Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sensemaking is a mess. Why?

Sensemaking is perhaps the most ambitious concepts in organization theory. It purports to capture the essential features of individual and social aspects of consciousness and agency. Perhaps due to this ambition in the scope, it seems almost impossible to say what sensemaking exactly is (see Table below for evidence!). Weick’s work often defines sensemaking indirectly as merely ‘involving’, ‘being associated with’, or ‘being about’. Such claims provide a rich and open ended, but unstructured understanding of sensemaking that allows different readings. Sensemaking seems to suffer from almost complete lack of analytical clarity. It is a truly unique perspective even in management theory in this sense.
Selected claims regarding sensemaking in Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, (2005, Organization Science)
# Claim: Sensemaking… Page
1 ...involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard for action. Abstr.
2 ...[has] central role in the determination of human behavior. Abstr.
3 ...[is] primary site where meanings materialize that inform and constrain identity and action[.] Abstr. & 409
4 ...[should become] more future oriented, more action oriented, more macro, more closely tied to organizing, meshed more boldly with identity, more visible, more behaviorally defined, less sedentary and backward looking, more infused with emotion and with issues of sensegiving and persuasion. Abstr.
5 ...involves the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing. 409
6 ...unfolds as a sequence[.] 409
7 ...[involves actors who] engage ongoing circumstances from which they extract cues and make plausible sense retrospectively[.] 409
8 ...[involves] enacting more or less order into those ongoing circumstances. 409
9 a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action (Taylor and Van Every 2000, p. 275). 409
10 ...occurs when a flow of organizational circumstances is turned into words and salient categories. 409
11 ...[is a] process that is ongoing, instrumental, subtle, swift, social, and easily taken for granted. 409
12 an issue of language, talk, and communication. 409
13 ...[tends] to occur when the current state of the world is perceived to be differrent from the expected state of the world, or when there is no obvious way to engage the world. 409
14 about the interplay of action and interpretation rather than the influence of evaluation on choice. 409
15 ...[leads researcher to portray] organizing as the experience of being thrown into an ongoing, unknowable, unpredictable streaming of experience in search of answers to the question, "what's the story?" 410
16 ...[as a theoretical language] captures the realities of agency, flow, equivocality, transience, reaccomplishment, unfolding, and emergence, realities that are often obscured by the language of variables, ouns, quantitites, and structures. 410
17 first and foremost about the question: How does something come to be an event for organizational members? 410
18 …starts with chaos. 411
19 …starts with noticing and bracketing. 411
20 ... means [in the context of noticing and bracketing] "inventing a new meaning (interpretation) for something that has already occurred during the organizing process, but does not yet have a name, has never been recognized as a separate autonomous process, object, event" (Magala 1997, p. 324)." 411
21 …is about labeling and categorizing to stabilize the streaming of experience. 411
22 retrospective. 411
23 about presumption. 412
24 …is to connect the abstract with the concrete. 412
25 …is social and systemic. 412
26 …is about action. 412
26 …as much a matter of thinking that is acted out conversationally in the world as it is a matter of knowledge and technique applied to the world. 412

Why has so little order has emerged over the decades?
Despite widespread attention to sensemaking during the last 30 years, there has been remarkably little progress in terms of analytical clarity of its constitutive elements and their relationships or in terms of accumulated coherent empirical findings. I suggest some reasons for this. First, sensemaking means two different things. Sensemaking is foremost a perspective, a set of prescriptive methodological commitments that addresses how researchers might or should design and conduct research. But, at the same time, sensemaking is a process, an observable phenomenon captured by a set of descriptive empirical observations and falsifiable theoretical claims that put forth generalized predictions concerning the observations. While this duality of meanings would not necessarily hinder our knowledge creation, the sensemaking perspective is ridiculously synthetic, with little encouragement for analytical work.
When I say synthetic, I mean that the sensemaking literature puts everything together. Weick (1995) tells people that cognition is driven by actions, bracketing, noticing, editing, interaction, and identity. And a few other things. Sensemaking literature asks researchers to take this synthetic soup of concepts and phenomena to explain real life cases and narratives. Although sensemaking is about identity, the synthetic ethos calls researchers to ignore minute details such as the alternative definitions of 'identity' and ways through which 'identities' relate to actors' motives or judgment. 
A prime example of the synthetic tendencies is the passage in Weick's 1995 book where he elaborates the differences between sensemaking and interpretation:
The process of sensemaking is intended to include the construction and bracketing of the textlike cues that are interpreted, as well as the revision of those interpretations based on action and its consequences.(p. 8)
From analytical perspective it seems dubious to define concepts that are just like other concepts plus some stuff that influence them. I cannot see physicists all worked up about studying "dynamism" that is like acceleration but also intended to incorporate the interactions through which acceleration originates from and the subsequent changes in acceleration based on the collisions of the object due to its past acceleration. Sensemaking purports to be different from other more elementary concepts simply by synthesizing them into a big fuzzy mess.

Analytically oriented organizational scientists might be simply compelled to ignore the sensemaking perspective as a genre of writing. However, since sensemaking is also a phenomenon (closely related to interpretation), there is a whole bunch of stuff people have hard time studying without accommodating the synthetic perspective of Weick and his fellow sensemaking scholars. Does anyone think an organizational scholar could publish a paper on how actors in organizations interpret events and construct meaning without using the concept of sensemaking?

My war against disorder
I will later blog about a paper of mine on sensemaking, where I tried to offer a critical look into the sensemaking process and elaborating a more analytical account of its cognitive core processes based on the various literatures on reasoning. Given the synthetic rather than analytical focus of the literature, it was unsurprising ASQ reviewers were incensed because I misrepresented Weick's work by leaving out some key aspects of it (all three reviewers found different critical aspects I had ignored). Also for some reason the sensemaking scholars did not appreciate my characterization of the literature as a confused mess (who would have thought; they even wondered why I attached the above table!).
If we cannot rephrase any aspect of sensemaking without incorporating every aspect mentioned by Weick, then we will never have any analytical advance on the phenomenon. If we need to fully theorize action (human agency) in order to be able to discuss sensemaking, no theory will ever evolve. And let's face it, sensemaking itself has never been a theory. What sensemaking offers is a convenient term to capture the black box between inputs and outcomes for periods of interpretation and revision of beliefs (e.g. Maitlis, 2005). In numerous publications, it is difficult to tell if 'sensemaking' is anything but a synonym for interpretation, thinking, appraisal, or holding conversations.

Maitlis, S. 2005. 'The social processes of organizational sensemaking'. Academy of Management Journal 48/1: 21-49.

Weick, K. E.1995. Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M. and Obstfeld, D. 2005. 'Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking'. Organization Science 16/4: 409-421.

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