Although I have been learning about and doing evaluation for a long time, this week I’ve been searching for a topic to talk about.  A student recently asked me about the politics of evaluation–there is a lot that can be said on that topic, which I will save for another day.  Another student asked me about when to do an impact study and how to bound that study.  Certainly a good topic, too, though one that can wait for another post.  Something I read in another blog got me thinking about today’s post.  So, today I want to talk about gathering demographics.

Last week, I mentioned in my TIMELY TOPIC post about the AEA Guiding Principles. Those Principles along with the Program Evaluation Standards make significant contributions in assisting evaluators in making ethical decisions.  Evaluators make ethical decisions with every evaluation.  They are guided by these professional standards of conduct.  There are five Guiding Principles and five Evaluation Standards.  And although these are not proscriptive, they go along way to ensuring ethical evaluations.  That is a long introduction into gathering demographics.

The guiding principle, Integrity/Honesty states thatEvaluators display honesty and integrity in their own behavior, and attempt to ensure the honesty and integrity of the entire evaluation process.”  When we look at the entire evaluation process, as evaluators, we must strive constantly to maintain both personal and professional integrity in our decision making.  One decision we must make involves deciding what we need/want to know about our respondents.  As I’ve mentioned before, knowing what your sample looks like is important to reviewers, readers, and other stakeholders.  Yet, if we gather these data in a manner that is intrusive, are we being ethical?

Joe Heimlich, in a recent AEA365 post, says that asking demographic questions “…all carry with them ethical questions about use, need, confidentiality…”  He goes on to say that there are “…two major conditions shaping the decision to include – or to omit intentionally – questions on sexual or gender identity…”:

  1. When such data would further our understanding of the effect or the impact of a program, treatment, or event.
  2. When asking for such data would benefit the individual and/or their engagement in the evaluation process.

The first point relates to gender role issues–for example are gay men more like or more different from other gender categories?  And what gender categories did you include in your survey?  The second point relates to allowing an individual’s voice to be heard clearly and completely and have categories on our forms reflect their full participation in the evaluation.  For example, does marital status ask for domestic partnerships as well as traditional categories and are all those traditional categories necessary to hear your participants?

The next time you develop a questionnaire that includes demographic questions, take a second look at the wording–in an ethical manner.

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