THE CANADIAN JOURNAL OF PROGRAM EVALUATION
Empowerment Evaluation: Knowledge and Tools for Self-Assessment and Accountability. Edited by David M. Fetterman, Shakeh J. Kaftarian, & Abraham Wandersman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996, pp. xii + 411.
This book's central theme is that evaluation can help "build capacity and self-determination" within the client system. Using examples from a number of fields (but with a heavy concentration of programs dealing with substance abuse), the contributors make a coherent case for the application of empowerment principles to a variety of systems and a variety of contexts. All told, they suggest that empowerment evaluation can serve the twin purposes of providing good evaluation and, through the participatory process, helping the client system grow in other capacities. This volume offers a concise overview to assist those involved with evaluation in operationalizing the principles of the approach.
Empowerment evaluation is certainly not proffered as the key to successful client system growth. However, empowerment evaluation guru David Fetterman, together with his co-editors and the 34 contributors to the book, makes a compelling case for adding the principles and techniques of the approach to the evaluator's repertoire.
Essentially, as noted by Stevenson et al. in Chapter 10, empowerment evaluation is designed to "give evaluation away." Perhaps this is where traditional evaluators might have the most difficulty with the approach. The book outlines some of these objections, including questions about the rigor of the methodology and concerns about perceptions of a slide into "subjectivity." Naturally, the authors disagree with these objections, and argue that in empowerment evaluation the traditional tools, techniques, and processes of evaluation are used in a sound and effective manner but with their application and direction determined by the "people" themselves.
The book is arranged into six sections: "Introduction and Overview"; "Breadth and Scope"; "Context, Theoretical and Philosophical Frameworks"; "Workshops, Technical Assistance and Practice"; and "Conclusion." Yet although Fetterman gives an argument in Chapter 1 for this structure, the rationale behind the placement of certain chapters in their respective sections is, at times, unclear. Perhaps it might have been better to have simple "Theory" and "Practice" sections. As it stood, I found myself continually trying to fit the chapter into the section, and was sometimes confused as to the flow of the presentation. Furthermore, the utility and quality of the various chapters is inconsistent. Although all chapters provide a case study of the application of the method, some offer more practical, philosophical, and theoretical advice than others.
Of particular interest (and usefulness) is Linney and Wandersman's Prevention Plus III model (Chapter 12), which presents a simple, multifaceted approach that can be used by disempowered communities; Grills et al.'s "Empowerment Evaluation: Building upon a Tradition of Activism in the African American Community" (Chapter 6); and Bowers Andrews's "Realizing Participant Empowerment in the Evaluation of Nonprofit Women's Services Organizations: Notes From the Front Line" (Chapter 7); all of which place the approach within the realistic sociopolitical context of limited resources, recognize the barriers posed by larger structural issues, and consider the sensitivity of empowerment evaluation to culture and gender; and Mithaug's "Fairness, Liberty, and Empowerment Evaluation" (Chapter 11), which presents what can best be described as a whig approach to evaluation.
Additionally, the references accompanying each chapter are an invaluable source for evaluation practitioners seeking to place empowerment evaluation within larger philosophical and theoretical contexts. The references also help to relate empowerment evaluation to the ancillary fields of community development, health promotion, social work, and adult education.
The book is certainly important. However, while reading it I could not shake the nagging doubt that perhaps the applicability of the model is too ambitious. Empowerment evaluation can empower the client system, but there are even larger structural issues that limit the extent of self-determination, based on the results of the evaluation. This is a point touched upon in a number of chapters, but it requires more consideration. After all, though evaluation certainly has intrinsic merit, more often than not it is a requirement of the funders&emdash;and these funders might not be open to such an inclusionary approach. Millet's chapter (Chapter 3) dealing with empowerment evaluation from the perspective of a major funder, was certainly interesting; however, I would suggest that not all funders are as friendly to such novel approaches as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Yet despite some drawbacks in presentation and scope, this is a significant addition to the library of evaluation, and the writers should be congratulated for bringing together such a solid collection. Fetterman et al. have nailed their theses to the door of the cathedral. Now the question is, How tolerant is the establishment of dissent?
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