In This Article Sense-Making/Sensemaking

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Communication Sense-Making/Sensemaking
Louisa Mei Chun Lam, Christine Urquhart, Brenda L. Dervin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • 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 two different terms are used deliberately by their authors with their spelling variations 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. However, because the different streams of attention differ in so many ways (e.g., context, informants, methods, intended audiences, etc.), comparisons are not possible beyond those presented briefly here. 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.

General Overviews

Dervin and Naumer 2009 and Dervin and Naumer 2010 provide an overview of these five sensemaking theories. Lam 2014 systematically compares the theories of Dervin, Weick, and Snowden with a focus on knowledge creation, sharing, and utilization. Browning and Boudès 2005 provides a closer look at the models of Weick and Snowden. The authors focus on narrative as a sensemaking response to complexity.

  • Browning, L., and T. 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.

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    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 S. W. Littlejohn and K. A. Foss, 877–881. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    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 M. J. Bates and M. N. Maack, 4696–4707. Bora Raton, FL: CRC.

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    Studies sense-making from the perspective of user-oriented information behaviors and categorize 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 HCI, and Klein’s in cognitive systems engineering. Reviews historical and methodological roots and application contexts of these theories.

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

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    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.

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