Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

Exploring the Spectrum of Theories

Various types of theories align with approved definitions in the dictionary and provide broad and efficient explanations to simplify concepts and phenomena. These theories often involve more speculation than direct observation, and the ability to predict is only sometimes necessary for a strong theory. For instance, geology and history might possess non-predictive yet highly effective theories. The range of theories varies from simple descriptive hypotheses to complex frameworks representing intangible entities, such as the gravitational field. These intricate theories stand apart from the foundational data they expound on. In less advanced theoretical stages, terms like “conceptualization” or “explanation” replace “theory.” In fields like physics or medicine, comprehensive theories might be termed “philosophy” rather than stringent theories. Nevertheless, expansive domains like particle physics still allow recognized “general theories,” distinct from philosophy, albeit within specialization.

The examples used correspond to relevant subject domains, addressing varying levels of abstraction. From differing perspectives, theories from diverse fields provide insights but might only sometimes enrich explanations within the same field. This phenomenon is observed in science’s historical, sociological, psychological, and economic aspects. Although the philosophy of science often engages with these diverse viewpoints, it frequently operates on par with science, especially during the emergence of fundamental questions. For example, Niels Bohr employed ancient Greek atomic perspectives to elucidate anomalies in quantum theory.

Insights from Metascience

Further intersections arise in discussions of a field’s essence, such as psychology’s concentration on consciousness. The methodology assumes a more complex position, serving as a bridge between theory and practice. It stands above practice while overseeing research methods. Dialogue about methodology can pave the way for theories or philosophies. A field’s philosophy intertwines with its content and methodology, evident in behavior and operationalism. Notably, even the Oxford Dictionary includes a field’s methodology as a form of theory.

When explaining the classification system of theories in metascience language, minimalism encompasses concepts such as conceptualization, basic descriptive hypotheses, broader general theories, ortho-theories, theories from the specific philosophy of science, and methodological theories. These categories structure conversations. Individuals across various fields should grasp theories, their roles, and how they differ from paradigms and hypotheses. This awareness, called metatheory, is crucial to prevent potentially damaging assumptions. Misunderstanding theories can lead to errors in methodology or evaluation objectives, affecting task-related choices.

Minimalism delves into debates concerning ‘theory-driven’ evaluation and its significance in practical contexts. It highlights misunderstandings about theories, like assuming that all evaluations must be theory-based. It overlooks the importance of pragmatism and adaptability when theories do not apply. Another misconception involves treating the identification of components within an evaluated entity as theory-driven regarding analytical evaluation. Merely listing components and their relationships does not constitute an operational theory. Discussing the distinction between ‘Chen’s theory’ (explaining entity outcomes and predicting side effects) and conventional theory underscores the significance of recognizing external and internal theories and their practical implications. Apart from emphasizing the value of common sense in explanations, logical programming offers insights into the relationship between input, components, outcomes, and results. Minimalism concludes that in-depth explanation lies within the domain of experts in a particular subject, not evaluators. This paragraph clarifies the difference between internal and external theories, highlighting their distinct roles in evaluation and application.

The Role and Relevance of Minimalist Evaluation Theory

Shadish, Cook, and Leviton propose that a comprehensive evaluation theory should encompass considerations of utilization, much like a comprehensive account of mathematics requires various disciplines to cover its aspects. This viewpoint emphasizes that external theories about evaluation utilization are part of the sociology, history, psychology, economics, and politics of evaluation, not the internal evaluation theory itself. Expecting a single theory to cover both the characteristics of evaluation and the utilization phenomena is not appropriate. Different tasks require separate internal and external theories. The discussion then explores the nature of evaluation, internal, and minimalist theories.

In short, they argue that minimalist evaluation theory should include an understanding of theory because neglecting this aspect leads to a flawed understanding of its practices and limitations. A minimalist theory is more than the simplest description or conceptualization of a field; it must include some metatheory for the mentioned reasons. Specifically, alongside understanding the nature of theories in general, it should include at least some conceptualization and essential basics about the typical nature and limitations of evaluation. These demarcation criteria draw boundaries between evaluation and other cognitive activities. Minimalist theory also states some basic principles as part of, or additions to, integrating phenomena through new concepts. However, this theory falls short of a general theory, as it fails to attempt to provide the foundation to answer all the difficult questions in a field, many of which stem from the theory itself rather than practice. William of Ockham did not recommend avoiding all theoretical entities; he recommended avoiding them when possible—precisely the spirit of minimalism.

Now, in what sense is minimalist theory important? In what sense does everyone need it? Can practitioners fare well without theory? Certainly, minimalism establishes the implicit conception of theory-based evaluation, closely resembling the one found in Rossi and Freeman’s text, which views evaluation as applying social science methods to assess social intervention programs. Rossi and Freeman’s definition also excludes programs that study phenomena that are not interventions but occur solely in the natural course of human affairs. Now there are plenty of such cases, like presidential campaigns, nuclear leaks, and market crashes, which have been evaluated by historians, economists, sociologists, and many others. Many more will be evaluated, and some should be. Nothing presents a problem exceeding the scope of a program evaluator competent with knowledge pertinent to a particular field. Therefore, sidelining their studies from program evaluation appears odd. Then, of course, there is the issue of circularity: Rossi and Freeman’s definition is couched in terms of the notion of assessment, which is very close to becoming synonymous with evaluation.

