Historical Roots of Measurement and Evaluation

Measurement and evaluation derive from our interest in the study of societal problems using valid research designs that incorporate qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques. If we trace measurement and evaluation’s roots back to the 1800s, we see that researchers were trying to find the causes and solutions of societal problems. As the examples from below show, this included mortality and morbidity. At the time, this was not referred to as measurement and evaluation, but this became the historical foundation of the work we do today as evaluators.

An early example of the use of an experimental design to understand and craft a solution to a societal problem comes from the 18th century, when sailors at sea for months at a time were prone to a condition that caused gums to swell and teeth to fall out, amongst other symptoms. Today, we know this disease as scurvy, and we recognize that the cause is vitamin C deficiency. However, at the time, the causes of the disease puzzled James Lind, a doctor with the British Royal Navy. Lind suspected that the cause of the disease was related to lack of access to fresh fruit. With the help of his ship’s captain, Lind set up an experimental design where a control group continued on their regular diet, and an experimental group ate limes regularly. From this design, Lind found a potential cause and prescribed a preventative treatment for scurvy: Eating citrus fruits.

Another example comes from mid 19th century London. The Industrial Revolution caused urbanization, and with this, the prevalence of infections such as cholera. Conventional wisdom at the time was that the city’s industrial air pollution was to blame for cholera outbreaks. Anesthesiologist (and early pioneer of epidemiology) John Snow questioned this, investigating cholera outbreaks systematically using mapping and quantitative data collection techniques. His research showed that cholera-related deaths were concentrated near the corners of Broad and Cambridge Streets in London. He carried out qualitative interviews with affected families, discovering that most of those that died from cholera drank water from the Broad Street water pump. Snow’s research and findings eventually led to the closure of the pump, which was found to be located next to a cesspool.

Today, we approach measurement and evaluation with many of the same qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques used by Lind and Snow. As evaluators, we ultimately use qualitative and quantitative data to make a value judgement as we monitor and evaluate interventions. Emerging from 18th and 19th century social science research, measurement and evaluation help evaluators to understand outputs and outcomes, towards judging the merit and worth of an intervention. We ask evaluation questions around the value of an intervention, and we use the answers to inform current and design future interventions. Our evaluation designs provide insight into how activities relate to objectives and results, helping us to measure progress, outcomes, and impact.

Alkin, Marvin, ed. Evaluation Roots: Wider Perspective of Theorist’s Views and Influences, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, SAGE, 2012.
Fitzpatrick, Jody, and Blane Worthen. Program Evaluation: Alternative Approaches and Practical Guidelines, 4th ed. New York: Pearson, 2010.
Rossi, Peter, Mark Lipsey, and Howard Freeman. Evaluation: A Systematic Approach, 7th edition. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2004.
Wholey, Joseph, Harry Hatry, and Kathryn Newcomer, eds. Handbook of Practical Program Evaluation, 3rd ed. San Francisco: Wiley, 2010.

Related Courses

The online MS in Measurement & Evaluation program from American University includes a course on the Principles & Theories of Evaluation which introduces the terminology, critical issues and current debates in the field of evaluation. Students also learn to design monitoring and evaluation plans and Logical Frameworks – the foundation for a developing skillset in evaluation.

About the Author

Dr. Beverly Peters has more than fifteen years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.

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