Sociologists of (e)valuation have devoted considerable attention to understanding differences in evaluative practices across a number of fields. Yet, little is understood about how individuals learn about and navigate multivalent valid group styles within a single setting. As a social phenomenon, many accept how central processes of evaluation are to everyday life. Accordingly, scholars have attempted to link research on evaluation to processes of inequality. Nevertheless, the sociology of evaluation only has tenuous, often implicit connections to literature on inequality and disadvantage. This article addresses these two gaps. Drawing on over two-hundred hours of ethnographic fieldwork in an urban high school debate league, twenty-seven semi-structured interviews with league judges, and archival data, we illustrate how high school policy debate judges employ evaluative frames and link them to the implementation of evaluative practices in a disadvantaged setting. We show that the cultural meanings that emerge within the evaluation process—in this case, urban uplift and competition—stem from the conflicted context in which evaluation is occurring. We also make a first step toward applying the conceptual tools within the sociology of evaluation to a disadvantaged setting, and more broadly, suggest that micro-processes of evaluation are important to the study of urban inequality.
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To some extent, Lamont (2009) recognizes evaluative frames without labeling them as such: “[D]efinitions of excellence that panelists employ…are influenced by their individual proclivities, and by various facets of their identity and of their intellectual and social trajectories” (58). However, Lamont continues that the “epistemological criteria that panelists value most… resonate with the definition of excellence that prevails in their specific discipline” (58). We demonstrate that, under certain circumstances, awareness of a discipline’s dominant criteria for excellence is less salient.
Here, we refer to Swidler’s (1986) insight that ideologies more directly drive action in “unsettled cultural periods” or “periods of social transformation” (278).
This concept helps to illuminate why studying evaluative frames is important. If the evaluative culture and the set of evaluative practices within urban debate were more settled, we would not expect culture to drive action. Evaluative practice would be dictated primarily by long-established tradition, as perhaps is true in national debate. Yet, since the league’s evaluative culture is multivalent, judges’ framing of the activity matters much more for understanding how judges make decisions about rounds and send messages to students about valued forms of engagement with the activity.
Sampson’s work on neighborhood selection most closely invokes the concept of evaluation.
Because teams are large, training resources are distributed disproportionately toward newer debaters. The average technical skill level among the debaters is thus lower than one might have observed in Fine’s world, and likely in other, more selective urban debate leagues (field notes). Further, debaters being inconsistently evaluated on technical versus life skills may contribute to their lower average technical acumen.
These numbers are based on the number of students who attended at least one tournament in the season. Although we believe these numbers hold true, a smaller group of students consistently participates in the activity. In addition, the racial numbers obscure important diversity: For example, the top debaters from the 2011–2012 season included three black women, all of immigrant descent from either Africa or the Caribbean; two African-American males; two white males; one Asian-American male; one Arab-American male; one white female; and two Latina females (one of whom is also African-American). Several students who would be classified as “white” for numerical purposes are recent immigrants or of Middle Eastern descent.
Of course, adoption of a frame does not always lead to a specific set of evaluations; we show a strong association, but make no causal claim, between frames and practices. Furthermore, one set of evaluative practices does not necessarily lead to a certain outcome. Technical judges often disagree with each other, and life-skills judges frequently disagree with one another as well.
These distinctions are important because many respondents reported that they evaluated debaters differently depending on the division and the stage of the tournament. Also, the process of judging elimination rounds is different from preliminary rounds, as we show later.
Lincoln-Douglas, or “LD,” is a debate event founded in 1979 as an alternative to policy debate. In LD, individual students, rather than two-person teams, debate balancing competing values (e.g., liberty and equality) instead of policy.
One example of interpretive consensus comes from our findings on mutual evaluation among league judges, presented below. Both researchers observed some judges’ highly presentational nature, but could not determine how to make sense of this behavior independently. Were these judges actually performing? If so, for whom? After triangulating our observations with interview data and additional participant observation, we agreed that some judges engage in a kind of performance to bolster their legitimacy in the face of other, more technical judges.
Distinguishing between 20 years ago and less than 20 years ago is important because policy debate evolved from emphasizing traditional communication skills to emphasizing technical argumentation, often at the cost of persuasive speaking. See Fine (2001b).
Matching respondents by interviewer racial/ethnic background was beneficial in many respects, most notably in facilitating respondents’ comfort with speaking openly. Lee, a white lawyer, felt secure enough with Asad that he openly used racial slurs when recounting stories about his interactions with some of the debaters. Likewise, Davin, an African-American former league debater, told Bell that he “hated” whites before getting involved with urban debate.
Although we recognize the complexity of each respondent’s perspective, we believe the differences between these two evaluative frames and how they link to evaluative practices is more analytically salient than the fine distinctions and complexities between individual judges. The broader pattern suggests that this typology is useful for thinking about evaluation in this context (see Barton 1955; Lazarsfeld 1937; Menger 1883/1996; Weber 1922/1978).
Although these statements are laced with racial meaning, it is worth noting that one of the students whose “aggression” sparked the most controversy during interviews is white.
We are confident that evaluative frames and evaluative practices are two separate phenomena because, while there are consistent links between both, there are important divergences. Some uplift-frame judges employ technical standards, while some competition judges utilize life-skills standards. All of our competition-life-skills respondents were inexperienced with policy debate. For example, Annaliese, a competition-life-skills judge, decided after a few rounds that she had been judging “wrong” and attempted to modify her evaluative practices to more closely match the technical model. If evaluative frames and practices were the same phenomenon, we would expect them to correlate perfectly; we find variation and conclude that they exist separately.
Most judges are unpaid volunteers, but some league alumni are paid $100 per tournament to remain present for all rounds. Some coaches and debaters criticize this practice because the alumni may view themselves as more technically skilled than they actually were or bring personal feelings about their former opponents into their judgments. Others point to benefits: it keeps alumni connected to the league, ensures that judges familiar with technical aspects of debate will be available to evaluate elimination rounds, and adds diversity to the judging corps.
Omitted from our analysis are non-volunteers, those who might not only criticize the urban uplift frame but also the league’s emphasis on middle–class (“white”) values. However, some judges—even those who adopt an urban uplift frame—are still concerned that other volunteers have a patronizing or condescending view toward students.
The Tournament of Champions (TOC) is an elite, highly competitive policy debate championship. Debaters must qualify by achieving a certain level of success at national-level debate tournaments in order to earn a “bid” to the TOC. Two bids are required to qualify.
Fine explains that one of debaters’ favorite pastimes is complaining about judges. Although most judges on the national debate circuit are well-paid and fairly expert in policy debate’s subcultural rules, there are usually a few who are less well-versed in the technical style of judging. The TOC touts the technical skill of its judging pool as one reason for the tournament’s superiority: it “strives to offer the national high school debate community the highest quality judging, impartial tournament officials, and a friendly, congenial atmosphere” (archival materials). Of course, debaters sometimes complain when a technically skilled judge votes for the other team despite having good reasons to do so. Part of community building in any debate division often includes sharing stories about particularly egregious judges.
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We thank Stefan Beljean, Rachel Bradshaw, Matthew Clair, Caitlin Daniel, Nicole Deterding, Anthony Jack, Michèle Lamont, Michael Sauder, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on previous versions of this paper.
Asad L. Asad and Monica C. Bell contributed equally to the preparation of this article.
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Asad, A.L., Bell, M.C. Winning to Learn, Learning to Win: Evaluative Frames and Practices in Urban Debate. Qual Sociol 37, 1–26 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-013-9269-1
- Urban sociology
- Policy debate