Chapter III.1 in “INCLUSIVE OR RATIONAL PARTICIPATORY EVALUATION?” Slovenian Evaluation Society’s Working Papers, Spring/Summer 2024, forthcomming

The evaluation of inclusivity in participatory evaluation presents a multifaceted challenge, as dissimilar concepts of inclusiveness exist. Inclusion can be considered from the point of view of the minority or the majority of the population, as well as from the point of view of the included or the excluded.

The dominant view, informed by Arrow’s principles of collective choice theory, emphasizes inclusivity through two key tenets. First, an unrestricted domain of choice is sought, aiming to equalize the opportunities for collective action among all participants, particularly marginalized groups with limited access to social resources and especially no access to institutional drivers of social change. Second, the non-dictatorship principle safeguards against the undue influence of dominant minority groups, like project leaders and key stakeholders, in resolving collective choice dilemmas. Within mainstream principles, the focus on inclusivity remains centred on the minority of the population, whether considering those socially excluded or included.

While traditionally the concept of social inclusion is framed around the inclusion of marginalized groups, a broader perspective is emerging. Structural and systemic barriers (Mouffe, 1985) such as elitism, corruption, or political opportunism can effectively exclude the majority from full participation in shaping society (Bauman, 2000). Decades of research support this notion. A significant portion of the global population, ranging from 60% to 80%, feel inadequately represented by their governments (United Nations, in Kreisler, 2001; Eurobarometer, 2005; Henning, 2007). This necessitates a framing of social inclusion to encompass the vast majority of the population that feels excluded.

Likewise, the concept of inclusion can be examined from the viewpoints of both the included and excluded. The socially included often take their inclusion for granted. They view the world through a logocentric lens (Derrida, 1978), centred on their existence. Discussing inclusion from the aspect of the included can lead to underestimating the pervasiveness of social discrimination and its structural roots. Despite this, the primary architects of social inclusion efforts are dominant institutions at international levels, such as The World Bank[1] and The European Union[2].

Postmodern philosophy offers a contrasting perspective on social inclusion, focusing on the excluded individuals or groups within collective action (Foucault, 1977). It posits that exclusion precedes inclusion (Derrida) so it is (exclusion) inherent in any model or theory of truth. Every system of thought establishes boundaries by excluding concepts or perspectives deemed irrelevant or contradictory to its core logocentric claims. The concept of exclusion in constructing meaning finds an analogy in mapmaking. Just as a city map excludes details like every tree or building to remain useful and provide a comprehensive overview of a city’s layout, so too do systems of thought require the exclusion of ‘insignificant details’ to maintain transparency and coherent form.

Those experiencing social exclusion possess distinct worldviews compared to those who are included. The excluded suffer a lack of epistemic agency (Tanaka-Ishii, 2017) – the freedom to express their viewpoints in a manner that is specific to them and aligns with their natural character, worldview and mode of expression. Their mode appears weird, even incomprehensible to the included, due to their epistemic blindness. The excluded may see logocentric realm solely through the void – through the lens of their exclusion, through the gaps of the dominant discourses.

The seemingly simple concepts of void or nothingness have captivated philosophers for centuries, from philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and Lacan to proponents of the Buddhist philosophy of the middle way and the contemporary Kyoto school of philosophy. These thinkers have explored the possibility of understanding the world from the perspective of the void, beyond its material, objective, or real manifestations but also against emptying the world of its meaning. Exploration of the void has yielded two contrasting interpretations of the void, nihilist and essentialist, and the third, mesoscopic, that is developed between them.

Nihilism, on the one hand, views the void as a fundamental lack within explanations of existence, signifying the fatal absence of something essential. In the context of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, nothingness represents the absence of inherent essence at the core of everything, challenging logocentric claims about what constitutes ultimate importance. This nihilistic interpretation embodies a negative understanding of the void. But deconstruction is only a prerequisite for the possibility of new construction that achieves freedom beyond previous constraints, so nihilist observation of void may invoke positive meaning. Left unchecked, nihilistic perspectives lead to relativism or indifference, ultimately destroying any sense of meaning, particularly collective meaning. The negative nihilistic approach to the void is arguably extreme. In its rejection of logocentric narratives about grand entities, it simultaneously rejects the necessity for a holistic consideration of valuable things, individually and collectively.

