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«LA REVUE CANADIENNE D'ÉVALUATION DE PROGRAMME Pages The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation Vol. 12 No. 2 143–162 ISSN 0834-1516 Copyright © ...»

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The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation Vol. 12 No. 2 143–162

ISSN 0834-1516 Copyright © 1997 Canadian Evaluation Society



Madine VanderPlaat

Saint Mary’s University

Halifax, Nova Scotia

The aspirations of emancipatory or empowerment-based social


interventions, such as those inscribed in Health Canada’s and the World Health Organization’s Ottawa Charter, require a significant reconstruction of traditional evaluation practices. The prevailing response to this need has been the inclusion of “empowering” research techniques in the evaluation activity. The author argues that empowering research techniques cannot, in and of themselves, effectively inform and support the political aspirations of emancipatory intervention; such aspirations instead demand a dramatic shift in the institutional role of evaluation research and the focus of the evaluative gaze. Drawing from elements of Habermas’s theory of communicative action, the author outlines the dimensions of a critical approach to evaluation that is more consistent with the principles underscoring emancipatory intervention. The Treasury Board’s guide to program evaluation is used as illustration, to demonstrate the implications of such an approach for conventional evaluation questions.

Résumé: Les objectifs des interventions sociales de type émancipateur ou habilitateur, telles que décrites dans la Charte d’Ottawa établie par Santé Canada et l’Organisation mondiale de la santé, exigent une restructuration significative des techniques d’évaluation traditionnelles. La façon habituelle de répondre à ce besoin est d’inclure des techniques de prise de pouvoir dans l’activité d’évaluation. Dans le présent article, l’auteur soutient que ces techniques de prise de pouvoir ne peuvent en ellesmêmes éclairer ou appuyer d’une façon efficace les objectifs politiques de l’intervention émancipatrice. Au contraire, ces objectifs exigent un changement radical dans le rôle institutionnel de la recherche d’évaluation et dans l’approche évaluative. À l’aide d’éléments tirés de la théorie de Habermas sur l’action communicative, les dimensions d’une approche critique à l’évaluation qui respecte mieux les principes de l’intervention émancipatrice sont déc

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du Trésor sur l’évaluation des programmes sert à montrer les conséquences de ce genre d’approche sur les questions d’évaluation traditionnelle.

Since the 1980s the language of empowerment has had a powerful influence on the development of interventionary strategies in the health, education, and social welfare sectors. Health Canada has been particularly committed to this philosophy, and has since 1986 based its programming strategies on the Ottawa Charter, an approach to health promotion that emphasizes increased public participation, network/coalition building, and community development.

The evaluation industry has generally recognized that the aspirations of this genre of intervention require a significant reconstruction of traditional evaluation practices. The pioneering work of Scriven (1973), Stake (1975), and Guba and Lincoln (1989) has provided much needed inspiration and the basis for considerable innovation. Fischer (1985), Kemmis (1993), Everitt (1996), and Fettermen, Kaftarian, and Wandersman (1996), to name but a few, have made important contributions to the concept of “empowering” evaluation strategies.

Although I applaud the gains made by these endeavors, I would argue that we still have a long way to go in developing an approach to evaluation research that truly informs and supports empowermentoriented aspirations. To date, most of the attention has focused on program participants and “empowering” methodologies. What is missing is the recognition that social change emerges from the interplay between human agency and systemic structures. Evaluation practices guided by an emancipatory ethic must develop the capacity to address this dynamic. I would argue that such aspirations necessitate a dramatic shift in the institutional role of evaluation research and in the focus of the evaluative gaze.

This article provides a basis for rethinking the evaluation function given the demands of interventions governed by an emancipatory ethic. In doing so, I draw on Jürgen Habermas’s concept of communicative action to provide a theoretical grounding for the shift in perspective.1


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within which to examine the practice of social intervention and evaluation. Habermas’s primary concern is the relationship between human agency and systemic structures. In his construction of modern society, he distinguishes two forms of “systemic” oppression, that is, oppression supported by the political, economic, and normative structures of the state’s administrative apparatus. First, there is the oppression that results from the unequal distribution of and access to resources. This is what traditional approaches to intervention attempt to compensate for or ameliorate. The second form of systemic oppression derives from the over-reliance on scientific discourse and technocratic rationalization as the basis for instrumental decision making. This privileging of “scientism” not only justifies material and social disparities but also discursively disarms political challenges to the status quo. It is this form of oppression that interventions informed by emancipatory politics are intended to address.

Habermas (1971) alerts us to the relationship between actions and the interests that govern actions. Communicative actions, which are directed at achieving a sense of mutual understanding and collective will, are actions we pursue to satisfy our interest in social harmony, integration, and solidarity. Instrumental actions are those emerging from our technical interest in controlling nature and our environment. In the liberal model of capitalist society communicative actions are primarily pursued in the realm of everyday life — the “lifeworld” (Habermas, 1984, p. 70) — and technical interests have become systemically structured and formalized in economic institutions, state bureaucracies, and professional agencies — “the system.” For Habermas, the differentiation between systemic and lifeworld interests is not problematic in and of itself, as long as the direction and content of systemic interests and instrumental capacities are grounded in everyday experience and guided by collective interests. As such, the only legitimate rationale for systemic action is one that is “communicatively secured” through public discussion and agreement.

