Guest Post: Narratives, Stories and Memes

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**7 min read**

How can we evaluate well if we are not aware of the often 'single stories' that shape how we view the world and do our work? This aspect of evaluation has been an important focus for me over the years. I am therefore very pleased that the fascinating Sandra Waddock is my guest blogger today. She is a distinguished specialist working, among others, on the intersection between narrative and transformational change. Importantly, she is also an ‘outsider’ who sees our evaluation world through fresh eyes. I met Sandra through the SDG Transformations Forum, where paths cross that might otherwise have run in parallel, as we work in very different fields. I trust her short article will convince us to be much more aware of which narratives, stories and memes shape evaluation and development, and how they influence our mindsets about how the world works; their invisible influences have important implications for our practice.

We find it difficult to work across the silos in our field. Or past the silos in our heads.'

Zenda Ofir
Transforming Evaluations and COVID-19, Part 4

As Zenda notes in the quote above, in important ways it is the silos in our heads that create the other silos including the ones in our fields or disciplines. These silos are what psychologists call mindsets and what systems thinker Donella Meadows called paradigms. Mindsets are the attitudes, views, and perceptions that shape worldviews. Paradigms, similarly, are shared sets of ideas that create ways of looking at things like systems, the world, or even whole fields like evaluation. Mindsets and paradigms are shaped by life experiences, beliefs, and education. In turn, they shape how we see, respond to, and act in the world. Mindsets and paradigms are the stories or narratives that we tell ourselves (or that others tell us) about how the world about us, or some relevant system or discipline like evaluation, is or ought to be.

Narrative and stories are powerful because we humans are essentially storytelling beings. Stories are ever present. They show up in fields like evaluation as beliefs about what the field is all about, practices, expertise, disciplinary boundaries, and adherence to past and known ways of doing things. They help us understand the world. Different approaches to evaluation, for example, are based on fundamentally different stories that can and do change and evolve over time. Or they can remain static and, in a sense, stuck as Zenda argues, becoming ‘stale’ when conditions and expectations change—but stories/narratives and the mindsets, and paradigms that shape and believe them do not.


As an outsider looking in, it seems to me that the field of evaluation is moving away from past approaches that were more mechanistic and clearly defined, with clear guidance for evaluators. It is moving towards more systemic, transdisciplinary, and potentially more impactful approaches, of which Blue Marble Evaluation is a prime example.

The thing is that these new forms of evaluation require and tell different stories and narratives. They are built on a different set of core memes, and they have significantly different implications for practice. All these changes put at some risk existing paradigms and mindsets, expertise, and ways of working that may now become obsolete. It is reasonable that some will resist these changes.

Stories (or narratives) are composed of what are known as memes—core or foundational cultural units, like words, phrases, images, ideas, symbols, and framings. The idea of memes is a neologism from biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. He wanted a cultural analogue to the gene and used the word ‘mimeme’, shortened to meme, to signify that core unit of culture. Memes can be used to construct similar stories in different ways for different uses, because it is the memes that move from mind to mind, bringing with them similar and reproducible ideas.

Silos get created by our mindsets when paradigms and their memes get ‘stuck’ and are difficult to change. We all tell ourselves stories and narratives, or sometimes others tell us, about how the world is and how it works—what it means to be in this world. Such stories, when they are foundational and widely held, are what anthropologists call cultural mythologies.

Cultural mythologies are the core myths, beliefs, and, essentially, stories and narratives that shape worldviews. They are the paradigms, beliefs, and ideas that shape attitudes and ultimately behaviors, and that ultimately constitute our sense of who we are in the world, this organization, this area of expertise, and what we are doing and why. Every field has its core cultural mythologies that shape how the field is viewed and practiced.

Traditional evaluation, in a sense, constitutes the field’s original cultural mythology, but that has shifted in recent years, requiring shifts in practice. Developmental Evaluation presented new memes and demanded new ways of practicing evaluation. Blue Marble Evaluation pushes the story even further into new domains.

Consider. Michael Quinn Patton defines the purpose of traditional evaluation as ‘support[ing] improvement, summative tests and accountability,’ which speaks to one set of memes and mindsets. In a shift of paradigm away from traditional towards a new model with new memes, Developmental Evaluation’s purpose, Quinn Patton says, ‘supports development of innovation and adaptation in dynamic environments’, innovations that recognize the dynamic and complex nature of the context in which evaluations take place.

Quinn Patton’s more recent innovations around Blue Marble Evaluation take a yet more nuanced stance, and tell different stories—with different memes. Look at the difference in story here and consider how it affects your practice as an evaluator. Quinn Patton states on the Blue Marble website, ‘Blue Marble Evaluation is principles-based because to deal with the complexities of global issues and problems, we need principles to guide us, not a rule book to tie us down’.

From tests, learning and accountability to operating on the basis of principles, which requires more individual judgment, even wisdom, is a major shift of core memes—and constitutes a very different set of stories and resulting practices about the roles, functioning, and purposes of evaluation.

Importantly, however, the times and nature of the problems now being faced demand such a shift, because there is now far broader recognition of both the systemic nature of the problems in the world, the interventions to deal with them—and hence of the need for more systemically-oriented ways to evaluate them.

In a world where transdisciplinarity is needed to contend with both the complexity and so-called wickedness of problems like inequality, sustainability, climate change, and social cohesion, the imperative is to shift evaluation to accommodate that very complexity and wickedness. The Covid-19 pandemic is only one example—but it is easy to see how its impacts cross multiple sectors and incorporate numerous issues—from inequality, to healthcare, to jobs, to political voice, to economic impact, just to name a view.

The silos that Zenda wrote about in her blog are made up of ‘stories’. Calling them stories or narratives, and recognizing their foundation of memes, does not, however, diminish their importance.

The key here is to recognize that we are all defined by the stories we tell ourselves about who we are in the world and what our work is. In a world that is undergoing rapid transformation as ours is today—from the impacts of the pandemic, from the social unrest that has erupted globally, from inequality that has now come to the fore, and from the looming crisis of climate change—we probably all need to recognize these new realities, and change our stories and practices accordingly.

Still, existing mindsets die hard. Shifting paradigms—moving to new stories—is really difficult. As Thomas Kuhn, whose seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolution tells us, too often paradigm change takes place ‘one funeral at a time’. Kuhn argued that only when people with currently dominant perspectives die out will new paradigms replace them.

But mindsets and old stories can and do change when the memes that support them are resonant and compelling, and when the conditions of practice shift. Stories resonate. They tap emotions and offer powerful new framings that are exciting and engaging. That is, mindsets shift when the stories that can be told touch something deeply human inside of us, ask something new of us, and tell us how to go about taking on these new views—without necessarily threatening the old ones.

It takes vision and courage to change stories and mindsets—and a willingness to continue learning constantly. But, in the end, that’s what makes a discipline like evaluation exciting, fun, and impactful.

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