In a conversation with a colleague on the need for IRB when what was being conducted was evaluation not research, I was struck by two things:

  1. I needed to discuss the protections provided by IRB  (the next timely topic??) and
  2. the difference between evaluation and research needed to be made clear.

Leaving number 1 for another time, number 2 is the topic of the day.

A while back, AEA 365 did a post on the difference between evaluation and research (some of which is included below) from a graduate students perspective.  Perhaps providing other resources would be valuable.

To have evaluation grouped with research is at worst a travesty; at best unfair.  Yes, evaluation uses research tools and techniques.  Yes, evaluation contributes to a larger body of knowledge (and in that sense seeks truth, albeit contextual).  Yes, evaluation needs to have institutional review board documentation.  So in many cases, people could be justified in saying evaluation and research are the same.


Carol Weiss   (1927-2013, she died in January) has written extensively on this difference and  makes the distinction clearly.  Weiss’s first edition of Evaluation Research  was published in 1972.She revised this volume in 1998 and issued it under the title of Evaluation. (Both have subtitles.)

She says that evaluation applies social science research methods and makes the case that it is intent of the study which makes the difference between evaluation and research.  She lists the following differences (pp 15 – 17, 2nd ed.):

  1. Utility;
  2. Program-driven questions;
  3. Judgmental quality;
  4. Action setting;
  5. Role Conflicts;
  6. Publication; and
  7. Allegiance.


(For those of you who are still skeptical, she also lists similarities.)  Understanding and knowing the difference between evaluation and research matters.  I recommend her books.

Gisele Tchamba who wrote the AEA365 post says the following: 

  1. Know the difference.  I came to realize that practicing evaluation does not preclude doing pure research. On the contrary, the methods are interconnected but the aim is different (I think this mirrors Weiss’s concept of intent).
  2. The burden of explaining. Many people in academia vaguely know the meaning of evaluation. Those who think they do mistake evaluation for assessment in education. Whenever I meet with people whose understanding of evaluation is limited to educational assessment, I use Scriven’s definition and emphasis words like “value, merit, and worth”.
  3. Distinguishing between evaluation and social science research.  Theoretical and practical experiences are helpful ways to distinguish between the two disciplines. Extensive reading of evaluation literature helps to see the difference.

She also sites a Trochim definition that is worth keeping in mind as it captures the various unique qualities of evaluation.  Carol Weiss mentioned them all in her list (above):

  •  “Evaluation is a profession that uses formal methodologies to provide useful empirical evidence about public entities (such as programs, products, performance) in decision making contexts that are inherently political and involve multiple often conflicting stakeholders, where resources are seldom sufficient, and where time-pressures are salient”.


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