A Brief Account of Four Evaluation Paradigms (Blog 3 of 3)

The third of this series of blog accounts for the constructvist and transformative paragidms in evaluation.

The constructivist paradigm is often referred to the “values paradigm”. Axiologically the constructivist paradigm acknowledges the researchers/ evaluators are not only conscious of their value systems influence their realities, but also aware of those of the others. They distinguish the processes through which those values influence people’s interactions and experiences and are able to help others recognize their own realities.

Ontologically, it admits that there is no single reality. The latter is viewed as being socially constructed based on people’s knowledge that is influenced by the values, interactions, experiences and context. This ontological assumption reflects in the epistemological one. The reality construct necessitates initiating a dynamic dialogue and engagement between the researcher/ evaluator and the evaluation stakeholders in which the former facilitates the process of helping the latter in recognizing their realities and create knowledge. The shift in understanding reality and approaching truth has had a transformative implication on the way evaluation is pursued. Methodologically, the shift requires a mixed approach with a focus on participatory qualitative ones. Key among the constructivist approach are the goal-free evaluation, case study research, and responsive evaluation.

Similar to the constructivist paradigm, the transformative paradigm conceives multiple realities shaped by the various socio-economic, cultural, political contexts and the values associated with them, acknowledging that values and beliefs differ from context to the other. It lies on the premise that reality is constructed within contexts and are strongly associated with values of respects, reciprocity, cultural sensitivity and responsiveness that govern human interactions. This branch of research and evaluation was developed to capture primarily the reality as lived by the marginalized and privileged groups. It is anchored in the philosophical strands that addressed social justice, equality and power structures.

Axiologically, research under a transformative paradigm extends the constructivist ethics and values to the fullest. Evaluation becomes a politically-charged one, through which the evaluator/ researcher facilitates the process for the evaluator stakeholders to recognize their realities and build knowledge. It is exhibits the core research ethics and amplifies the respect to the culture diversity and specificity, human rights and social justice. Ontologically, realities are multi-dimensional with many perspectives influenced by the complex socio-cultural, economic and political contexts. Its epistemology is premised on the fact that knowledge is indigenously constructed and facilitated by a trust relationship between the evaluator and the stakeholders. Knowledge is then of no value unless it empowers and transforms people, particularly the marginalized, during its construct. Methodologically, the transformative paradigm is mostly reflected through research designs may involve mostly qualitative approaches, namely participatory action research, indigenous and gender research that account heavily for the historical considerations.

Recognizing the various paradigms and schools is essential for evaluators to locate their approaches when conducting a policy/ program evaluation. Reflecting on those underlying axiological and ontological underpinnings helps evaluators overcome rushing into the “readily-available and consumable” methodologies often proposed. it definitely adds to the credibility of the evaluator and the quality and usefulness of the evaluation.

A Brief Account of Four Evaluation Paradigms (Blog 2 of 3)

The post-positivist paradigm, similar to the positivist’s, is based on the ontological belief (or assumption) that all human behaviors and actions are governed by one reality that is independent of the context and individuals. It differs, however, in acknowledging that the reality is never understood except with some degree of probability. Epistemologically, post-positivism holds that our objectively true knowledge is only generated when it is done without biases (by the researcher/ evaluator) or external contextual influences. Under this paradigm, the evaluators should keep distance from the evaluands (subject of evaluation) in order to provide unbiased and objective views as much as possible. Recognizing that biases are unavoidable, evaluators should realize how and when their values and beliefs intervene and work consciously to minimize their interference. Axiologically, there is a deep recognition of the unavoidability of bias and consciousness to minimize and control them.

To that end, post-positivist research methodology is value-free and relies on unbiased and verifiable data. It appraises scientific experimental design (randomized, control, quantitative and correlational research) as well as theory-based (hypothesis testing) approaches as superior research and evaluation methodologies given their ability to limit biases in collection and analysis, as well as the interpretation of evaluation data. It is often criticized for providing a simplistic and one-dimensional view of the world.

