Directions in Evaluation Theory and Practice: the politics of evidence

Friday 12 December 2014

A one-day symposium

Symposium rationale

This symposium aims to address widely the ways in which ‘evidence’ is understood within the theory and practice of evaluation. In-so-doing it will regard the nature of what is considered to be ‘evidence’ as itself a political topic. The symposium will seek to contextualise evidence, its manufacture, its understanding and its deployment as inherently political as well as a being matter of science. It will also draw upon controversies within the social sciences regarding the nature of knowledge and the ways in which we understand our social world.

The meaning and process of evaluation has always been a subject of critical questions. The well-rehearsed controversies between empiricism and critical approaches within the humanities have been played out within evaluation frameworks as tensions between positivist and pragmatist methodologies on the one hand and post-positivist, constructivist and transformative evaluation methodologies on the other. Positivist paradigms on the one hand, tend to lean towards outwardly evident and measurable outcomes of a policy or programme in the form of performance indicators and milestones. Interpretivist methodologies on the other hand have recognised the elusiveness of understanding social meanings and measuring social phenomena, which are critical to public policy debate in a democracy. Their approach to evaluation is more open to interpretation and contestation, and for that reason often seen as lacking ‘hard facts’. Critical perspectives have queried evaluative processes and their outcomes, recognising the way in which evaluation works within existing paradigms and regimes of knowledge and policy, with vested interests preserved in the production of evaluation outputs. Critical perspectives take a broader historical and political approach to the claim that we can evaluate scientifically. The tensions within these debates often revolve around what we as evaluators and evaluation researchers regard and accept as ‘evidence’.

Indeed the question of what is accepted as evidence is itself political. Despite the frequent demands from government that services provide ‘evidence’ of effectiveness if they are to continue, the types of evidence required, the ways in which they are used and the degrees of attention they actually receive will vary with political agendas.

Whilst seeking contributions that cover these and other related critical and theoretical concerns, the aim of the symposium wherever possible, is to link these with practical approaches to evaluation working towards real change for professional practice and policy within organisations, public services, educational and social agencies and wider society.

For more information contact Dr Mark O’Brien and for more information download the full symposium details.

The symposium fee is £32 (£22 concessions).

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