In The Theory of Communicative Action Habermas (1984, 1987) argues that the reverse is occurring. Social and political issues emerging from everyday life are increasingly being recast as technical concerns subject to systemic intervention and the application of scientific and technocratic imperatives. Issues related to how we want to live together and to what end are framed and legitimated by systemic logistics and priorities rather than determined discursively within the public arena. Consequently, “public will,” or collective agency, is being politically subverted by systemic discourses and


146 OF institutional arrangements. Our capacity to engage in the production of social change is, thus, gradually undermined by the growing inability to collectively explore and debate the nature and direction of that change. For Habermas this constitutes one of the most fundamental threats to democracy in the modern world.

From Habermas’s perspective, traditional approaches to social programming thus serve as a systemic tool for control and manipulation of the lifeworld. On the one hand, they offset serious political challenges to the status quo by providing compensation or ameliorative services to those dispossessed by the economic contradictions inherent in capitalism. On the other hand, they provide a means for penetrating the lifeworld and exposing the dimensions of everyday life to technocratic scrutiny, rationalization, and control. Within this context the social interventionary process may be seen as a means by which “the system,” as opposed to “the collective,” organizes and manages issues related to collective living and social integration.

Social problems are increasingly the domain of the “professional,” who dictates the understanding of discontent, the appropriate level of intervention, and the skills required to overcome the condition.

The assumption is that “social change” is a process that requires the upgrading of the instrumental capacity of the dispossessed and that this ability is linked to the acquisition of specific skills.

Habermas asks us to think again about this approach. He points out that we need a wider structural analysis so that the acquisition of such skills makes experiential as well as systemic sense. He challenges us to recognize the need to harness the technocratic efficiency and scientific capacity of the modern state to communicatively secured interests, thereby ensuring that the actions of systemic agents are firmly grounded in the needs emerging from everyday life.


The critical imperative identified by Habermas is recognized, in varying degrees, in the rhetoric of empowerment-oriented intervention.

Where previously the discourse of intervention had been strongly oriented to the positivistic elements in the social sciences, now the practice of social programming is increasingly influenced by the emancipatory language of critical adult educators (Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Collins, 1991; Fay, 1987; Freire, 1970; Giroux 1988, 1991) feminist pedagogical theorists (Hart, 1990; Lather, 1991; Weiler, 1991) and social action researchers (Hall, 1981; Maguire, 1987; Reason & LA REVUE 147


Rowan, 1981). Having rejected the conventional individualistic and behavioristic approach to intervention, these social activists attempt instead to develop strategies that will enhance the collective ability of the disempowered to affect social change on their own behalf. This discourse is characterized by a perspective that acknowledges the constraints imposed by our embeddedness in history, social structures, and personal biographies while at the same time recognizing the potential to change both ourselves and society. Perhaps what distinguishes the discourse of empowerment most clearly from its predecessors is its acknowledgement and deep respect for people’s capacity to create knowledge about, and solutions to, their own experiences. Within this discourse, the valid knowledge base from which to initiate social change originates in the collective everyday understandings and experiences of participants rather than in the annals of the social scientific community.

In adhering to an emancipatory ethic social programmers shift their focus from increasing the instrumental abilities (skills) of program users to increasing their communicative capacities (political voice/ agency) to inform instrumental actions. The key concern is with the agency of the political citizen, not the self-sufficiency of the client of state resources. What this means in practical terms is that program objectives are not framed in terms of helping participants to increase their knowledge and skills using available resources, within existing institutional arrangements. Instead, the focus is program intervention, as the creation of a communicative space, that affords participants the opportunity to collectively identify the skills, resources, and institutional organization they require to meet the needs emerging from their lifeworld locations (VanderPlaat, 1995b).

Emancipatory approaches move beyond conventional approaches to social programming. They envision a system/lifeworld relationship whereby the instrumental capacity of the former is directed by the communicatively secured needs and interests of the latter. Ideally, an emancipatory approach to social programming should provide systemic agents — academics, professionals, and bureaucrats — with the opportunity and knowledge to organize their resources and research efforts to better meet the demands of experiential need.

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and the standards by which its “success” is judged. The discourse of evaluation research shapes what is publicly “known” or communicated about a social program. Program developers’ awareness of the need to evaluate often affects how a program is documented. Program descriptions are limited not only by the discursive concepts available but also by the “credibility” of the discourse in which these concepts are embedded. What a program does and what it is or has the potential to be must “fit” within the discursive capacity and legitimating claims of systemic structures.

Empowerment-oriented interventions, therefore, require evaluation strategies that can reconcile the need to demonstrate effectiveness with the principles underscoring an emancipatory ethic. The initial reaction to this challenge was to incorporate more interpretive-oriented, qualitative methods into existing evaluation models (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). Later, and as is exemplified by the work of Fetterman, Kaftarian, and Wandersman (1996), qualitative data collection techniques were combined with “participatory” approaches in an effort to make the evaluation process more consistent with the principles of empowerment-oriented social programming.

Notwithstanding the importance of these contributions, I would argue that they are limited in their capacity to inform emancipatory interests. The ineffectuality stems from two interrelated factors.

First, we have yet to seriously address the notion of relational power.

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