The Pragmatic paradigm (referred to as the interpretivist) is based on the axiological assumptions that emphasizes the practical uses and effects of any conception of knowledge, ideas, beliefs and values (among others) rather than a mere reflection on them to increase our understanding of reality and truth (the positivist’s interest). It considers the real meaning of an idea or a concept in its practical consequences and effects. Indirectly, a pragmatist’s approach is influenced by his/her sets of values and interests. Ontologically, while acknowledging the reality (which is not of major interests to be understood for its own sake), the pragmatic approach focuses on the interplay between knowledge and actions (emphasising the latter) and recognizes the unique socio-cultural and political contexts of people that shape their experience, beliefs, knowledge and actions. It emphasises the utility of the knowledge, not knowledge per se.

Epistemologically, the pragmatist’s choice of approach is often related to the purpose, use and the nature of the research questions guiding the study/ evaluation. More specifically, it becomes a matter of appropriateness that guide the choice of the approach, influenced by the researcher/ evaluator’s judgement, expertise and value system, and guided by the desire to bring in a positive change (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2012). Methodologically, in contrast to the post-positivist paradigm, the choice between the quantitative, quantitative or the mixed methods in the research becomes a question of practicality and suitability to the research purpose, appropriateness for its use, context and stakeholders needs, rather than being based on any philosophical underpinning  (Patton, 2002). Key among the methodological approach under this paradigm are the use branch theories, the CIPP (context, input, process and product) approach, the utilization-focused evaluations, and empowerment evaluation…

Next, we will explore the constructivist and transformative paradigms…

A Brief Account of Four Evaluation Paradigms (Blog 1 of 3)

EvaluationThe evaluation discipline and practice are generally guided by four main evaluation schools of thought or paradigms. They are namely (1) the post-positivist (known as the method-driven), (2) the pragmatist (mostly referred to as the use or utilization-based), (3) the constructivist (best captured as the value-driven) and (4) the transformative paradigm that is too entrenched in the values and principles of equity and justice. I will try to provide a snapshot of these four main evaluation paradigms over a series of 2 to 3 short blogs, describing the key foundations, and taking stock of the similarities and differences among them.


To do so, however, it is useful to shed light on Thomas Kuhn’s conception of the notion of “paradigm”. Conceived in his masterpiece “The Structure of Scientific Revolution”, the paradigm is “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community”  (Kuhn, 1970). In other words, in a paradigm, the community of researchers share common construct of reality with all its axiological (values and ethics), ontological (assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge), epistemological and methodological assumptions.


Adopting a paradigm necessitates the presence of anomalies that culminate into a crisis that disturbs the existing theories, concepts and other means of understanding. To survive the crisis, scholars and researchers conceive new beliefs, values, and methods; and build a faith that the newly conceived “paradigm” explains the anomalies and that it “will succeed with the many large problems that confront it” (Kuhn, 1970, p.158). Despite the resistance of the scientific and research community, the existing paradigm collapses when the new paradigm proves its ability to yield new axiological, ontological and epistemological assumptions, as well as methodologies that are capable to explain the current manifestations. For Kuhn, two paradigms never coexist. The vanishing paradigm exhibits an “incommensurability” (incompatibility) with the emerging one that will take over to the extent that “the whole profession will again be practicing under a single, but now a different, paradigm” (Kuhn, 1970, p.152).

While in scientific revolution, paradigms do not co-exist, given the existing paradigm’s inability to provide answers to emerging anomalies, it is noticed that in most social science disciplines (evaluation included), paradigms cohabitate. In evaluation research particularly, Daniel and Wirth noticed that “experimentation did not vanish from paradigm to paradigm, but changed its emphasis and application with each paradigm” (Daniels & Wirth, 1983)

Studying the different paradigms is better informed when exploring the underpinning philosophical assumptions about their (1) axiology (the ethics and value systems on which it is founded), (2) ontology (mostly concerned with the nature of social reality (i.e. addressing what do we believe about the nature of reality?), epistemology (that inquires about the nature of knowledge and the ways to know (i.e. what are the sources of knowledge and how do we know what we know?), and the methodology (related to the approaches and means to inquire and understand (i.e. how should we study the world?).

Next, we will explore the post-positivist and pragmatic paradigms.