Whose Extension Counts?

Curator’s note: Well, it has been a very long time with no posts here. To remedy that situation, we’re getting things going again by cross-posting a post that appeared in the aea365 blog of the American Evaluation Association, written by yours truly. Stay tuned for more blog posts on the theme of ‘credible evidence in Extension,’ which is also the topic of a forthcoming set of papers being edited by Ben Silliman (North Carolina State Extension) and Scott Cummings (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service).

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Whose Extension Counts?

Debates about what counts as credible evidence in program evaluation and applied social science research have been ongoing for at least 20 years. Those debates are summarized well in a very helpful book on this very question edited by Stewart Donaldson, Tina Christie, and Mel Mark. In particular, the book provides a balance of viewpoints from both proponents and detractors of the position that experimental approaches are the “gold standard,” the best route to credible evidence.

Even long before that (hundreds of years before), questions of how to generate valid knowledge of the world around us—and specifically the role of experimentation in that process—animated the scientific and aristocratic classes alike. In Leviathan and the Air Pump, Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin examined the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over Boyle’s air-pump experiments in the 1660s, exploring acceptable methods of knowledge production and the societal factors related to different knowledge systems.

The point of this post is this: These seemingly esoteric methodological debates about credible evidence are in fact fundamentally important political questions about life. This point is summed up by Bill Trochim and Michael Scriven, who said, respectively:

“The gold standard debate is one of the most important controversies in contemporary evaluation and applied social sciences. It’s at the heart of how we go about trying to understand the world around us. It is integrally related to what we think science is and how it relates to practice. There is a lot at stake.” (W. Trochim, unpublished speech transcript, September 10, 2007)

“This issue is not a mere academic dispute, and should be treated as one involving the welfare of very many people, not just the egos of a few.” (Scriven, 2008, p. 24)

In other words, epistemological politics (the ways in which power and privilege position some ways of knowing as ‘better’ and hierarchically ‘above’ other ways of knowing) are inextricably linked with ontological politics (whose reality counts, and how some reals are made to be more or less real, in practice, through various tacit or explicit power plays).

In the context of Cooperative Extension, and more specifically in the search for credible evidence about Extension, this nexus of epistemological and ontological politics raises the questions:

What is Extension?

For some (according to my research described here), it is a vehicle for the dissemination of scientific information. For others, it is a site for grassroots knowledge haring and deliberative democracy.

And, given that there appear to be (at least) a plurality of metanarratives about what Extension is, or (perhaps) an actual plurality of Extensions, the question then follows (playing on Robert 

Chambers’ influential title, Whose Reality Counts):

Whose Extension counts?