A colleague of mine trying to explain observation to a student said, “Count the number of legs you see on the playground and divide by two. You have observed the number of students on the playground.” That is certainly one one way to look at the topic.
I’d like to be a bit more precise that that, though. Observation is collecting information through the use of the senses–seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling. To gather observations, the evaluator must have a clearly specified protocol–a step-by-step approach to what data are to be collected and how. The evaluator typically gets the first exposure to collecting information by observation at a very young age–learning to talk (hearing); learning to feed oneself (feeling); I’m sure you can think of other examples. When the evaluator starts school and studies science, when the teacher asks the student to “OBSERVE” the phenomenon and record what is seen, the evaluator is exposed to another approach to the method of observation.
As the process becomes more sophisticated, all manner of instruments may assist the evaluator–thermometers, chronometers, GIS, etc. And for that process to be able to be replicated (for validity), the steps become more and more precise.
Does that mean that looking at the playground and counting the legs and dividing by two has no place? Those who decry data manipulation would say agree that this form of observation yields information of questionable usefulness. Those who approach observation as an unstructured activity would disagree and say that exploratory observation could result in an emerging premise.
You will see observation as the basis for ethnographic inquiry. David Fetterman has a small volume (Ethnography: Step by step) published by Sage that explains how ethnography is used in field work. Take simple ethnography a step up and one can read about meta-ethnography by George W. Noblit and R. Dwight Hare. I think my anthropology friends would say that observation is a tool used extensively by anthropologists. It is a tool that can be used by evaluators as well.