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Participatory evaluation (PE) is a method of inquiry in the family of participatory and action research. These traditions in research and evaluation grew out of conflicts and contradictions about how knowledge is created and used. There are at least three major traditions in participatory research and evaluation, all of which are concerned with democratizing the research process, and making the inquiry and the findings relevant and useful to the stakeholders for informing future actions.

  • The participatory action research model based on the Freirian theories of education (Fals-Borda, Tandon, Hall) grew out of the contradictions of using coercive, non-participatory field research methods in the largely participation-oriented field of adult education. In this tradition, issues of building power and promoting liberation and social justice are central.
  • The participatory action research model drawn from the action research tradition (Whyte) is based on the contradiction between management and workers in organizational decision making. In this model, participation is aimed at increasing front-line workers' sense of empowerment, though not necessarily at changing the basic power relationships among members of the organization.
  • Participatory evaluation (PE) notes the contradiction between an evaluation's design and findings, and the lack of usefulness or relevance the information has for primary consumers and stakeholders (Cousins & Earl, 1992). PE draws from either or both of the previous traditions for its theoretical basis, but is distinctly evaluative in its purpose and design.

PE approaches seek to be practical, useful, formative and empowering: practical in that they respond to the needs, interests and concerns of their primary users; useful because findings are disseminated in ways in which primary users can use them; and formative because they seek to improve program outcomes. Finally, the more the project is determined, implemented, and used by participants, the more empowering the experience will be.

How Does PE Differ From Other Forms of Evaluation?
PE approaches usually are more appropriate for a formative, rather than summative evaluation. Participating organizations must understand that the goal is to provide information for program improvement or organizational development, not necessarily to make definitive statements about program outcomes. The agenda for the evaluation is not set by an outside funding source, a federal agency, or by the evaluator. Rather, in PE, both the role of the evaluator and that of the organization change. The evaluator is no longer the expert, but instead a teacher, collaborator, and participant in a process. Organization members are integrally involved in establishing the questions to be asked and the methods to be used, in collecting and analyzing data, and in writing up findings. Staff, clients, board members, and even interested community members, are involved in deciding whether to evaluate, what to evaluate, how to draw conclusions, how and when to disseminate findings, and how and when to implement recommendations. This means that rarely are PE findings generalizable to other projects.

What Are the Advantages of PE Approaches?
Since it is grounded in the experience of staff, clients, and participants, PE is more likely to provide information that is useful to program administrators and decision makers. PE enhances utilization of evaluation findings by changing the social construction of the organization. Rather than receiving (and resisting) an outside evaluation report, the process of participating in an evaluation gives ownership of the information to those most involved in carrying out the work of the organization: the staff, administrators, board members, clients, and participants. PE is also viewed as more flexible and less rigid than traditional evaluation approaches. PE often results in cognitive, affective, and political change within an organization—including increased communication between staff members, positive impacts on program development, and higher quality evaluations.

Further Reading

Cousins, J. B., & Earl, L. M. (1992). The case for participatory evaluation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 14, 397-418.

Fals-Borda, O., & Rahman, M. A. (Eds.). (1991). Action and knowledge: Breaking the monopoly with participatory action-research. New York: The Apex Press.

Hall, B. L. (1992, Winter). From margins to center? The development and purpose of participatory research. The American Sociologist, 15-28.

Tandon, R. (1988). Social transformation and participatory research. Convergence, 21, 5-15.

Whyte, W. F. (1989). Advancing scientific knowledge through participatory action research. Sociological Forum, 4(3), 367-385.

Whyte, W. F. (Ed.). (1991). Participatory action research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

What Are the Disadvantages of PE?
PE may be much more time-consuming for both the evaluator and the organization than a traditional goal-oriented evaluation where the questions to be asked and the methods to be used are set in advance, or established by the evaluator working with only one or two administrators. Staff will need to be allowed time from regular duties in order to participate effectively in the evaluation; clients and participants may need special assistance to become integrally involved in the evaluation. To assure adequate participation by all involved, rewards and consequences must be clearly spelled out.

For an entire evaluative process to be participatory, the details of the evaluation cannot be fully identified in advance (such as to a funding source). This is because specific reporting criteria or other evaluation guidelines dictated by sponsors or funders limit the participation and input of both evaluators and non-evaluators. The final result of a truly participatory process is entirely in the hands of the participants, not the evaluator or an outside source. This can empower participants, but means that in order to use PE, the organization must be committed to the endeavor and the context must be appropriate. It is always possible, however, to use some participatory methods at different stages of the evaluation process (such as in generating important evaluative questions at the beginning, or in developing conclusions based on data findings at the end), but not commit to an entire participatory process.

Carole C. Upshur, Senior Research Associate
Esterla Barreto-Cortez, Research Assistant
Mauricio Gastón Institute
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston, MA 02125
Tel: 617-287-5790

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