Refining the Boundaries and Definitions

Definitions that fail to encompass the field they purport to apply to and cannot avoid circularity are not enlightening. Now, Wholey, Hatry, and Newcomer also rely on a definition of assessment, albeit with their uniqueness. Only programs with unethical or illegal personnel practices should undergo scrutiny in serious program evaluation. Of course, some attention to the process of program evaluation is necessary. By putting it aside, we can better understand these colleagues’ concept of program evaluation. Some common terms involved in evaluation but missing from their indexes include needs assessment, value, ethics, law, personnel, assessment, ranking, scoring, allocation, standards, non-monetary costs, meta-evaluation, sub-value integration, and evaluation theory. Interestingly, these colleagues should have considered applying it to program evaluation, not just programs.

The first task that an evaluation theory, as proposed above, should undertake is outlining several demarcation criteria. It should clarify how evaluation differs from other types of inquiry, such as prediction, data analysis, diagnosis, research, explanation, description, generalization, and classification. The definitions employed by Wholey, Hatry, and Newcomer inform us that if these are used to assess programs—and have all been employed for such purposes, in one context or another—then it constitutes evaluation. However, what defines “using research for assessment”? As assessment closely approaches synonymity with evaluation, this scarcely elucidates the situation. Is this the extent of what we can convey to students embarking on this subject or to colleagues we wish to engage in projects? Unsurprisingly, most of these books discuss standard methods in social science; within their framework, that constitutes the entirety of evaluation. However, specific evaluation methodology bears significant weight, and considering it earnestly leads to significantly heightened efficiency in practice, analogous to how matrix sampling enhances efficiency in survey practices.

Unveiling Challenges and Approaches within Scientific Evaluation

Intra-disciplinary evaluation transcends mere scientific procedures and methods and extends to scientific theory. It encompasses theory in a general sense and more specific theories concerning the relationship between theory, operational definitions, and facts. This quandary is demanding yet pivotal, especially within many natural sciences. Nevertheless, intra-disciplinary evaluation forms an essential component of evaluation and should integrate into the structure and content of every social science education program. In truth, most social sciences offer minimal, if any, proper training in intra-disciplinary evaluation.

Meta-evaluation involves evaluating evaluations. A substantial facet of evaluation assessment concerns implementing this knowledge in practice, yet some acknowledge that the task should be examined from impartial and competent perspectives. However, such scrutiny seldom materializes within the scientific evaluation. In numerous scientific evaluations, the responsible evaluator is the sole assessor (although peers, committees, or panels may play a partial role). Even in more extensive scientific evaluations, evaluators generally operate within closely-knit and collusive circles, with external assessments occurring only when mandated by law or regulations. Professional execution of evaluation evaluations necessitates two types of considerations: framework nature and inquiry nature. Framework nature entails identifying the types of evaluations suitable for particular research, encompassing sufficient, efficient, effective, valuable, reliable, valid, equitable, acceptable, or commendable assessments. Inquiry nature involves utilizing this comprehension of evaluation types to formulate statements about the management of evaluation work and the examination of its implementation.

Now, assessing evaluations may seem rudimentary, but certain categories of evaluation of evaluations are undeniably intricate, and refraining from meta-evaluation is a distinct characteristic of scientific evaluation recognizable to fellow researchers. In this context, several scenarios might unfold. One possibility is that the evaluator is regarded as sufficiently trustworthy to carry out the task autonomously, rendering third-party assessment unnecessary. For instance, the evaluator might establish a strong reputation for generating clear and dependable evaluation assessments, as discussed previously. This achievement, in turn, would enhance their credibility among peers, thereby establishing a stronger foundation for entrusting them with conducting evaluation evaluations. In such a scenario, the evaluator could function independently and rely on meta-evaluation methods grounded in foundational evaluations and comparisons, utilizing appropriate evaluation and assessment techniques and methodologies.

Emphasizing the Significance of Minimalism

To conclude, minimalism underscores the importance for practitioners to grasp evaluation theory. The credibility of the outlined theory rests upon its integrative nature; it is capacity to differentiate evaluation from related fields distinctly, the concise presentation of fundamental abstract concepts, and its implications for valuable outcomes in practical applications. Its exclusive focus on the evaluation domain sidesteps considerations regarding the profession or practice. Activities such as teaching or interpreting results are not inherent facets of evaluation. Caution is recommended when including recommendations in evaluation reports due to factors like limited knowledge or political influences. The minimalist theory revolves around essential evaluation concepts and does not encompass associated tasks. The primary objective of this theory is to enhance the comprehension of the subject matter.


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