Practicing Evaluators’ Visions of Social Justice: Definitions, Theories, Approaches, and Problem Framing

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Practicing Evaluators’ Visions of Social Justice: Definitions, Theories, Approaches, and Problem Framing

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While explication of social justice evaluation approaches have proliferated over the decades, there has been little discussion of what a just society might look like. This study explored the visions evaluators have for a just society, the approaches used by social justice-minded evaluators, and the ways in which justice is problematized in discourse in the field. Data from semi-structured interviews conducted with 16 experienced evaluators and a review 114 articles published during the last 30 years in American Evaluation Association-sponsored journals were used to outline how evaluators characterize a just society and how evaluators are working to achieve this just society. Data collection focused on mentions of justice paradigms—distributive justice, procedural justice, and justice-as-recognition—and mentions of social justice evaluation approaches—culturally responsive evaluation (CRE), democratic deliberative evaluation (DDE), feminist evaluation, and Indigenous and decolonizing evaluation—in the literature and in interviews. The results of study suggest that evaluators hold complex conceptions of social justice that emphasize addressing historical harms, disruption of current unjust systems, and the creation of conditions that support authentic participation and thriving. Interviewees did not adhere to specific social justice evaluation approaches espoused in the literature; rather, they took action based on evaluation contexts, focusing on illuminating sources of injustice, reframing issues to support action, and building evaluation capacity and community power. Social justice discourse in the professional literature, which was generally disregarded as irrelevant by interviewees, most frequently mentioned culturally responsive evaluation (CRE) and the justice-as-recognition paradigm. Discussion of both justice paradigms and approaches was largely superficial and underdeveloped, suggesting a need for greater discussion of and theorizing about both social justice ends and the means needed to achieve those ends within the field. Social justice discourse in evaluation continues to obscure the causes of injustice, and may not keep pace with the evolution of justice understandings over time. Further, attempts to professionalize the field may obstruct progress toward greater justice, though ultimately, the attainment of social justice may ultimately be beyond the scope of evaluation practice.



University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. 2022. Major: Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Advisors: Jean King, David Johnson. 1 computer file (PDF); 177 pages.

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Matthias, Cynthia. (2022). Practicing Evaluators’ Visions of Social Justice: Definitions, Theories, Approaches, and Problem Framing. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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