Organizational behavioral modification should be used to make social justice a professional norm

The field of evaluation has not only consistently failed to recognize its complicity in structural racism, it also has a responsibility to use its authority to establish social justice as a professional norm

Reviewed by Penny Sun


The professional field of evaluation plays an integral role in creating the results, measurements, and evidence that guide the worldviews and decisions of businesses, educational institutions, philanthropies, public health agencies, and governments. Given this influence, it is paramount for evaluators to understand the practice of evaluation as a tool to reinforce and enable or conversely to challenge the unequal, inequitable access and outcomes that minoritized communities experience. For example, evaluative standards have been manipulated at various points in an attempt to validate Black intellectual differences as evidence of deficiency.

Like other social science fields, the profession of evaluation must reckon with the ways that its norms, history, and practices are built upon and perpetuate structural racism and injustice. In this study, the authors argue that the field of evaluation cannot be reformed without addressing the structural racism embedded throughout. Instead, the field must not only identify and acknowledge its own structural racism, but also take concrete action to eradicate ingrained structural racism from its theories and practices.

Dr. Leon D. Caldwell, PhD, is the Senior Director of Health Equity Strategy and Innovations at the American Hospital Association and Founder and Managing Partner of Ujima Developers. Dr. Katrina L. Bledsoe, PhD, is a Senior Evaluation Specialist and Research Scientist at the Education Development Center, Principal Consultant at Katrina Bledsoe Consultancy, and Partner at Strategic Learning Partners for Innovation.

Methods and Findings

The authors first review the history of the field of evaluation’s struggle to reckon with both its partiality and role as an intentional political tool for maintaining Eurocentric structures of power and authority. Because the field presents itself as the authority on measurement of various relevant, consequential outcomes, acknowledgement of this reality is necessary to understand how its approaches to hypothesis generation, definition of data, and interpretation of findings are inherently limited and insufficient. The authors point to publications and conference addresses dating from the late 1970s to late 1990s as seminal statements on the field’s complicity in structural racism. Although several authors have advanced more equitable evaluation methodologies since the 2000s, these methods are far from universally accepted best practice.

Next, the authors make distinctions between individual and systemic racism as significant to eradicating systemic racism from the field. Although individual evaluators should interrogate and address their internalized and interpersonal racism, they also have the power to collectively deconstruct systemic racism in the field by advocating for legacy organizations like the American Evaluation Association to establish and enforce social justice oriented norms. For example, the authors point to the potential normalization of frameworks such as Patton’s Seven Questions Concerning Race in the Field of Evaluation as an opportunity to move the field forward on eradicating systemic racism.

Ultimately, the authors leverage organizational behavioral modification, otherwise known as reinforcement theory, to make recommendations for lasting change. Organizational behavioral modification requires consistent consequences following antecedents to reinforce desired behavior and extinguish undesired behaviors. In this vein, the authors recommend incorporating social justice concerns into mandatory selection criteria for professional awards, publications, and promotions to positively reinforce social justice as an industry standard. Similarly, the authors recommend that the American Evaluation Association and individual funders make institutional accreditations, grants, and contracts contingent upon consideration and fulfillment of equity priorities as an additional tool.


In this article, the authors argue that members of the evaluation field must push the field’s institutions to recognize their histories of promoting and amplifying structural injustices through both their norms and pedagogies. Those institutions should then take steps to establish consequences to reinforce social justice-oriented transformation and to extinguish attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes that reinforce systemic oppression. 

The authors contend that evaluators not only participate within inherent structural racism of all US systems, but that they have the power to change both the perception and material outcomes of minoritized populations. Thus, the field must commit to deconstructing former best practices grounded in European traditions and reimagining the field with leadership from BIPOC evaluators. This review highlights the need for additional analysis and experimentation to determine social justice-oriented best practices and to measure their rates of implementation across the field.


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