Sense Making

Map Location
D, 4
Thread Location
Page 25

Todd Marshall

Agreement Description

“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 (Dervin & Nilan, 1986), and the second is “sensemaking” by Karl E. Weick (Weick, 1995).1 Sensemaking according to Weick will be the adopted approach, but because of the similarity in terminology and to remove the possibility of confusion, Dervin’s approach deserves a brief overview first.

Dervin’s Sense-Making focuses on the individual as he or she 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 (Dervin, 1999). 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, Weick focuses on multiple people working together to make sense. Although this contrast between the group and the individual is significant, Dervin’s approach has the same philosophical roots as Weick’s. Dervin (1999) states: “I have described Sense-Making as a constructivist approach, while now I describe it as post-constructivist, or postmodern modernist” (p. 730). Although Weick and Dervin have both been associated with constructivism, Dervin does not directly link Weick’s sensemaking with her own Sense-Making but as one of many “parallel approaches” (Dervin et al., 2005).

There are many uses of the term sense making as phenomena in the literature (spelled myriad different ways) which have no relationship to Sense Making Methodology. For example Weick’s (Weick, 1995) Sensemaking in organizations looking at organizational life by examining the phenomenon [of ] sensemaking. (Dervin, 1999, p. 729)

Although Dervin does not link Weick to her work, they both follow a constructivist approach. This is demonstrated especially by Weick’s conceptualization of equivocality (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001, p. 10). In contrast to Dervin, Weick’s major works do cite Dervin or trace his conceptualizations to her work (Weick, 1969, 1993, 1995, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007; Weick & Roberts, 1993; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005; Wenger, 1999, 2001, 2005a, 2005b; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002; Wenger & Snyder, 2000; Wenger, White, Smith, & Rowe, 2005). There are other constructivist approaches that one could consider, such as Habermas. However, as one researcher under the supervision of Brenda Dervin stated: “I suggest that current theory based upon Habermas’ theories of communicative action and the public sphere may be too limited for describing grounded communicative practice within online environments” (Schaefer, 2001, p. ii). In summary, Weick’s view of sensemaking as a group activity is more relevant for library communities than Dervin’s monadic approach, which focuses on individual Sense- Making. Therefore, the discussion now focuses on Weick.

The theoretical framework for the organizational perspective of this study will be that of sensemaking as described by Karl E. Weick in Sensemaking in Organizations (Weick, 1995) and Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001). These works were foreshadowed in his first book,The Social Psychology of Organizing (Weick, 1969). Sensemaking had its foundations in several significant case studies where Weick investigated complex situations to understand how human beings tried to make sense out of seemingly contradictory information. The majority of Weick’s work was in “public sector organizations,” with only a few in “commercial” organizations (Weick, 2006, p. 1733). Unfortunately, he has not written about the nonprofit sector or libraries. Two significant examples of his approach are studies of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier (Weick & Roberts, 1993) and a firefighting disaster (Weick, 1993). Sensemaking does not have a strict definition per se, but here are several examples from Weick.

The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs. (Weick, 1993, p. 635)
Sensemaking is about the enlargement of small cues. It is a search for contexts within which small details fit together and make sense. It is people interacting to flesh out hunches. It is a continuous alternation between particulars and explanations with each cycle giving added form and substance to the other. (Weick, 1995, p. 133)
To talk about sensemaking is to talk about reality as an ongoing accomplishment that takes form when people make retrospective sense of the situations in which they find themselves and their creations. There is a strong reflexive quality to this process. People make sense of things by seeing a world on which they already imposed what they believe. In other words, people discover their own inventions. This is why sensemaking can be understood as invention and interpretations understood as discovery. These are complementary ideas. If sensemaking is viewed as an act of invention, then it is also possible to argue that the artifacts it produces include language games and texts. (Weick, 1995, p. 15)
Sensemaking is about authoring as well as interpretation, creation as well as discovery. (Weick, 1995, p. 8) Organizational sensemaking is first and foremost about the question: How does something come to be an event for organizational members? Second, sensemaking is about the question: What does the event mean? (Weick et al., 2005, p. 410)

The constructivism is in part revealed in Weick by his emphasis on using gerunds as opposed to nouns (Gioia, 2006) and not using the term “is” but rather by giving descriptive statements about something or someone (Weick, 2007). Describing Weick’s perspective, Dervin says: “There is no such thing as organization. There is only organizing” (Dervin, 2003, p. 116). The point in both cases is to move away from viewing reality as a collection of static, fixed entities (nouns) to viewing reality as ever-changing entities. “It is about the ‘process of becoming’ rather than the ‘states of being’ ” (Gioia, 2006, p. 1711). “Now when you think in terms of verbs and gerunds, it changes the way you talk about and understand phenomena. … The conversation changes when you emphasize verbs and gerunds. And that’s one of the main reasons why, when you take a ‘Weickian’ view, you cannot help but see things differently” (Gioia, 2006, p. 1711).

