Values, Voices, and Validity

This blog is part of CSSP’s six-part #Evidence4Equity series, where we invite evaluators, researchers, and foundation leaders to elaborate further on some of the issues raised by the publication, Placing Equity Concerns at the Center of Knowledge Development, and to share their reflections on how they are intentionally focusing on equity in knowledge development.

Join us on the blog monthly for a new entry diving deeper into these issues and be sure to join the conversation online using #Evidence4Equity to keep the conversation going.

There continues to be interest in and commitment to bringing the lived experiences and words of those most impacted into strategy, program development, research, and evaluation.[1] Frequently referred to as “voice,” this valuing of the emotions and perceptions of people reflects a shift in the type of information traditionally relied upon to design, implement, and understand the effectiveness of those endeavors.

To date, however, voice has been seen as separate from and different than “valid” evidence, which remains grounded in a preference for that which is empirical and objective and lends itself toward quantitative representation.[2] Diversity and lived experience, although valuable, often merely “color” methodological approaches that inherently give greater value and validity to certain types of data and analysis as opposed to others.[3] “Voice” tends to be given greater consideration when the research, planning, and evaluative work has the stated aims of improving the conditions, experiences, and outcomes of those historically and systematically marginalized in the United States. In other words, voice is treated as something to pay attention to – as best possible – conditionally as opposed to always.

This situational consideration of when and whose voice is sought and heard becomes a matter of individual choice and context as opposed to standardized professional discipline and expectation. It should not be a matter of if but rather of how to increase the validity of our research and evaluative efforts through conscious and deliberate attention to whose voices are and should be most present in our work. Given the established and emerging methodologies that rigorously assert voice, the issue is not that we don’t know how to do it, but rather that we choose not to do it.

Some questions that go unasked include: What kind of information and knowledge, if any, is fundamentally and inherently valuable and important? And what values does that reflect, and what intention does it advance? Not attending to these questions removes voice as a valid, critical source of information and knowledge. Always.

When we fail to embrace that there are multiple realities and truths influenced by power, context, systems, culture, history, and our own relationship to each of these, we limit our ability to engage in inquiry, analysis, and sense-making that are truly valid. Denying the complexity of the world in which we live and the issues that many of us seek to understand and address prevents us from understanding the intended and unintended consequences of our intentions. This practice reinforces oppression and sustains many of the structural and systematic policies and practices which are the root of the issues our efforts are supposedly designed to illuminate, mitigate, or eliminate.

Those of us engaged in work designed to transform systems and structures by not only addressing inequity, but also moving toward equity, must do three things:

  1. Center values and intentions. Our values as practitioners are hidden yet manifested in every decision we make. The objectivity and neutrality held as the research/evaluation gold standard is a cloak that is anything but neutral. The presumptive objectivity privileges a certain way of seeing the world that continues to see and treat anyone not part of the dominant group (White, Protestant, heterosexual, adult men) as less important and subjected to the decisions and actions of those in power.[4] It is no surprise then that the voices of those not part of the dominating culture are not explicitly or implicitly valued. Or, they are valued only for providing engaging anecdotes to the hard reality of quantitative data. Putting our values and intentions front and center means being transparent and honest about the decisions we make and the methods we use.
  2. Embrace complexity. Evaluation and research often seek generalizability.[5] However, complexity is the reality in the 21st century. There are blurred lines across gender and sexual identities. Workplaces are multigenerational, multiracial, and multicultural. Families are blended. Communities hold varied political views. In the midst of all of this, technology has become a creature in and of itself, both connecting and dividing us. Linear and rational thought rarely accurately predict what will happen. We see it time and time again. Therefore, we must seek voices from all the traditional and untraditional sources to help us make sense of what is learned and the ways in which those learnings might be used to advance the intention of the work and reflect the underpinning values.
  3. Seek multicultural validity. Complexity requires that we broaden and deepen what we mean by valid. We must take into consideration more than statistical representation and also incorporate intelligence and information that help us understand the past and present in more nuanced ways. Kirkhart’s multicultural validity checklist includes the following dimensions: history, location, power, voice, relationship, time, return, plasticity, and reflexivity.[6] When discussing voice, Kirkhart emphasizes the need to address those whose perspectives are amplified and those whose are silenced.

It is time to embrace the complexity of the human experience. Let the narratives – reflecting the multiplicity of experiences, identities, barriers, and solutions – serve as valid evidence that can create and sustain strategies and relationships that are truly transformational. By systematically elevating voice(s) as credible evidence, we remind ourselves of the importance and responsibility that comes with living in a democracy – that which is clearly a work in progress.

[1] Monitor Institute. (2016) Reimagining Measurement A better future for monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

[2] Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1996). Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research. In Denzin & Lincoln

(Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research. USA. Sage Publishers.

[3] Dean-Coffey, J. (2018). What’s Race Got to Do With It? Equity and Philanthropic Evaluation Practice. American Journal of Evaluation39(4), 527-542

[4] Dean-Coffey, J. (2018). What’s Race Got to Do With It? Equity and Philanthropic Evaluation Practice. American Journal of Evaluation39(4), 527-542.

[5] Mertens, D. M. (2010). Transformative mixed methods research. Qualitative inquiry16(6), 469-474.

[6] Kirkhart, K. E. (2010). Eyes on the Prize: Multicultural Validity and Evaluation Theory. American Journal of Evaluation31(3), 400–413.