The movement within evaluation circles, to prioritize a focus on culture as a critical element of context, has been a vital development for the profession. Among other outcomes it has galvanized and motivated a significant group of professionals who seek to infuse their practice with CRE-based conceptualization, strategies, and sensitivities. More generally, it has served notice to the entire professional program evaluation community that competent practice must exhibit an awareness of the role of culture and cultural context--both as they are critical to the evaluand and as they reflect critical perspectives taken by the evaluator. The prolific growth in the number of sessions during the annual AEA Conference is but one tangible indicator of how pervasive CRE has become as an influence in the field. However, it is also easy to note that there is fuzziness in the logic and application of efforts to incorporate a program evaluation stance that gives priority to the role of cultural context as the various sessions take a wide ranging set of implied criteria as reflective of quality professional practice. For most, cultural competence is the comfortable conceptualization used to discuss improved evaluation practice. This formulation is akin to a call to be sensitive to human diversity, a kind of minimalist nod to the authenticity and centrality of diverse cultural alignments and the need to be open to this phenomenon as one approaches an evaluation assignment. For others, CRE reflects a large step beyond recognition of culture as a legitimate concern in evaluation, to an appreciation that recognition without responsive action is too hollow and anemic to qualify as a real step forward in program evaluation’s service to impacted communities.
A community of scholars, practitioners, stakeholders, and evaluation sponsors can highlight and promote the significant differences between cultural competence and culturally or contextually responsive program evaluation. To build on Jennifer Greene’s assertion that evaluations always contain an element of advocacy, although often not explicitly identified; to allow cultural competence to dominate as the means to incorporate the lived experiences of impacted communities fails to force the evaluator to name its positionality. It continues to perpetuate the myth that a “reasonable” person need not own their biases and predispositions as an evaluator, they must simply accept that others may have a different view and pledge to be sensitive to that reality. For many evaluation assignments, perhaps most, this may be sufficient. But it does not provide legitimacy to the further commitment to responsively acknowledge evaluation as inherently impact power positioning. When an evaluation fails to empower the least powerful, their relative power and position erodes further. Evaluations that do not provide solutions or assistance to a community become part of its problem.
Many of the current proponents of CRE were the vanguard of the movement to give culture and cultural context appropriate attention in evaluation. It is now critical that those voices continue to steer the nascent movement through to a complete transformation of program evaluation, but this will require several things to become viable.
- A vibrant scholar community to continue to develop theory and strategies supporting a responsive stance on cultural context;
- Practitioners skilled and motivated to build the practice literature with examples of the value added from a CRE approach;
- Evaluation sponsors willing to support the kind of practices required for quality CRE;
- A general elevation of understanding about culture as an element of context, culture as a concept; context as central to evaluation; and
- Collaboration among all who contribute to the above, to hone and refine the distinctions between a more passive acknowledgement of culture and cultural context to a fully responsive stance.
As we design our processes, perhaps these thoughts will be helpful.
Melvin Hall is a professor of Educational Psychology at Northern Arizona University.