These descriptions of sensemaking speak of creation, sharing, interacting, cyclical activity, and people engaging each other to create a better understanding of their world and their work. Weick identifies seven distinguishing characteristics of the sensemaking process:

1. Grounded in identity construction
2. Retrospective
3. Enactive of sensible environments
4. Social
5. Ongoing
6. Focused on and by extracted cues
7. Driven by plausibility rather than accuracy (Weick, 1995, p. 17)

Having provided a brief overview of sensemaking, it’s time to examine the constituent parts of sensemaking.

Identity Construction

The issue of identity begins with Weick’s iconic question: “How can I know what I think until I see what I say” (1995)? In this statement, all four pronouns are all “I.” Sensemaking begins with the individual and the sense that the individual makes of a situation.2 This discussion with one’s self is the first step that then allows one to make sense with others. Sensemaking is a complex process by which the individual, through interaction with self and others, defines the self. “The trap is that the sensemaker is singular and no individual ever acts like a single sensemaker. Instead, any one sensemaker is, in Mead’s (1934) words, ‘a parliament of selves’ ” (Weick, 1995, p. 18). This follows the logic of Pask and conversation theory as described in the Thread on conversation. This is the conversation with self. Likewise quoting Knorr-Cetina (1981, p. 10), Weick identifies with the understanding that “the individual is a typified discursive construction” (Weick, 1995, p. 20). Even when individuals are “alone,” they are engaging themselves because every individual is a collection of selves. In other words, no individual is truly a lone sensemaker. Although this may seem to simply lead to schizophrenia, the “more selves I have access to, the more meanings I should be able to extract and impose in any situation,” and “the less the likelihood that I will every find myself surprised” (Weick, 1995, p. 24). “Thus, identities specify relationships that are central to the social nature of sensemaking among diverse actors” (Weber & Glynn, 2006, p. 1646). Identity construction is about making sense of the entities, individuals, and organizations in the sensemaking situation. These identities are constructed by looking back on what has been said, as the initial questions implies. There can be no sense before the conversing begins. In Weick’s terminology, this aspect of sensemaking is retrospective.


Sensemaking is ongoing and retrospective, making sense of what has happened (Gioia, 2006; Weber & Glynn, 2006; Weick, 1995). It is not a prospective activity. Individuals make sense of what people have said and done and therefore cannot make sense about what has not yet been said or done (i.e., the future). “Sensemaking involves the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalized what people are doing” (Weick et al., 2005, p. 409). In summary, individuals consider and contemplate the conversations, artifacts, and happenings and try to make sense of them. It is the process of attending to that which has occurred, looking back from the now to the past, recognizing that it is subject to the fallibility of memory, and can be very misleading (Weick, 1995). Although this process may seem hopeless, humans are nevertheless able to navigate the world despite the weakness of the incompleteness of the individual’s ability to understand what has happened. This leads to the need for other voices to assist in sensemaking as described above. The “more selves I have access to, the more meanings I should be able to extract and impose in any situation” and “the less the likelihood that I will every find myself surprised” (Weick, 1995, p. 24).

Enactive of Sensible Environments

Sensemaking is a combination of “action and cognition together” (Weick, 1995). Weick refers to this as “enactment.” This speaks to the fact that individuals participate in their environment. As they are creating their environment, they are also making sense of it. People are making sense of dynamic environments “not some kind of monolithic, singular, fixed environment that exists detached from and external to those people” (Weick, 1995, p. 31). The individual is part of the environment through the process of co-constructing it with fellow sensemakers. This is why sensemaking is not just interpretation. Interpretation is about reading a “text.” Sensemaking involves not only understanding the text but also creating the text.

