Sense-Making Methodology Reader

This week’s reading reflection will cover a book that has been on my list for a long time: Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology Reader. During my preparation for this blog, I realized that I hadn’t yet gone into much of the existing sense-making literature. I’ve been using Snowden’s definition of sense-making: getting a better understanding of the world in order to take action. This definition is workable for presenting the basic sense-making approach to audiences during public events, but doesn’t say much about the underlying theoretical and methodological approach. While reading Dervin’s work, I paid special attention to the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings and insight into the methodology itself. 

Intro to Sense-Making

Dervin comes from the field of communication. Her Sense-Making methodology arises from a critique of her field’s approach to researching information campaigns. The basic story of Dervin’s critique goes like this: communications theory was developed to help those running information campaigns (often strong institutions, elites, or politicians) to better spread their message. The goal is successful transmission of information to achieve impact. This assumes that information is a thing that can be dumped into peoples heads and also implies action. If the information is not received well or people don’t act on it, then the problem is said to be in the receiver rather than the sender. In that sense, communications theory had reified inequality by continually forcing narratives on people rather than asking them to describe their situation, develop an understanding of what their context changes their perceptions on the information needed for action, and changing communication strategy accordingly. 

Dervin’s Sense-Making approach is built on the idea of gap theory. Dervin summarizes a “basic premise of the Sense-Making approach: people seek external input (i.e. information) to help them fill the gaps they see in their understanding of their worlds. Based on this thinking, a core element of the Sense-Making approach is to ask respondents what questions they had about situations, what understandings they saw self as needing, what they needed to make sense out of, find out, learn, or unconfuse.”[1] The central concepts behind this approach are: time, space, movement, gap, power, constraint, and force.[2]

The philosophical points are something that I will likely pick up later when I establish the ‘first principles’ from complex adaptive systems theory that will inform decision-making process through my practice with SenseMaker. 


The most important intersection with my current work is Dervin’s Sense-Making methodology as a set of practices for inquiry. The main method that is included in the Sense-Making Methodology Reader is the Micro-Moment Timeline. Rather than beginning with the message and asking people to confirm if they received and used the information, the Micro-Moment Timeline starts by asking about a situation relevant to the person’s life. The goal is to gather the material for a ‘Sense-Making Triangle” that consists of three aspects: situation, gap, use or helps. Dervin summarizes: “individual use of information and information systems is responsive to situational conditions as defined by that individual.”[3]

For example, Dervin completed a study about a clinic. The interview technique began by asking the person what happened when they arrived at the clinic, and followed up through a series of “and then what happened?” After constructing the timeline, Dervin establishes gaps- the question or concern that requires additional information for the person to achieve their goals- by asking questions like: What questions arose at this step? What Thoughts? What feels? What emotions?[4]

Next, the final leg of the Sense-Making triangle is completed by asking about what led to the question, what aspects were at play, and if the situation was resolved. Dervin then quantifies this narrative material through a pre-determined coding scheme of “Sense-Making movement states.” [5] The movement states form a table that includes items like decisions, waiting around, barriers on one axis (the gap) and items like “got skills,” “able to plan,” “kept going” on the other. This produces an evaluation of how situations and context change the information that is needed to achieve goals. It uses the narrative material about the situation as the starting point but provides tight theoretical constraints on the types of gaps and the activities necessary to bridge them. 

Through this dialogical process, the researcher is giving the interviewee an opportunity to voice what is important to them and why rather than trying to impose an artificial view of what should be important to them in the eyes of the institution doing the research. The goal of the researcher is to “invite and assist the other in describing that world as much as possible entirely in the context of his or her own experiences, understandings, and meanings.”[6] The key is staying open enough at the beginning to avoid framing the problem wrong from the start and producing nonsensical (or neo-colonial) solutions as a result. 

One of my favorite quotes is when Dervin drives this point home: 

“One begins to understand that much of the social sciences is based on mythical data collected by asking people to care about and make sense of things that have nothing to do with their own lives as they see them. (p.11)”[7]

Dervin (1979)

Impact on my work

As you’ve likely read in other blogs by now, I implement a sense-making approach powered by SenseMaker. A SenseMaker survey begin by asking people to share an experience based on a broad prompt relevant to the research area and then the respondent adds additional layers of meaning to the experience by answering a survey with triangle questions, dyads, ‘stones’ canvases, and multiple choice questions. Dervin’s work helped me to recognize the initial importance of starting with the prompt that elicits an experience rather than an evaluation or an opinion. I also see how some of the quantitative dimensions in the SenseMaker design (triads as compositional data, multiple choice questions tallies etc) are ways to get the respondent to signify their experience as Dervin would do through her “Sense-Making Situation States” table. 

As I’m working on the design for the SenseMaker instrument that will be used for conflict resolution in the United States, I’m going to revisit some of Dervin’s categories for Situation States, because they nicely relate to decision-making support and action. After all, the goal of building a complexity-informed conflict resolution approach with SenseMaker is to empower people to take action by asking themselves “what can I do tomorrow to create more stories like the ones I want to see, and fewer stories like the ones that I don’t?” One of the things that I’ve noticed is that the SenseMaker design must include questions that allow people to quickly make that connection between context and action. Designs that ask people to signify their experience based on concepts that are not actionable struggle in the intervention phase of the sensemaking cycle (I like to use Kurtz’ participatory narrative inquiry process here). Dervin’s work shows some practical ways to achieve that. 

All in all, this book gave me insight into: 

  • The importance of establishing a dialogue in the process rather than trying to get a single point across
  • Recognizing that people seek out information when it is useful to them
  • Sitting in the middle of modernist/ postmodernist philosophical stances through mixed methods
  • Arguments for why a Sense-Making method challenges power structures and increases equity.

I’m sure that I’ll return to this book frequently in my studies- there is a lot more to unpack that will not make it in this week’s blog! 

Dervin’s Sense-Making Model (p. 238)


There are two Carter School Peace Engineering Lab events that you should sign up for this semester: 

April 15th: Stories from the Field: Complexity and Post-Conflict Reconstruction

This event features Graham Day- an ex UN official and SenseMaker practitioner. It will be a great conversation about how complexity can be a game changer in the field. 

April 22ndPeace Engineering Roundtable: How Technology Can Prevent Conflict and Spur Peacebuilding

This event hosted by Dean Alpaslan Ozerdem will showcase how we are using technology for Peace Engineering.

Register and I’ll see you there!

[1] Brenda Dervin, Lois Foreman-Wernet, and Eric Lauterbach, eds., Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected Writings of Brenda Dervin (Hampton Pr, 2003). 204.

[2] Dervin, Foreman-Wernet, and Lauterbach. 155.

[3] Dervin, Foreman-Wernet, and Lauterbach. 275.

[4] Dervin, Foreman-Wernet, and Lauterbach. 241.

[5] Dervin, Foreman-Wernet, and Lauterbach. 262.

[6] Dervin, Foreman-Wernet, and Lauterbach. 237.

[7] Dervin, Foreman-Wernet, and Lauterbach. 36.