The Evaluation Society: Critique, Contestability and Skepticism


Despite the inherent flaws in trying to reduce society to any one overarching dimension or principle (Morin 1988), the term The Evaluation Society does in fact capture many essential, frightening and awe-inspiring aspects of contemporary society. We do live in a society where evaluation, accreditation, auditing, benchmarking, performance management, quality assurance and similar documentation practices produce datascapes as an important dimension in social life along with idea-scapes, ethnoscapes, technoscapes etc. (Appadurai 1996).
The function of these datascapes cannot be exhausted with reference to their descriptive aspects; instead it appears that they help define or constitute what they claim to measure. This observation raises the obvious question to which extent the contemporary evaluative grips on reality are conducive to structuring, regulating, and governing the social order in particular ways. Evaluating institutions may not be able to articulate how this takes place. So, the social, political and philosophical story-telling about evaluation should not be left to evaluators. What platform or position can be identified from which critique of the evaluation society can be articulated?

One reason why it is difficult to air critique is that evaluations are occupied with some large and positively sounding terms as quality, sustainability, impact, equality, development, learning, transparency, innovation etc. Since evaluators in their own view operate with indicators that approximately aspire to capture quality etc., evaluators often cannot understand why anybody would logically be against evaluation. Who are not in favor of quality? In contradistinction to earlier ideological tensions or class cleavages in society, the tensions around, say, quality, appear to be non-existent, because according to those in favor of evaluation, everybody must be able to get on board the mission for quality. If evaluation successfully captures all positive concepts little space is left for alternative views. The lack of recognition of conflictual material in the very ambition to achieve quality makes it difficult to argue that there even exists the possibility of a critical position.

It should also be noted that it is not without personal risk to seek such position. A story illustrates this. At a conference, a new bibliometric evaluation system for researchers was debated. A university lecturer aired a harsh critique of the attempts to measure quality of research through bibliometric indicators. The presenter at the conference session replied that in his view, there is a strong correlation between a researcher’s bibliometric score and his or her general reputation. In other words, researchers with a good reputation have nothing to fear and have no particular reason to be critical. The breathtaking implication, never articulated, is of course that the critical academic was critical because he was not a good researcher. To immunize oneself against that kind of tacit accusations it would be necessary first to score well on bibliometric indicators and then prepare one’s critique. Critics would thus have to work hard to earn the right to air their views. However, if they achieved good bibliometric scores, their motivation to undermine the trustworthiness and social acceptability of the score would be reduced. Perhaps one of the most important social logics of performance indicators is exactly this divide et impera between high-scoring and low-scoring members of the same group, regardless of the validity of the indicator.

The Evaluation Society: Critique, Contestability and Skepticism

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Numero 13 EVALUATION dicembre, 2014 - Autore:  Condividi


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