While there are almost as many definitions of culture as there are cultures themselves, this definition, from the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) provides a perspective that may be useful to evaluators. They define culture “as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.”1 While we often think of culture groups in terms of ethnicity or nationality, they can be any group with shared patterns of behavior and understandings such as evaluators, scientists, or even Boston Red Sox fans. Most of us are part of many different culture groups.

Evaluators need to be aware of the major culture groups which may have relevance for the evaluation. The culture of the institutional type (i.e., Ivy League, large public, historically Black) tends to be pertinent to the evaluation as does the culture of the discipline or field. Other culture groups might be important in different evaluations as well. Having participants write down some words that describe themselves, may provide evaluators with some ideas about the culture groups that are important to participants.

An evaluation team needs to include people who are familiar with the major culture groups that have relevance for an evaluation. These may be people who are members of those groups or people who have experience working with those groups. No one can know everything about a culture, much less multiple cultures, but all evaluation team members should have some background knowledge of the relevant culture groups. Knowing such basics as appropriate levels of formality in language and dress, how people are addressed, and what behaviors are considered rude can make a big difference on the evaluation -- especially the data collection.

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For more about the role of context in evaluation, click here