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NAPA Career Profiles: A chat with David Fetterman on Empowerment Evaluation, and the value of ethnography.

David Fetterman is an evaluator by profession, and is probably best known for his work on creating Empowerment Evaluation, which helps individuals learn to evaluate their own programs. In this process Fetterman serves as a coach, helping guide the work and maintain rigor, but allowing stakeholders to plan, implement and evaluate themselves. The end goal is self-determination, and it is an approach grounded deeply in ethnography.

“Everything I do (work and home life) is shaped and guided by anthropology. I always attempt to get at the emic or insider’s view of reality before jumping to my own conclusions.  I almost instinctively attempt to contextualize data in order to meaningfully interpret it. I also try to apply a cultural interpretation to what I see to ensure that is makes sense from the community member or program staff perspective.”

The road to developing Empowerment Evaluation began when David was completing his Ph.D. in educational and medical anthropology at Stanford. His advisor got a call from a research corporation that conducted educational evaluations; they needed an ethnographer.

“I had some experience conducting ethnographic research and was enrolled in the doctoral program (and focused on educational programs at the time) so it looked like a good fit. I went for an interview and they liked me and I was hired while in graduate school. I stayed on for a number of years before returning to Stanford to conduct evaluations for administration. I then was asked to join the Medical School and Direct the Evaluation Program there.”

An anthropology background provides David (and all of us!) with the ability to see what others may struggle to conceptualize. In doing EE, David applies a number of ethnographic concepts that are instrumental in understanding situations and giving feedback so all parties can have a better understanding of their own situation. Emic and etic views, contextualization, culture, and triangulation are all valuable tools for evaluating a program or service.

“I remember being at a research corporation during the early phase of my career, and sitting at an advisory panel meeting concerning an evaluation of a program for dropouts. This one in particular was fraught with political tension and allegiances, e.g. the US Department of Education sponsors, the project monitors, the parent company of the program being evaluated, and the program staff members.

Everyone had strong views and were beginning to line up on different sides of the issues. During the meeting I drew a sociometric chart of the participants. The sponsors and administrators were sitting at one end of the table, and the parent agency and staff members were sitting at the other. The president of the research firm was so impressed with the graphic representation of these alignments he was convinced of the value of ethnographic insights to help interpret social situations on the spot.”

Later, David received a call from the Department of Education, stating that the students in this dropout program were only attending 70% of the time, which compared unfavorably with the students in the local schools.

“They said unless I had anything to add to the conversation they were going to close it down because it was not a good use of taxpayer money. I called them back and said I did not think it was right to close the program down. The accurate baseline for attendance was zero, not the figure they were using for regular students in the local schools. The dropouts had a zero average attendance before, so 70% was actually very high and a measure of the success of the program. As a result they kept the program operating. This was a case of contextualizing the data to meaningfully interpret it.”

In closing, David urges practitioners to “think outside the box” of where you might apply your skills, and realize that ethnographic concepts can guide you in almost any endeavor.

“You can be more successful because you see what others cannot even conceptualize-valuing the other’s above your own.”

I highly recommend checking out David’s latest book, Empowerment evaluation: knowledge and tools for self assessment, evaluation, capacity-building, and accountability, along with many of his other publications which can be found here.

Fetterman EE cover


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