Enactment is the stubborn insistence that people act in order to develop a sense of what they should do next. Enactment is about two questions: What’s the story? Now what? When people act in order to answer these questions, their acting typically codetermines the answer (Weick, 2003). Sensemaking is not simply interpretation because it also includes “the ways people generate what they interpret” (Weick, 1995, p. 13). The sensemaker makes the environment, and the environment makes the sensemaker. From this perspective, individuals can never fully be neutral or objective about themselves or their sensemaking process. “If this is ontological oscillation, so be it. It seems to work” (Weick, 1995).


Sensemaking is “both an individual and social activity,” and it is unclear whether these are separable because this activity is “a durable tension in the human condition” (Weick, 1995, p. 6). It is an individual and a collective process at the same time. Sensemaking recognizes that “the social context is crucial … because it binds people to actions that they then must justify, it affects the saliency of information, and it provides norms and expectations that constrain explanations” (Weick, 1995, p. 53). As Weick says, “Sense may be in the eye of the beholder, but beholders vote and the majority rules” (Weick, 1995, p. 6). “What is especially interesting is that she tries to make sense of how other people make sense of things, a complex determination that is routine in organizational life” (Weick et al., 2005, p. 413). This is essentially second-order cybernetic systems as described by Pask, systems of observing systems (Pask, 1975a, 1975b, 1976). This is the individual conversing with self about the conversing of others. In every case, conversation is at least dyadic because two or more parties are involved. From this perspective, sensemaking is most significant (as opposed to Dervin) for the organizational context that affects the sensemaking process in the library. The organization or library affects sensemaking because: “(1) institutions prime sensemaking by providing social clues; (2) institutions edit sensemaking through social feedback processes; (3) institutions trigger sensemaking, posing puzzles for sensemaking through endogenous institutional contradiction and ambivalence” (Weber & Glynn, 2006, p. 1648). Because libraries consist of individuals who are constantly making new “sense” of their situations, the whole process is ongoing. This takes place in the context of the library among its staff, members, and other stakeholders.


“Sensemaking never starts. The reason it never starts is that pure duration never stops” (Weick, 2006, p. 43). The sensemaker can only live in the here and the now. For the sensemaker, the “now” never really began, and as long as there is consciousness, it never really ends. One is always in the process of making sense. From this standpoint, sensemaking has no past tense. People were making sense, are making sense, and will be making sense but have never totally made sense of something. “Sensemaking is clearly about an activity or a process…” and not just an outcome (Weick, 1995, p. 13). As people are making sense, there are always new stimuli that affect the process and the sense. “The contrast between discovery and invention is implicit in the word sense. To sense something sounds like an act of discovery. But to sense something, there must be something there to create the sensation. And sensemaking suggest the construction of that which then becomes sensible” (Weick, 1995, p. 14). Although life provides the stimulus for sensemaking, the reason that sense must be made is because there is a continual gap, problem, or cognitive dissonance. As Weick says, “My one contact with the real seems to have been my dissertation in 1961 on cognitive dissonance” (Weick, 2006, p. 1734). That is, “the interruption, the inconsistent, the inexplicable,” which causes one to have to make sense of the situation (Weick, 2006, p. 1734). Because this dissonance is a recurring event, it leads to a “reciprocal interaction of information seeking, meaning ascription, and action” (Thomas, Clark, & Gioia, 1993, p. 240). Problems are “constructed from the materials of problematic situation which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain” (Weick, 1995, p. 9). For the sensemaker to resolve the dissonance or problematic situation, he or she will look for clues in the environmental context as part of the sensemaking process. This is a continuing process because the problems forever present as long as there is movement through time and space.

Focused on and by Extracted Cues

When applying sensemaking, it is essential to look not at the act of deciding itself but the circumstance or context that resulted in that action. Understanding the contextual circumstances leads one to asking “how” the situation came to be rather than “why” a decision was made (Weick et al., 2005). This will help identify the clues that informed the sensemaking process. The context not only provides the cues, it contains the patterns of cue usage. The organizational culture may emphasize certain sources for cues and ignore others. In this way, the organization tells the sensemaker where to look for cues. In Wenger’s terms, the sources of cue location are the result of reification as patterns are built through participation. To put it another way, “the social context is crucial for sensemaking because it binds people to actions that they then must justify, that constrain explanations” (Weick, 1995, p. 53). The context helps one determine where people are directing the focus of their intention, where the cues are coming from. In the library, these clues are created through classification schemes, signage, metadata, library catalogs, and all the other means that libraries use to guide, direct, and instruct their members.

