This article started life as a literature review I completed as the final paper in the Postgraduate Diploma in Social Science Evaluation Research at Massey University. As a busy researcher and evaluator, “doing” evaluation doesn’t leave much time for “thinking” about evaluation, and even less time for “writing” about evaluation. The opportunity to delve deeply into an aspect of evaluation was welcome, and I chose a topic at the core of evaluation practice: valuing, and more specifically reaching a warranted conclusion about the overall merit, worth, or significance of an evaluand (the subject of an evaluation). Some refer to this as synthesis.
I framed the review around three questions:
- How essential is an overall evaluative conclusion, and how much agreement is there about this aspect of evaluation practice?
- If an overall conclusion is made, who should take responsibility for it—the evaluator alone or with stakeholders, or stakeholders alone?
- What methods are available to reach a warranted evaluative conclusion?
My intent to use evaluation theory to enhance evaluation practice should be visible in the plain language and practice-based nature of the questions.
I like the work of Tom Schwandt, an American evaluator who has visited Aotearoa New Zealand in recent years. His writing on the relationship between practice and theory in evaluation resonates with me. Schwandt suggests that “when we use the term theory in evaluation we could be talking about any of various bodies of conceptual or theoretical knowledge that can serve as an aid in thinking through options in a situation that a practitioner faces” (Schwandt, 2014, 234). He also describes this conceptual knowledge as “tools to think with”. I wanted this review to expand my own “tools to think with” when designing an evaluation and considering whether and how to reach and report an overall evaluative conclusion.
You can read my article from Evaluation Matters—He Take Tō Te Aromatawai here.
Jo MacDonald is a Senior Researcher at NZCER.
Schwandt, T. A. (2014). On the mutually informing relationship between practice and theory in evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 35(2), 231–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098214013503703