Applying Sense-Making Theory and Methods to DL User Studies: Working Through a Design and Implementation

Several of you have asked how I plan to approach the workshop, and for some background reading. So, here goes:

The first 30 minutes will be spent on a very speedy overview of Sense-Making as an approach. My focus in the overview will be placed on how all research decisions -- regarding meta-theory (i.e. philosophy), substantive theory (i.e. propositional statements regarding nature of phenomena), methodology (i.e. theory of method), methods (i.e. step-taking procedures), and practice (i.e. applications) -- are intertwined and on how Sense-Making as an approach has struggled with such issues as:

The remaining 90 minutes will be spent working through one or more research applications. So come prepared with specific research questions.

I am zapping into this message below a very brief introduction to Sense-Making. In addition, you can obtain the papers listed below.

Some of you may wish to browse. I am providing a few notes after each citation so you can pick and choose what might be helpful. Caution: the versions being transmitted are close to but not equal to published or original versions so if you want the complete/final version you can ask me and I'll bring a copy to Allerton with me. Readers tell me that papers #4 and #5 in particular are "challenging" [this may or may not be a compliment : }] but they are the most up-to-date.

  1. Dervin, Brenda. An overview of sense-making research: concepts, methods, and results to date. Paper delivered at International Communication Association meeting, May 1983.
    This is an early overview. It is shallow on philosophy but provides a reasonably complete overview of the various methods developed to implement the approach as of 1983. It is out-of-date but many readers find it a good place to start.

  2. Dervin, Brenda. From the mind's eye of the user: the sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In Jack D. Glazier and Ronald R. Powell, QUALITATIVE RESEARCH IN INFORMATION MANAGEMENT. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1992, pp. 61-84.
    Written specifically for the library and information science fields, this is a briefer but more up-to-date version of 1983a covering meta-theory, substantive theory, methodology, methods, and application to practice.

  3. Dervin, Brenda. Verbing communication: mandate for disciplinaty invention. JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION, Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 45-54.
    This is a philosophic argument for attending to what I call the "in between" -- the verbings by which (for example) users connect with systems and vice versa.

  4. Dervin, Brenda. Given a context by any other name: Methodological tools for taming the unruly beast. Keynote address at ISIC 96 -- Conference on Information Needs, Seeking, and Use in Different Contexts, Department of Information Studies, University of Tampere and Finnish Association of Library and Information Science, August 14-17, 1996. To be published 1997 in book based on conference proceedings. While this paper does not talk about Sense-Making as such, it provides probably the most extensive treatment of some of the philsoophic and theoretic assumptions which guide Sense-Making.

  5. Dervin, Brenda (labeled Dervin96g). Chaos, order, and Sense-Making: A proposed theory for information design. In Jacobson, Robert, ed., INFORMATION DESIGN. Cambridge, MIT Press, in press.
    The most up-to-date, albeit very brief, version of 1993a and 1992a.


Draft statement by Brenda Dervin, November 1995

* The Sense-Making approach -- in my recent work I am beginning to capitalize the approach and use lower-case letters for the phenomenon -- is in actuality a set of assumptions, a theoretic perspective, a methodological approach, and a set of methods developed to assess how patients/audiences/users/clients/citizens make sense of their intersections with institutions, media, messages, and situations. The phenomena of Sense-Making's interest is sense-making, defined broadly in terms of set of ontological and epistemological assumptions as well as a theory of the subject. These will be described in more detail below.

* The approach has been developed by Brenda Dervin and her colleagues. The approach has been widely applied [some 450 citations in SOCIAL SCIENCE CITATION INDEX as of July 1994] in both the various communication fields and the information and library science fields and has been cited as well in a variety of other fields: primarily, social work, education, psychology. The approach has been applied both in quantitative studies with sample ns as large as 1000 and in qualitative studies with ns as small as 20. The most recent published empirical application is Shields et al 1993, an assessment of the communication needs and evaluations of a large sample of phone users. The most recent published theoretic pieces include Dervin 1994 (an examination of assumptions underlying our treatments of the concept of information, in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science) and Dervin 1993 (a call for moving our study from nouns to verbs in Journal of Communication. The approach has been applied to a variety of contexts (political, everyday information seeking, health communication, organizational images, audience reception) at a variety of analytic levels (e.g. individual, group, organization, community, culture). Dervin has supervised recent dissertations which have applied the approach to: feminist scholarship, media literacy and pedagogy, public access issues, British cultural studies audience reception research, and telecommunication policy. One of the arenas in which Dervin's work has been most often applied is health communication with papers on this topic winning three top papers awards in 1980 and 1981 from the International Communication Association .

