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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: February 26, 2005
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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Telling Tales: On Evaluation and Narrative. Advances in Program Evaluation, Volume 6
Edited by Tineke Abma
SOURCE: Political ReviewNet
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: Original URL, consulted: February 26, 2005.


In one of the twelve chapters that comprise this edited book, it is said that you need to know something of the personal history of the evaluator to understand their comments; while in another, Michael Scriven is quoted as saying that evaluation is about valuing and that if an evaluator has not made a value judgement then s/he has not done the job. On the grounds that a book review is an evaluation of sorts, then I need to tell you something about myself before I tell you my evaluation of this book about the use of narrative or story telling in evaluation.

I grew up in Ireland – Belfast to be exact – and any of you who have been there will know that the culture is based on story telling. If you have ever been in the Crown Bar in Gt. Victoria St. (the only UK bar owned by the National Trust and highly recommended if you conference there), you will have heard the hubbub of conversation which happens when story telling meets alcohol. In a sense, this review started in a similar place because I am old enough to remember when in the course of an evening’s entertainment, in the bar of course, there was a slot amongst the music for the story teller. Someone would perform a turn which was simply the re-telling of a folk tale or the telling of something which had happened to them. People would listen to them and honour the story and the act of telling the tale. I suppose this was the precursor to people like Dave Allen, and in Scotland, Billy Connolly, who took this type of story telling to television.

I put all this behind me when I went to university to read the science of psychology. The scientific method was all and we did positivism down to the counting of the number of boli extruded by a startled rat. This was rigorous alright, but it was rigorous nonsense. I met a man at that time called Jerome Bruner and he said much as I felt. He later formulated this by saying that there were two modes of knowing; the logico scientific mode, and the narrative mode which is about the construction of culture, acts of meaning and the things that make society human (Bruner, J. 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Harvard University Press). And it is by narrative and story telling that we construct, share, perpetuate and change who we are: the antidote to positivism in the social sciences and the chance to say I wasn’t wasting my time in the bar. My turn in the pub has been superseded by a number of turns known as: the narrative turn (Bruner), the cultural turn (Geertz), the interpretive turn (Blumer), the critical turn (Habermas), and most recently, the postmodern turn (Foucault).

Tineke Abma, the editor of this volume, in a very useful introductory chapter locates the field of evaluation in all this. She notes the historical desire of evaluators to be seen as scientific but says that while they gained precision, they lost much: for example, ‘management bias and under-utilisation’ (presumably of findings), and that they should reflect upon what it is they do by exploring new perspectives (p. 1). Narrative is identified as one such perspective and it is Bruner’s work in psychology which provides the warrant and touchstone for such explorations. But there is more to the narrative or story telling than Bruner and the concluding chapter, again by Abma, provides an annotated bibliography of key writers in narrative in the fields of: philosophy, women and gender studies, psychotherapy and medicine, education, organization and management, economics, and most relevant to this readership, public administration.

This again is useful but hardly exhaustive and it is the studies or chapters which were meant to exemplify ‘work done by evaluators at the crossroads of evaluation and narrative’ (p. 6) upon which the book hinges. I say ‘meant’ because in a very open introduction Abna explains that as editor, she couldn’t find many examples of such work and so she included people working in the area of policy analysis on the grounds that policy analysis is really just the prospective front end of a process in which evaluation was the retrospective back end. This allows a slightly wider scope than one normally associates with evaluation studies. The cultural diversity is extended further when one realizes that of the nine chapter length narrative studies reported, three are from North America, two from Denmark and Holland, with one each from England and Australia. In terms of the focus of the studies, there is little commonality with stories ranging from: flooding and dike improvement in Holland (Michel van Eeten), to Tony’s tale of being a middle-ranking HRM manager under stress in the heart of England (Gold and Hamlett).

Some have clearer connections to public administration, such as the chapter by Linda Anderson about the modernization of the Danish public services. Modernization is described as a cocktail combining democratic goals of participation and influence with the economic goals of rationality and efficiency. I found this promising but was unconvinced when the cases about a youth centre and a boarding school for autistic children are interpreted via the metaphors of lost virginity and floating space.

This got me thinking about my evaluation of the book. What was each of these stories telling me and was it any use? In fact, just how telling are the tales we are told here? Is it a matter of telling tales as in made-up-fiction-of-the-useless-variety? Or are they telling tales in the sense that they convey meaning that provides cues and directions for action? That is, they are telling because they not only make meaning but they also make a difference. And this difference is not one that would have be gleaned via the natural scientific approach.

I get a clue from what I consider to be the two best narratives in this collection. The first is by Dvora Yanow and concerns images of race and ethnic identity in North America: ‘to be without a race-ethnic identity is to be without identity’ (p. 39) and how these map, or don’t, on to the five categories given on government forms in the USA. The second is by Malone and Walker and it tells the story of a bad school in a bad area of a town in Australia which recovers its sense of identity and purpose via an educational environmental programme run by a charismatic, committed female teacher. This story is told without references to weighty philosophers and what it reminds one of, as does the Yanow tale, is that you have to be able to write well to make story telling telling.

The great thing about positivism is that you don’t need style. The experiment is the thing and the writing is incidental because the real creativity is in the experiments themselves. In story telling, style is all and if you have explained how your story works, as many of these do, then it is like telling a joke – if you have to explain it, it isn’t funny. It isn’t easy telling stories. That is why you don’t get too many Dave Allens, Clifford Geertzs, or Jerome Bruners. That is also why some of the contributions in this book are useful fictions or narratives and others do not strike a chord with me.

Albert Camus once said on reviewing a book that if he was not already a believer in what was being said, he would convert immediately. I think I believe, but this book would not convert me if I didn’t.

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