Plausibility over Accuracy

When looking at the sensemaking process from extracted clues, one must remember that “sensemaking is driven by plausibility rather than accuracy” (Bansler & Havn, 2006, p. 61). Accuracy is secondary to plausibility for several reasons. First, people are constantly filtering the cues that affect their decision making. Next, people tend to link present cues with previous cues and build present sense on sense made in the past. Third, people often lack the time necessary for accuracy before they act. Their sense just needs to be good enough for the next step. Finally, accuracy is more relevant for short durations and for specific questions than for global circumstances (Weick, 1995). In short, the explanation of the sensemaking process must “make sense” not necessarily “be accurate.”

Sensemaking is about accounts that are socially acceptable and credible…. It would be nice if these acceptable accounts were also accurate. But in an equivocal, postmodern world, infused with the politics of interpretation and conflicting interests and inhabited by people with multiple shifting identities, an obsession with accuracy seems fruitless, and not of much practical help either. (Weick, 1995, p. 61)

While sensemaking, people “read into things the meanings they wish to see; they vest objects, utterances, actions and so forth with subjective meaning which helps make their world intelligible to themselves” (Frost & Morgan, 1983). When people are sensemaking, they are not striving for accuracy but rather plausibility and sense. If it seems plausible and is sufficient to provide the necessary meaning to take the next step, that is accurate enough for the person to act. Whether that is the “correct action” is a separate question. This was seen in the Mann Gulch fire. One plan of escape made sense to most of the firefighters. Although the plan for escape made sense to them, it was inaccurate and led to their deaths. The accurate plan did not make sense. This is a prime example of individuals acting on sensibility, what makes sense, instead of accuracy (Weick, 1993). So, when trying to understand what happened, one must consider what was plausible to the sensemakers even if their sense was or is inaccurate.


Sensemaking in organizations and libraries is an ongoing process that never begins and does not end as long as the organization continues. “First, sensemaking occurs when a flow of organizational circumstances is turned into words and salient categories. Second, organizing itself is embodied in written and spoken texts. Third, reading, writing, conversing and editing are crucial actions that serve as the media through which the invisible hand of institutions shapes conduct …” (Weick et al., 2005, p. 409).

Through this process of sensemaking, decisions are made leading to behavior. However, sensemaking and decision making are not the same. The difference between decision making and sensemaking is that “the former prompts us to blame bad actors who make bad choices while the latter focuses instead on good people struggling to make sense of a complex situation” (Eisenberg, 2006, p. 1699). The goal of the library then should be to help the member make sense of the resources that the library contains, whether those resources are human, digital, or artifactual. This is an ongoing process that never ceases and requires conversing among all the library stakeholders. The requires librarians to embrace this dynamic, conversational process and understand that librarianship is about facilitating sensemaking and not about achieving a static state where every item finally has “the right label” and is “in the right place.”


1. Because the wording of Dervin and Weick’s terminology are so close, “Sense-Making” will be used when referring to Dervin’s concept and “sensemaking” will be used with referring to Weick’s concept. This follows each authors’ conventions.

2. While this may parallel Dervin’s idea, Weick does not relate this to her work.
While the reader may see the similarity between Sense Making and sensemaking, this
discussion will not pursue this line of reasoning since Dervin and Weick themselves
do not.

Related Artifacts

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Dervin, B. (2003). Given a context by any other name: Methodological tools for taming the unruly beast. In B. Dervin, L. Foreman-Wernet, & E. Lauterbach (Eds.), Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin (pp. 111–132). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Dervin, B., Fisher, K. E., Durrance, J., Ross, C., Savolainen, R., & Solomon, P. (2005). Reports of the demise of the “user” have been greatly exaggerated: Dervin’s sense-making and the methodological resuscitation of the user-looking backwards, looking forward.Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 42(1).

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One response on “Sense Making

  1. Craig T Smith

    Your summary of Sensemaking is outstanding. I have been struggling to get to get to grips with Weick’s writing style. Your excellent narrative provided me with a key into his world and will make my journey much easier than it would have been, Th Aha moment was the quote about Weik being more concerned with becoming than being.
    I have just been reading a book by Andrew Pickering – The Cybernetic Brain. He puts forward an argument to revisit the British Cybernetic movement. He advocates a more careful study of their Non- Modernist Ontology – The Ontology of Becoming!.
    Interestingly you reference one of his favourite cyberneticians – Gordon Pask

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