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Lessons from the PrEval project

Research and Practice in Dialog

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Photo: Anja Feix

Democracy and social cohesion are challenged by polarization tendencies, new protest dynamics and extremist groups. The attacks in Hanau and Halle have heightened awareness of the violent potential of right-wing extremism. The rise of the Querdenken and the Reichsbürger movements in Germany have put radical ideologies in the social spotlight. Against this background, the prevention of extremism, political education and the promotion of democracy have increased in importance. The PrEval network deals with evaluation and quality assurance in these areas. The first project “PrEval – Evaluation Designs for Prevention Measures” was completed in 2022.

Against the backdrop of strengthening radical ideologies, trust in state institutions and democratic decision-making processes must be fought for anew every day. The diversity of approaches, actors and projects in extremism prevention, political education and democracy promotion must be strengthened. Evaluation, quality assurance and the organization of knowledge play a crucial role here, given that more and more initiatives are being funded through numerous federal, state and local programs and that there is an increasingly broad, diverse and professionalized civil society in Germany.

The spectrum ranges from work in schools, such as project work or training of teachers, to dealing with potential threats, distancing work in the penal system, and political education in the digital space. The diversity of the many different projects and organizations is both an indispensable strength and a challenge when it comes to understanding the effectiveness of the projects and creating needs-based structures for exchange and learning.

The collaborative project PrEval has been tackling these challenges since 2020. There were two ideas behind the first project, “PrEval – Evaluation Designs for Prevention Measures,” which was completed in 2022: First, discussions about evaluation and quality assurance should no longer be abstract, but based on concrete evaluation methods. Second, the needs of professional practitioners and international debates were systematically surveyed across numerous disciplinary boundaries. Through extensive mapping and analyses of actors already conducting evaluations in the fields of prevention and civic education, foundations were laid for further work and exchange. The results of the first project were presented in various publication formats (six PRIF Spotlights, 10 PRIF Reports, a GPPi-Study and an anthology).

The research and transfer project brings together a large number of different actors from research and professional practice. PrEval is a dialogical research project in which researchers and practitioners work together to identify needs and develop and test designs. A total of five collaborative partners, two cooperation partners, and five network partners were involved from 2020 to 2022.

Following the completion of the first project, the follow-up project started in October 2022. At the heart of the project are four ongoing workshop initiatives, the so-called Zukunftswerkstätten, in which previously identified points are taken up and explored in greater depth. Workshops, focus groups and surveys will bring together conflicting positions and needs and develop new proposals for strengthening extremism prevention, democracy promotion and political education in Germany. The network grew to 15 partners at the start of the project and is designed to involve many other interested parties in the project work as part of the workshop initiatives. The breadth of the network makes it possible to introduce the results and findings into the daily work of professional practitioners and to strengthen it with the help of specialist conferences, dialog formats and open access publications, even outside the network.

The PrEval project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior. PRIF coordinates the network.

Interview with Julian Junk

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Julian Junk

Prof. Dr Julian Junk heads the research group “Radicalization” and the PrEval project together with Dr Hande Abay Gaspar. Since 2023, he has held the research professorship “Extremism and Extremism Resilience” at the Hessian University of Applied Sciences for Public Management and Security (HöMS).

  1. Q: Can the success of prevention be measured?

    This is a controversial issue among experts. After all, we are following a counterfactual logic here. We have to measure a non-event, i.e. determine that a certain undesired outcome did not occur in the ideal case. However, evaluation is always a very presuppositional process that follows many possible epistemological interests and guiding questions. These range from questions about the effectiveness of partial aspects of an initiative to the monitoring of organizational development processes. If questions of prevention pose certain challenges, areas of political education pose others. And in both cases, we are often dealing with long time horizons and sensitive data.

  2. How do research and transfer intertwine in the PrEval project?

    We have conducted a number of pilot studies in which certain evaluation designs were tried out for the first time. We talk about co-design processes here. We don’t understand transfer as a one-way street, so that research delivers results that then only have to be implemented in practice. Rather, it is a dialogical process. We take the expertise and experience of professional practitioners seriously and recognize that each side has different strengths and that we in research do not know everything either. And in general, the dichotomy between research and practice is actually outdated, especially in the thematic fields: Many actors from so-called practice come from research or the other way around. For years, many projects and initiatives have been geared toward close cooperation between science and practice. When we deal with evaluation and quality assurance, we must also take this into account. Good evaluation stands and falls in close cooperation with those who commission evaluations, those who are the subject of an evaluation, and those who conduct evaluations. And a good evaluation also considers the transfer: An evaluation should not end with a dry 200-page report, but should develop concrete recommendations for action, discuss interim results in the course of the evaluation process, and plan for time, funding, and the will to implement the recommendations in a verifiable manner after the evaluation.

  3. What characterizes the way of working in the PrEval network?

    The network is very large and diverse. It could also have been divided into individual projects, but by bringing them together, synergies are created. For example, if a partner conducts a survey in one area, we can use it in other areas as well. But that also makes it very complex. The network has a special way of working that requires a lot of effort. There is a transparent platform for everyone who wants to actively participate and read along. This enables the interlinking of research, practice and politics. It is a very communicative space. And this dialog also opens up new perspectives.

  4. What are these new perspectives?

    Just one example from secondary and tertiary prevention: We change our perspective when we look at clients rather than individual projects. Of course, we can look at individual projects. But if we look at a particular client, for example, someone who has just been released from prison and now needs to re-enter society, then he or she will receive many different types of support: from a distancing project to political education programs to programs offered by employment agencies and other authorities, which are sometimes perceived as constraints, sometimes as help, to community work, families and circles of friends – the list could go on and on. What constellation makes sense? And do we measure it correctly? These are questions that we can only really get to grips with through this seemingly simple change of perspective.

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