Friday, January 15, 2016

Feminist Evaluation and Research

Edited by Sharon Brisola, Denise Seigart, and Saumitra SenGupta (2014)
New York, The Guilford Press, 346 pp., $31.00  to $45 paperback Amazon (12/29/15) ISBN-13: 978-1462515202, ISBN-10: 1462515207

Reviewed by Sean Little
Words 1188
This book provides a useful introduction to the concepts and practice of feminist evaluation. According to Alkin’s and Christie’s evaluation tree with three branches (Method, Use, and Value), this approach lies firmly on the values branch (Evaluation Roots, 2004). It emphasizes the commitment to social justice as a core value. This emphasis introduces several additional problems. What constitutes social justice? Who gets to define it? Are we heading in the right direction? How will we know if we have achieved it? And can people “legitimately” disagree about what constitutes social justice? Another problem concerns those differences between the democratic political processes that rely on a presumption of equality, and the technocratic problems that rely on advanced training. This book did not really address these questions. Evaluators unfamiliar with feminist evaluation may find this book more valuable than others.

This book has three editors with different authors writing each chapter. Each author reiterates similar points, but with subtle differences. It has three sections:  1) Feminist Theory, Research, and Evaluation, 2) Feminist Evaluation in Practice, and 3) Feminist Research in Practice. While the first section consisted of theory, the last two sections focused on the actual practices of feminist evaluation and research.

In feminist thought, “gender” differs from “sex”. The World Health Organization defines gender as “the socially constructed roles, behavior, activities, and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women”. In contrast, “sex” refers to the anatomical and physiological aspects of male, female, and intersex bodies. Intersex refers to people with ambiguous genitals. Gender is social; sex is physical. Gender inequities refer to differences in status, wealth, security, health, and freedom between those people classified as male and those classified as female. Gender inequities occur individually, and structurally. Social norms, customs, and beliefs support and maintain gender inequities.

In the first chapter, Sharon Brisola identifies eight key feminist evaluation principles. First, knowledge depends upon the culture, society, and time in which it emerges. Second, knowledge has an explicit or implicit purpose. Third, evaluation is an inherently political activity. Fourth, all methods, institutions, and practices are socially constructed. Fifth, multiple ways of knowing exist, but people value some ways more than others. Political choice, frequently unstated, drives this prioritizing of some ways of knowing. Sixth, gender inequity, race, class, and culture, all interpenetrate. While one can extract information about one of these elements, that information will be, regardless of its utility in some contexts, incomplete without examining the other elements. Seventh, gender inequity exists at the systematic and structural levels. Eighth, evaluators have an ethical obligation to act to reduce oppression.

Brisola rejects the belief that feminist evaluation should only focus on women. Instead, it focuses on power dynamics and the resulting social and gender inequities. She argues that men can be practitioners and subjects of feminist evaluation.

According to Brisola, feminist theories examine four major areas: 1) the inequities linked to gender, 2) the ending of oppression, 3) the interests, concerns, and perspectives of women, and 4) the critiques of male bias in practice and theory.

Feminist evaluation can align with other evaluation approaches to produce blended approaches:  feminist empiricism, standpoint feminism, feminist post-modernism, and a variety of critical theory feminisms (post-colonial, black, Chicana, race, queer, and lesbian). Feminist empiricism uses positivist methodologies to examine feminist issues. Standpoint feminism assumes that where we sit at the proverbial table determines where we stand politically. Feminist theory, a critical theory itself, can align with other critical theories. These blended critical theories can be based on ace, sexuality, gender identity, or colonial status to form new critical theories. 

Brisola argues that feminist evaluation challenges epistemology (how and what we know), ontology (what constitutes “reality”), and methodology (what are tools are used to extract “knowledge” from “reality”). Despite these challenges, feminist evaluation can align with other approaches such as stakeholder, democratic, fourth generation, participatory, empowerment, emancipatory, transformative, and developmental evaluation.

In the second chapter, Sandra Mathison distinguishes between evaluation and research. Evaluation always involves both facts and values, but research does not require a consideration of value, other than methodological rigor. Evaluation also differs from research in its context specificity. Evaluation always refers to a particular evaluand in a particular context, but research involves the production of generalized knowledge. 

Mathison identified several common strands among feminist researchers:  1) the relational nature of the encounter between the evaluator, and the people associated with the evaluand; 2) the context of the evaluator’s life and its effect on the evaluator’s practice; 3) a focus on experience and complex questions of power; and 4) the inequity of gender.

This book introduces feminist evaluation to readers, but it has several drawbacks relating to its social justice focus.

The authors fail to clarify what they mean by social justice, or how to adjudicate competing definitions of it. Social justice can be a meaningful motivating force, but it can also be a vague platitude to which people with serious disagreement can “agree”. For example, everyone wants “peace” in the Middle East but people disagree, sometimes violently, as to what that means. People socially construct the concept of “justice”, but that construction lacks a guarantee of consensus. Can people disagree about what constitutes “social justice” without serving the interests of maintaining oppression? Theories advocating a social justice focus should address this issue. 

The authors emphasize the social justice commitment in feminist evaluation and research. They fail, however, to acknowledge the conflicts of interest in the material practice of evaluation and the relative powerlessness of the evaluator. This material practice involves the economic transaction between a knowledge worker and an organization with large enough amounts of capital (power) to fund an evaluation. When an independent consultant bids on a contact, this economic transaction becomes visible. When an employee has the role of evaluator, this economic transaction has been built into the hiring process, performance reviews, organizational culture, and communications from management. The funder of the evaluation determines the scope of the evaluation, not the knowledge worker.  

If an organization has the capital (power) to hire an evaluator, it may well have some vested interest in power dynamics, conscious or not. Some organizations may have worked through this issue, but it is na├»ve to think all have done so. I find it odd that social justice approaches to evaluation do not include this conflict of interest in their theory, as it is implicit in their understanding of power dynamics. None of the authors in this book addressed this issue. 

One of the articles examined a feminist evaluation of three sites in pre-Civil War Syria. An al-Qaeda front group now controls one of those sites. Any empowerment or social justice in that site has presumably ceased. Evaluators have minimal power compared to the US Congress, let alone an armed group of religious fanatics.  Theories that emphasize social justice should address the limitations of evaluator power.

While this book has it flaws, it does illuminate feminist evaluation. It also unintentionally points out the limitations of thinking that knowledge workers can drive social change.

The review first appeared in the 2016 Winter Edition of the Newsletter of the Southeast Evaluation Association.