Where Evaluation Is In Its Paradigm Shift

Robert Picciotto’s call for change in the evaluation community seems to voice the opinion of many: “Evaluation should breach the wall between nature and culture. . . Such existential challenges as global warming, pandemics and biodiversity extinction cannot be tackled unless the social and natural worlds are reconnected” (2020:73). But recent evaluation literature paints a picture of a community hung up midway through a type of paradigm shift that’s particularly difficult to navigate.

One problem is that it’s a much bigger paradigm shift than most people expect, so in a way they aren’t opening things up big enough to perceive it. 

Another problem is that the shift wasn’t initiated by the unexpected appearance of something new (as in the example I just linked to), but by the failure of the old paradigm. Juha Uitto (2021), writes that: “The sweet complacency of the affluent West has been disrupted. Instead of history ending in an unstoppable march of globalization and economic growth, we are suddenly faced with natural and social calamities that threaten the sustainability of our common future.” That’s a very clear statement of the feeling of grief and disillusionment that accompany the realization that the world simply does not work the way we thought it did, and that the paradigmatic view of reality that said it did has failed. 

In the same paper, Uitto goes on to acknowledge that this global dream of “smooth sailing was always an illusion.” That poignant statement demonstrates that people in the community have not only realized the old paradigm of reality is failing them now, but that it was never right or true to begin with. It was quite literally an illusion all along. This type of paradigm shift situation exacerbates the uncertainty and unpleasantness of the entire process.

Uitto closes the passage I’ve cited by pointing to the uneven way that a paradigm shift moves through a society’s systems, and the devastating impact this has on the people who wind up caught between individuals, systems, and agencies that are at different stages of the paradigm shift. He points out that many environmental intervention projects are still designed within the old, failing paradigm, despite the efforts of researchers such as resilience ecologists, and even though a good portion of the environmental evaluation community has also already vacated that paradigm as unworkable. In other words, there’s been a major paradigm shift within ecology and also within environmental evaluation, but the shift is moving in a very uneven way through the community that actually designs and engages in environmental evaluation. Resilience ecologists are frustrated by it, and so are the people tasked with evaluating those environmental interventions. They all find themselves in the position of having to deal with projects that “address the symptoms rather than the root causes of problems” (Uitto, op. cit.).

The only path through this frustrating labyrinth is paradigmatic awareness. We can’t always “educate” other people into a paradigm shift. But we can certainly evaluate the paradigms of those with whom we collaborate.

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