Essentialist framework, on the other hand, posits the void as an omnipresent entity, an inherent, singular category encompassing the essence that defines the fundamental nature of all things and everything submits to it. However, the philosophy of the middle way, as articulated by both the Nagarjuna school and the Kyoto school, dismantles essentialist understanding of the void. They argue that the essentialist interpretation merely represents another form of logocentrism. Instead of a realist logos at the centre of everything, essentialism simply substitutes a logos of the void. This aligns with the critique of the tools, that mitigate blindness with blindness, such as blinding participants, researchers or evaluators. Mitigation of bias seen in this way only adds another layer of blindness – in this way only reifying instead of resolving the original problem of biased and not authentically inclusive participatory evaluation.

Discarding extreme approaches leaves us with the concept of the void from a non-extreme vantage point. This is the void of the middle ground that is neither full of nothing nor empty of everything. Instead, it is understood as a relative entity defined by the absence of something considered essential (Nagarjuna, Sartre) but not necessarily fatal. In the middle ground, the void is not empty of everything but full of all that is indeterminate or overlooked: uncharacteristic, peripheral, and seemingly non-essential elements that are nonetheless present, albeit invisibly. Furthermore, the void is not universally experienced. It manifests differently and is entirely case dependent. For example, economists are usually epistemic blind towards social or ecological arguments, and vice versa for ecologists. The epistemic blindnesses of economists, sociologists, and ecologists differ. This means that when observed from the middle ground, the overlooked is present only as relative, capable of synthesis but not allowing the highest level of synthesis of generalisation into an absolute (logocentric) void, which is utterly contrary to its middle-ground logic.

The concept of the void, from a non-extreme perspective, signifies the absence of something, a reality that remains unseen yet nonetheless felt (Heidegger, 1999). Heidegger utilizes the experience of dread in darkness as an analogy for nothingness. One sees nothing, yet the feeling of dread arises exactly because of awareness certain things are present – somewhere out there, vaguely threatening, even though not revealing any danger in particular. Similarly, Sartre (1943) posits the void as the lack of inherent meaning or purpose in existence. We may only come to understand things through their absence, similar to the void left by the loss of a loved one. Studying the history of zero, Robert Kaplan (2000) similarly reminds the reader that the mathematical concept of zero was not always defined as a number. Since it does not represent a quantity itself, zero was conceptualized as a ‘placeholder’[3] – a code or symbol signifying something essential for the construction of meaning, yet demonstrably absent.

The void produced by epistemic blindness in participatory processes can only be detected by a blindsighted evaluator. He possesses the capacity to acknowledge uncertainties in the explanation of complex issues. This ability hinges on avoiding two key pitfalls: neither overlooking things that seem unimportant to participants nor being blinded by what seems true to participants. The blindsighted comprehension of complex things extends beyond considering of bare facts; however, it never disregards the importance of scientific arguments. The blindsighted evaluator recognizes and appreciates the merits of opposing viewpoints in the understanding of complex things but avoids deciding between them. The evaluator remains epistemically indeterminate (Wittgenstein, 1969) and inconclusive but not indecisive, neither relativist.

For a new generation of approaches to achieve authentic inclusivity in participatory evaluation, they must facilitate the transformation of participants from a state of epistemic blindness at the outset of the process to a state of epistemic blindsightedness by its conclusion.



[3] Before developing modern concept of zero, some ancient cultures denoted zero as ‘_’, an empty space, a placeholder for something that is missing. For instance, number 205 would have been written as 2_5, which reads as two hundreds, zero tens and five ones.

Chapter I

Chapter II