need to be set within a wider understanding of both the politics of evaluation practice and the political role attributed to evaluation.

A fierce controversy rages within academic evaluation theory between scientific realists, who argue for the possibility of an independent reality capable of objective description, and social constructionists, who argue that all knowledge is contextual, relative and subjective. The former view stresses the primacy of independent judgement by scientific evaluators while the latter sees evaluators as facilitators and negotiators between different viewpoints. Proponents of both positions, however, seem to agree on one thing: that evaluation is political. The scientific realists Pawson and Tilley (2000, p 11), who advocate what they call ‘realistic evaluation’, argue:

the very act of engaging in evaluation constitutes a political statement.

They accept the objective reality of politics but go on to dismiss the social constructionist view of evaluators negotiating between a plurality of stakeholder perspectives as naive. We would agree with them when they argue (2000, p 20) that a simple pluralist perspective may fail “to appreciate the asymmetries of power which are assumed and left untouched by the vast majority of policy initiatives”. Ironically, however, leading advocates of the social constructionist approach, such as Gubba and Lincoln (1989), also stress the political nature of evaluation. In a critique of scientific realism's quest for objective knowledge, they state (1989, p 7):

to approach evaluation scientifically is to miss completely its fundamental social, political and value-oriented character.

Both of these views, then, see the practice of evaluation as political.

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The Politics of Evaluation
Participation and Policy Implementation
, pp. 1 - 18
Publisher: Bristol University Press
Print publication year: 2005

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