Sense-Making 101 Knowledge Base

“Sense-making” and “Sensemaking”

“Sense-making” and “sensemaking” may be pronounced the same, are almost written the same, and are based on similar constructivist perspectives, but they are not the same. When speaking about individuals making sense of their world and their environment, two prominent ideas lead this discussion. The first is “Sense-Making” as championed by Brenda Dervin … and the second is “sensemaking” by Karl E. Weick. 

Dervin’s Sense-Making focuses on the individual as they moves through time and space. As this happens, gaps are encountered where the individual must “make sense” of the situation to move, physically or cognitively, across the gap. The key components in this process are the situation, gap, and uses. The situation is the context of the user, the gap is that which prevents movement, and the use is the application of the sense that is constructed. In this sense, Dervin’s approach is monadic because it focuses on the individual and the sense that the individual makes as he or she is trying to cross the gap. 

This is in contrast to Weick, who focuses on group sensemaking as at least dyadic but more often triadic or polyadic. In other words, sensemaking focuses on multiple people working together to make sense. 

Weick’s Sensemaking in organizations looking at organizational life by examining the phenomenon of sensemaking.  

Dr. Dervin, Cheuk, Lam, and Urqhart write of the various terms commonly used:

Sense-making/sensemaking are terms commonly understood as the processes through which people interpret and give meaning to their experiences. The three different spelling variations (i.e., sense-making, sensemaking, sense making) are used deliberately by the authors included here, in different academic discourse communities that share some common thrusts. The terms originally focused on the five senses but have expanded in meaning to cover physical, emotional, spiritual, and intuitional responses posited as involved in human sense-makings of their worlds, both internal and external. Since the 1970s, sense-making/sensemaking has been used by researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, with significant applications in the fields of human-computer interaction (HCI), cognitive systems engineering, knowledge management, communication studies, and library/information science (human information behavior).

At the highest level of abstraction, the differences in the underlying theories used by researchers can best be understood in tensions between cognitivist and constructivist strands and the focus on either a micro or macro framework. As the different streams of attention differ in so many ways (e.g., context, informants, methods, intended audiences, etc.), comparisons are difficult. It is necessary to understand the historical origins, philosophical assumptions, and methodological roots of five major research approaches labeled as sense-making or sensemaking: Dervin’s sense-making in user studies, human information behavior; Weick’s sensemaking in organizational communication; Snowden’s organizational sense-making in knowledge management; Russell’s sensemaking in HCI; and Klein’s sensemaking in cognitive systems engineering. Applications of the approaches, emerging perspectives, and uses are reviewed. Applications increasingly merge some sense-making/sensemaking ideas together or use sense-making/sensemaking with other theories (e.g., Brenda Dervin: Sense-Making Methodology: MethodologyDaniel Russell: Sensemaking and Searching: Philosophy and MethodologyGary Klein: Sensemaking in Cognitive Systems Engineering: Application).

David Lankes: Sensemaking (accessed February 2020)