Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding

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Language Matters in Evaluation: Please Share your Experience!

Dear Colleagues,

I hope all is well. I am currently conducting a research on the use of language in evaluation and I would be interested in learning more about your own experience and thoughts on this subject.  In particular, I have three quick questions dealing not so much with your use of technical evaluation language (e.g., I won’t ask you about the definitions of outputs, outcomes or impact) but rather with your use of language that has either strengthened or weakened your interactions with partners and clients in the course of your evaluation work in the past.

THREE QUICK QUESTIONS (please write your responses under each question and try to e-mail them back by Wednesday October 1. You could either post your comment in public or e-mai me in private to I will send a summary of all your anonymous contributions at the end of my analysis)

QUESTION 1) What are words or expression that you used in the past but that you no longer use since you or your partners/clients perceived them to be inadequate or offensive? (e.g., in terms of cultural competence and equity)?

QUESTION 2) What are words or expressions that that you have started using more often in the course of your evaluation assignments over the last few years since they appear to be particularly well received by your evaluation partners and/or clients?

QUESTION 3) How could you explain other evaluation colleagues how to promote a more respectful use of language in evaluation (e.g., equity-focused and culturally competent language) in their profession? How could you “detect” that some expressions are no relevant to the success of an evaluation? Also, what could you do to promote the use of more culturally competent language within the evaluation community?

Thank you so much for your time and interest.


Michele (Italian for Michael)



Michele Tarsilla, Ph.D.

Evaluation Capacity Development Group, Vice-President

Chair of the International and Cross-Cultural Evaluation TIG at AEA

Check out my upcoming Workshops at EES 2014 in Dublin   and AEA 2014 in Denver:

Michele Tarsilla, Ph.D.


I really appreciate your questions and your careful attention to the power and impact of language. I am a military chaplain and PhD candidate, and am doing work that relates to bridging gaps between military and civilian cultures. Language is very important in this work, because the military culture introduces lots of new language into a military service member's vocabulary and most of this language is completely foreign to civilians. We are facing another, more urgent challenge that is language related in terms of providing support for military personnel when they come home following deployment(s). The medical model totally dominates our social consciousness and programatic responses. Every probelm is diagnosised and treated as though it were a medical condition. This paradigm is failing on multiple fronts: (1) military service members are being perscribed medications for symptons that have causes that are left unaddressed, and (2) most military personnel don't identify as being "sick," "injured," "mentally-ill," and so on and therefore are not receptive to programs rooted in the medical model. In many cases, these persons resist and reject medical treatment because that is not how they identify their issues. They refuse to come to the hospital, because they are looking for something else that is not being offered.

All of these challenges of language, and how language informs our sense of reality and our self concept, limit our capacity to evaluate these kinds of programs. Much of the human experience of military service and combat stress are left unseen and unaddressed because they do not fit into the assumptions of the medical paradigm. In my one-on-one work with military service members and their families, it has been important to  minimize use of medicalized language and diagnostic frameworks and to ask the person I am with how he/she identifies their issues and the situation(s) being generated by those issues.

One example of this different approach: military service members after they return home often miss the adrenaline-high produced by the combat environment and so they may seek out high-risk activities such as racing cars or motorcycles, skydiving, and the use of drugs that replicate the physiological 'high' feeling. The medical model sees all these behaviors as "self-endangering" or near suicidal in their character, and ceasation and abstinence are the proper solutions. But approaching these cases differently, asking the person to narrate his/her own story and meaning-making regarding these behaviors uncovers the complex nature of these behaviors and empowers the person to contextualize his/her experience. I respond by entering the world of meaning that they have provided, rather than fitting their personhood and activities into the boxes created by the medical model. This kind of information contributes to our understanding and would be very formative in designing our programs and then more accurately evaluate the work that is being done with this community.

Thank you for your work in this area.

Zachary Moon

Dear Zachary,

Thank you so much for sharing your story. On the one hand, what you describe in your message is quite a unique experience, mainly due to the several linguistic registers and cultural frames of references (military/civilian; medical providers/patients) embedded in the interactions that you commented on. On the other hand, your story is somewhat universal, as the lack of mutual undestanding and the perpetuation of power aysmmetry through the use of language is a discouragingly common experience for many of our friends and colleagues around the world!

Reading your post reminded me of what I had learned in both my medical anthropology classes in graduate school and a variety of evaluations of HIV and AIDS programs across Africa (e.g., in Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa). That is, the "culturally incompetent" use of language and gestures by medical professionals during their interactions with their patients -especially the least literate ones- affects not only the style and quality of communication between them but, even worse, if impacts on the type of diagnosis and, as a result, on patients' living conditions over time. What seems to be lacking in stories like yours is the intentional effort by medical professionals to put themselves in their patients' shoes -- trying to understand what the latter "experienced in the past", what they"know" today about their "medical conditions" and how they really "feel" about it. If translated to the evaluation practice within the broader international development and humanitarian community, the pervasiveness of power aysmmetry through language (often justified by professional titles) forces all of us to acknowledge that our epistemiologies, that is, the way we understand and intepret the world around us is more often than not different from that of the partners and clients whom we are supposed to serve. Otherwise said, a meta-discoursive awareness is needed for all those who aim to become better development professional and a special effort ought to be made not to perpetuate any unjust monopoly of the evalation discourse through our own language and methodological choices.

With this in mind, I keep pursuing my research in several languages. I am currently in Paris to conduct my research in the French language and I am about to start it in Spanish and Portuguese.. Therefore, if you are interested in this topic and would like to contribute some related reflections in any of these languages, please post your comment her and/or e-mail me at If you contact me in private, all your contributions will be kept anonymous. If you also happen to be in the Paris area and would like to discuss cultural competence in evaluation, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Once again, thank you very much for your time and interest!


Michele Tarsilla, Ph.D. in Evaluation - Chair of the International and Cross-Cultural Evaluation TIG at the American Evaluation Association