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Monday, September 16 • 3:30pm - 4:30pm
How do we know? Implications of epistemology for evaluation practice

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Gill Westhorp  (Charles Darwin University)

What do we know? What can we know, and how do we know that we know it? These are philosophical questions with real implications for the practice of evaluation. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowledge. Different epistemologies underpin different approaches in research and evaluation. They have implications for what data is considered to be 'valid', how data can or should be collected, how data is analysed and interpreted, and under what conditions findings are portable to other contexts.

This paper deals with two epistemologies - realist and constructivist - from a realist viewpoint. Some authors have claimed that realists 'are realists ontologically, but constructivists epistemologically'. That is, realists believe that there is a real world, which exists independently of our interpretations of it ("realist ontology"). However, we all construct our own interpretations of it. Knowledge is not a direct representation of reality, but an interpretation of it, constructed in our own heads, and shaped by language, culture, personal experience, and previous learning ("constructivist epistemology"). Knowledge does not exist independently of 'the person who knows'. In radical constructivism, we cannot even be sure that there is a real world. Perhaps we are all just avatars in some giant computer game.

This paper argues that there are areas of overlap, but also areas of distinction between, realist and constructivist epistemology. These distinctions have implications for evaluation practice. It will briefly describe the key assumptions of constructivism, and contrast these with key assumptions in realism. It will use a hypothetical evaluation as an example to discuss differences in: the purposes of constructivist and realist investigation; the nature of the data that is collected; the ways that analysis is undertaken; how 'valuing' is approached and how evaluation adds value; the nature of findings; and the portability of findings.


Mardi Trompf

Founder and consultant, MarVAL Consulting
International development monitoring, evaluation, learning, project management and procurement. Successes include consolidation of disparate programs to prioritise impact, outcome based monitoring, measuring and delivering value for money.

avatar for Gill Westhorp

Gill Westhorp

Professorial Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University
Gill leads the Realist Research Evaluation and Learning Initiative (RREALI) at Charles Darwin University. RREALI develops new methods and tools within a realist framework, supports development of competency in realist approaches and provides realist evaluation and research services... Read More →

Monday September 16, 2019 3:30pm - 4:30pm AEST