An introduction to the experimental versus the pragmatic paradigm in evaluation

Daniel B. Fishman

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8 Scopus citations


This article provides a historical and conceptual framework for the six case studies that follow in this Special Feature section. About 100 years ago, psychology led the social sciences in a "Declaration of Independence" from philosophy. This declaration was supported by the development of Comte's philosophy of positivism, which argued for the superiority of knowledge derived from experimental science over that which came from scholarly interpretation and theory that was not empirically based. The theoretical and technological success of the physical sciences during the first half of the 20th century fueled psychology's commitment to the hypothesis-testing, laboratory-based experimental paradigm. However, for a variety of reasons (e.g., the lack of substantive accomplishments of the experimental paradigm in the social sciences and growing criticism of positivism in the philosophy community), over the past 30 years there has been a breakdown of consensus on the use of the experimental paradigm in psychology, and two alternative models have been developed: a pragmatic paradigm and a hermeneutic paradigm, both based on an epistemology of social constructionism. Although the field of program evaluation has attempted from its beginning to maintain a strong link to the experimental paradigm, in recent years it has been forced by its commitment to real-world program impact to adopt in a more systematic manner aspects of the pragmatic and hermeneutic paradigms. This Special Feature section examines the practical implications of adopting aspects of both the experimental and the pragmatic paradigms in a particular evaluation study. Specifically, the authors of the six case studies were asked to describe and analyze their experiences in terms of whether the two paradigms functioned in their study in a contrasting, conflicting, or complementary manner. The authors were asked to consider a variety of areas of impact, such as research design, data collection methodology, the response of peers, and communication of results.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-363
Number of pages11
JournalEvaluation and Program Planning
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1991

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Business and International Management
  • Social Psychology
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Strategy and Management
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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