Looking out and Looking In: Ethnographic Evaluation as a Two-Way Mirror—NEW Case Study from the APPS team!

By Imagining America | September 16, 2013


There is growing pressure to provide concrete evidence of impact to funders and institutional and civic leaders. And yet, numbers and metrics rarely capture the complex individual transformation and collective social change at the heart of many impactful community-based arts and humanities-based endeavors. Stories and qualitative data more readily meet the challenge but are often viewed as “soft” evidence. How can we reap the valuable content- and context-rich learning that qualitative approaches to assessment afford, while enhancing the credibility of qualitative evidence toward more effective case making?

This story of evaluation describes how the Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC) worked with researcher Maribel Alvarez, PhD, at the Southwest Center, University of Arizona/Tucson to address this question. They tested an ethnographic approach to better understand the effects of TPAC’s arts and civic engagement grant making on community members involved in funded projects, applying systematic rigor to lend greater credibility to qualitative data and analysis.

TPAC and Alvarez focused on the Finding Voice project, an ongoing project that helps refugee and immigrant youth—through research, photography, and writing—to develop a better understanding of their Tucson neighborhood and U.S. culture, and to voice their opinions and ideas at a community level about issues that matter to them. Learn about evaluation methods employed, including collaborating with youth in designing and implementing evaluation, and insights TPAC gained about the impact on the youth and larger community (the mirror reflecting out). Also learn how TPAC came to see itself in a new light (the mirror looking in) regarding its role in evaluation and as an agency promoting civic engagement in the community.

The Tucson Pima Arts Council is truly a learning organization. Staff is seeing that grantees appreciate the opportunity to tell an honest story of the effects of their work through more qualitative documentation and assessment. But managing and analyzing a volume of information in a rigorous way poses capacity challenges for TPAC, especially as it might want to collect and analyze data over years.

Have others had a similar challenge and have you found ways to regularly employ qualitative approaches over time?

Are university assessment departments equipped to carry out ethnographic approaches?

Click here to read the full case study, then come back here and let us know your thoughts in the comments.