* 22 years in development, Sense-Making consists of a cohesive set of assumptions implemented in theory, methodology, and method. The three core assumptions include: *an acceptance of epistemological incompleteness; *an acceptance of ontological incompleteness; and *an acceptance of a rich and comprehensive theory of the subject. Each of these will be addressed briefly below.

* Epistemological incompleteness is, of course, a common assumption of virtually every mode of theorizing in the social sciences today. In a sense, it may be said that Dervin starts with the assumptions of phenomenology -- that the actor is inherently involved in her observations and it is from her perspectives and horizons that observations must be understood. What differs in Dervin's formulation is her explicit acceptance of ontological incompleteness. In doing this, Dervin posits that it is a stronger position methodologically to attend to ontological assumptions rather than bracket them, or set them aside, as is most common. Dervin attends to ontology by assuming a reality that is in part patterned and in part chaotic. She then brings this together with epistemology by asserting that given an incomplete ontology AND an incomplete epistemology, we arrive at an uncompromising species problematic -- the assumption that Sense-Making makes regarding persistent gaps in existence, between self at time 1 and time 2, between person 1 and person 2, between person and society, organization and organization, etc. From this, Sense-Making extracts two mandates for the species: one is to make sense without complete instruction in a reality which is itself in flux and requires continued sense-making; the second to reach out to understand the sense made by others for the help it provides in a continuing species problematic. Dervin emphasizes the importance of the latter assumption in particular for it is not rooted (as most calls for understanding difference are) only in a relativistic epistemology, rather it is rooted in an assumption that humans must muddle through together, and the tools they have which assume an ordered reality are useful only to a portion of their sense-making mandates.

* Setting this within the common polarities of social theorizing today, what Dervin explicitly does is enter the research situation in what she calls the "in between", between order and chaos, structure and individual, culture and person, self 1 and self 2, etc.. Sense-Making focuses on how humans make and unmake, develop, maintain, resist, destroy, and change order, structure, culture, organization, self.

* The Sense-Making theoretic assumptions are implemented in method via a core methodolgocal metaphor -- the Sense-Making triangle -- which pictures the human moving through time-space bridging gaps and moving on. Sense-Making thus mandates theorizing based on concepts relating to time, space, movement, and gap. The metaphor of situation-gap-bridge-use/help forms the foundation of all Sense-Making's methods including its analytics. It is important to note here that the metaphor is highly abstract and does not assume purposive or linear movement, these being only among the set of human possibilities. Further, the situation-gap constructs have embedded in them concepts of history, constraint, structure, etc.

* Sense-Making also rests on a theory of the subject which is consonant with its ontological and epistemological assumptions: the human is conceptualized as centered and decentered; ordered and chaotic; cognitive, physical, spiritual, and emotional, differing potentially across time and across space. One way in which S-M differs markedly from other approaches is that it explicitly privileges the respondent as at least in part a social theorist.....

* The Sense-Making approach is implemented in the interview in a number of alternative ways, ranging from in-depth interviews lasting from 1-2 hours and up to 6 hours to brief interviews lasting 20-30 minutes. The foundational interviewing approach, the one most aligned with Sense-Making's theory, is caslled the micro-moment time-line interview. In this approach the respondent is asked to describe one or more critical situations in detail first in terms of what happened first, second, third, and so on. Then for each time-line event, the respondent is asked to describe the situation in more detail in terms of barriers, constraints, helps, questions and confusions (information needs), emotions and feelings, ideas created, sources of help, how ideas/resources/sources/etc helped and/or hurt, and so on.Since Sense-Making only provides a theory of the interview and not a recipe, actual implementation can take on myriad forms depending on the study purpose (e.g. needs assessment, evaluation, audience reception, etc.). Alternative approaches have the respondent detail the basic time-line and then choose the most important event, or question, or contact, etc. depending on study purpose.

* While Sense-Making relies heavily on concepts of time, space, movement, and gap, it must be emphasized that these are not set forth as if sense-making was a purposive, linear, problem-solving activity. These are again only a sub-set of the human possibilities. The Sense-Making metaphor must be understood as a highly abstract framework. Likewise, too, while Sense-Making focuses on the human individual, it does not rest on an individualistic theory of human action. Rather, it assumes that structure, culture, community, organization are created, maintained, reified, challenged, changed, resisted, and destroyed IN COMMUNICATION and can only be understood by focusing on the individual-in-context, including social context. Note, however, that this is not the same as saying the only way to look at the individual is through the lens of social context because this kind of theorizing implies the individual is entirely constrained or defined by that social context.