In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sense-Making/Sensemaking

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Communication Sense-Making/Sensemaking
Christine Urquhart, Louisa Mei Chun Lam, Bonnie Cheuk, Brenda L. Dervin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0112


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: Methodology, Daniel Russell: Sensemaking and Searching: Philosophy and Methodology, Gary Klein: Sensemaking in Cognitive Systems Engineering: Application).

General Overviews

Dervin and Naumer 2009 and Dervin and Naumer 2010 provide overviews of these five sensemaking theories of Dervin, Weick, Snowden, Russell, and Klein, and Golob 2018 provides an update. Kolko 2010 provides a theory-based comparison of the five sensemaking approaches in the context of system design. Lam 2014 systematically compares the theories of Dervin, Weick, and Snowden, examining knowledge creation, sharing, and utilization. Browning and Boudès 2005 focuses on narrative in comparing the models of Weick and Snowden. Maitlis and Christianson 2014 reviews research on sensemaking as a process in organizations. Reviews emphasize the need for meta-synthesis of research: Urquhart 2011 discusses the process of meta-synthesis for information behavior research and Ward, et al. 2018 provides a critical interpretive synthesis of research on adaptation and skill that uses Klein’s later models of sensemaking.

  • Browning, Larry, and Thierry Boudès. 2005. The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity: A comparative analysis of the Cynefin and Weickian models. Emergence: Complexity & Organization 7.3–4: 32–39.

    With the purpose of comparing how Weick and Snowden approach narrative and complexity, Browning and Boudès summarize their commonalities in eight statements after discussing the differences in their historical, cultural, and pedagogical approaches to complexity. The paper concludes with three essential features of narrative and complexity derived from the study.

  • Dervin, Brenda, and Charles M. Naumer. 2009. Sense-making. In Encyclopedia of communication theory. Vol. 2. Edited by Stephen. W. Littlejohn and Karen. A. Foss, 877–881. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Dervin and Naumer briefly review the five theories (Dervin, Weick, Snowden, Russell, and Klein), identifying implications for communication researchers.

  • Dervin, Brenda, and Charles M. Naumer. 2010. Sense-making. In Encyclopedia of library and information sciences. 3d ed. Edited by Marcia J. Bates and Mary N. Maack, 4696–4707. Bora Raton, FL: CRC Press.

    Studies sense-making from the perspective of user-oriented information behaviors and categorizes five sense-making theories into four fields: Dervin’s in library and information science, Weick’s and Snowden’s in organizational communication, Russell’s in human-computer interaction (HCI), and Klein’s in cognitive systems engineering. Reviews historical and methodological roots and application contexts of these theories.

  • Golob, Urša. 2018. Sense-making. In The international encyclopedia of strategic communication. Edited by Robert L. Heath and Winni Johansen. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    This encyclopedia review draws on five authors—Dervin, Klein, Russell, Snowden, Weick—regularly named as sources for conceptualizing and studying a phenomenon they variously term sensemaking, sense making, or sense-making. Golob emphasizes that the concept of sense-making is popular, often employed without clear definition, and she considers its complexity and ambiguity, both in ontological and epistemological terms. Focuses on extracting common features across perspectives.

  • Kolko, Jon. 2010. Sensemaking and framing: A theoretical reflection on perspective in design synthesis. Paper presented at the 2010 Design Research Society international conference on Design & Complexity, Montreal, 7–9 July 2010.

    Drawing on Dervin, Klein, Russell, Snowden, and Weick, Kolko provides a theoretical reflection on the relationship between design synthesis, sensemaking/sense-making, and framing. The reflection is based on professional practice and design consultancy and attempts to bring to bear research from different disciplines to what many designers feel is the necessity of applying intuitive abilities to find meaning and solutions in complex situations. This approach begins to illustrate how design solutions are deeply embedded in the culture of the designers themselves.

  • Lam, Louisa Mei Chun. 2014. A micro-macro sense-making model for knowledge creation and utilization in healthcare organizations. PhD diss., Aberystwyth Univ.

    Lam compares differences and commonalities of Dervin’s, Weick’s, and Snowden’s theories in philosophical origins; views on knowledge creation situations; the nature of knowledge and knowing; verbing and a process approach toward knowledge creation; the importance of dialogue and narratives in knowledge creation; and approaches to individual and organizational sense-making.

  • Maitlis, Sally, and Marlys Christianson. 2014. Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. Academy of Management Annals 8.1: 57–125.

    Examines research on sensemaking in organizations, how events become triggers for sensemaking, how intersubjective meaning is constructed, and the role of action in sensemaking. Considers sensemaking as a process; compares definitions of sensemaking, sensebreaking, and sensegiving; and discusses theoretical and methodological opportunities, for example, embodiment and sociomateriality and collaborative sensemaking (see Participatory Sensemaking and Social Cognition).

  • Urquhart, Christine. 2011. Meta-synthesis of research on information seeking behavior. Information Research 16.1: 455.

    Examines the theoretical research strategies commonly used in information behavior research and discusses the type of meta-synthesis methods that might therefore be appropriate. Concludes that meta-ethnography and critical interpretative synthesis would be applicable.

  • Ward, Paul, Julie Gore, Robert Hutton, Gareth E. Conway, and Robert R. Hoffman. 2018. Adaptive skills and the conditio sine qua non of expertise. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 7.1: 35–50.

    Considers an integrated data-frame and flexible execution model of adaptive skill that merges Klein’s data-frame model of sensemaking and Klein’s flexecution model of adaptive re-planning (see Gary Klein: Sensemaking in Cognitive Systems Engineering: Philosophy and Methodology). Proposes six adaptive skill training principles (project for UK Ministry of Defence).

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