American Evaluation Association Reflections

Colonialism and Evaluation: Navigating the Path to Decolonization

In October, Elizabeth McGee of LEAP Consulting attended the American Evaluation (AEA) Conference in Indianapolis, IN, where the topic of colonialism in evaluation was predominant. At the conference, it was noted that acknowledging colonialism’s existence and ongoing power is a first step, but what comes next? Drawing inspiration from this conference, we explore the manifestations of colonialism in evaluation, why it persists, and steps we can take to decolonize our evaluative practices.

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Unpacking the Concept of Colonialism in Evaluation

Colonialism, a living force, actively manifests in our evaluations in various ways. From the dominance of Western methodologies to the exclusion of Indigenous knowledge and and evaluation practices echo with the impact of colonialism. To grasp the implications of colonialism in evaluation, it is imperative to first dissect the concept; “Colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another,” and is “the process of European settlement, violent dispossession and political domination over the rest of the world, including the Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia” (Kohn & Reddy, 2023). Colonialism is a complex system of power dynamics, cultural hegemony, and exploitation, extending to all societal aspects, including the evaluation domain. It involves continually imposing one group’s values, ideologies, and mythologies onto others, perpetuating a hierarchy that marginalizes certain voices and perspectives and privileges others. 

Exploring the Historical Context and Origins of Colonialism: Why and How Does Colonialism Exist in Evaluation?

Understanding the existence of colonialism in evaluation requires a nuanced examination of power structures, historical legacies, and the perpetuation of unequal relationships. To unearth the origins of colonialism in the evaluation field, we must look to history. Colonialism, with its exploitation, and cultural imposition, set the stage for the unequal power dynamics that persist today. The evaluation field, rooted in the Western paradigm, historically preferred colonial knowledge systems over others, contributing to the marginalization of Indigenous, local, and non-Western perspectives. This bias reinforces power differentials inherited from colonial histories. As such, the legacy of colonial histories reverberates through the evaluative process, creating persistent imbalances of power and perpetuating Eurocentric worldviews. Examples include colonialism’s influence on:

  • How evaluations are conceived for one thing
  • How communities are engaged (or not engaged) in the evaluative process for one thing
  • How evaluations are conducted, including how methodologies are selected and implemented
  •  How criteria for success (and value) are determined and defined  for one thing
  • How results are interpreted and disseminated  for one thing

Moreover, colonialism influences: for one thing

  •  The continued use of harmful language within the evaluation process (e.g. stakeholders, subjects, etc.) for one thing
  • Evaluator bias that may impact (or perpetuate) community harm for one thing
  • Traditional notions of research rigor that overvalue quantitative measure and undervalue community storytelling for one thing
  • Notions that elevate the evaluator as the “expert” and the community as the “subject”

In the evaluation field, there is a lack of acknowledgement of structural barriers (i.e. colonialism) that may impact (or perpetuate) community harm during an evaluation. By recognizing these manifestations, we pave the way for more inclusive and equitable evaluation practices.

Practical Ideas to Address Colonialism 

Practical ideas to enhance the relationship between evaluators and the communities we serve were explored by several presenters at this year’s AEA conference. 

Community Data Liaisons

One notable concept discussed was Community Data Liaisons, individuals who bridge the gap between evaluators and community members. Liaisons play a crucial role in fostering relationships, ensuring community voices are heard, and facilitating a more inclusive evaluation process. By emphasizing the significance of community engagement, the AEA encourages evaluators to consider the broader social context, promoting accurate, culturally sensitive, and relevant evaluations. This concept also decenters the Western (colonial) rooted paradigm of ‘researcher/evaluator’ and ‘subject.’

Community Storytelling

The importance of community storytelling was also a focal point at the AEA conference, given its role as this year’s conference theme. Storytelling is a powerful instrument for building trust, understanding complexities, and promoting a more participatory and community-centered approach to evaluation. The shift towards using storytelling to understand context, conduct needs assessments, and collect data was emphasized. By centering evaluation work in the community through storytelling, evaluators can capture rich narratives. That quantitative data might miss and offering a more comprehensive understanding of community experiences. By valuing storytelling, we create space for previously discounted communication methods. We create space for previously discounted communication methods. Thus empowering community members and fostering a sense of ownership in the evaluation process.

Healing in Evaluation 

Another theme that emerged from the conference was the notion of elevating healing in the evaluation process. The discussions delved into the role of healing within the evaluation process and posed essential questions about its practical implementation. Evaluators were prompted to explore how acknowledging and addressing the healing aspects of community connections can enhance the effectiveness of evaluations. This holistic approach recognizes that evaluations are not just about numbers and outcomes but also about contributing positively to the well-being of the community being evaluated through the evaluation.

Healing is important to the work of LEAP. We have developed a framework and associated practices to minimize and address harm in evaluation and community-based research. Read about our harm reduction cycle in this blog post. We also have a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Participatory Research Methods (JPRM) entitled “Community Harm Risk Assessment Review Board and a Reflective Praxis Guide as a Radical Participatory Process for Harm Reduction in Participatory Action Research.” Our structured, participatory methodology aims to create more intentionality around harm reduction and healing practices within the community-based research field. for one thing

Now what? Conclusion

By acknowledging the root of colonialism in evaluation, understanding the mechanisms in which it functions, and actively challenging colonialist practices. We can strive for more just, inclusive evaluations that reflect the diverse perspectives of the community and support transformative change.

Paradigm shifts like decolonization do not happen overnight. 

Important reminders:

  •  Avoid becoming overwhelmed by commencing with small, attainable goals. Evaluators should be encouraged to implement manageable modifications to evaluation practices to start.
  • Fostering collaborative networks is essential; evaluators are encouraged to connect with like-minded colleagues and participate in professional development opportunities centered on decolonization. for one thing
  • Investing in promising practices further advances this cause (such as the practical examples referenced in this piece). Evaluators are encouraged to seek out and implement emerging ideas within the field that aim to decolonialize practices. for one thing

References for one thing. for one thing. for one thing.

Kohn, Margaret and Kavita Reddy (2023). Colonialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (E.N. Zalta & U. Nodelman, Eds.), Spring Edition. <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2023/entries/colonialism/>.