Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The (Secondary) Sources of Sensemaking

What are we supposed to look at when we study sensemaking? What offers a good source of data for theorizing about sensemaking processes? Different researchers have different answers to these basic methodological questions. Many studies of organizational sensemaking are, of course, based on qualitative data from onsite observation or interviews. But the kind that interests me most is the "literary approach" to sensemaking, i.e., the kind of sensemaking research that Karl Weick primarily engages in. He calls it "armchair enthnography".

The basic idea is simple. If you want to study sensemaking in a particular kind of organization, find a good book on the subject and read it. Then "encode" your reading in terms of sensemaking. Here you might use Weick's "seven properties of sensemaking" as a guide, but don't, Weick emphasizes, feel as bound by these properties as you would if you were working with a more traditional theory. Just let them focus your attention; let them help you to "notice subtleties and patterns" (Weick 1995: 18) in your thinking. In actual fact, however, I'm not sure Weick begins with a particular kind of organization in mind and then looks for a good book on it. I think he reads a book that interests him and then resolves to make the best of it for research purposes at the next available opportunity.

Consider two examples that Weick brings together in his "Sensemaking as an Organizational Dimension of Global Change" (reprinted in Making Sense of the Organization, Blackwell, 2001, pp. 458-472): the Mann Gulch disaster in Montana and the Worker's Defense Committee (KOR) in Poland. The first has been central to Weick's thinking about sensemaking since around 1992, when Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire was published. In his 2007 contribution to the special section on "richness" in the AMJ, Weick explains that he happened to read Young Men and Fire for a book club discussion and, coincidentally, "had nothing to talk about" for a lecture he had been invited to hold. The book solved the problem. I don't know how he came to read about KOR, but here's what he says about his source: "Jonathan Schell has described [the unfolding of the relationships among the members of KOR]* in sufficient detail that we are able to encode them into resources for sensemaking" (Weick 2001, 466). As we learn in the bibliography, Schell had written what appears to be a forty-page introduction to Adam Michnik's Letters from Prison (Michnik was key figure in the KOR movement and the book is a collection of his essays). That is the basis of Weick's study of sensemaking in the Polish opposition movement.

Note that Weick's approach relies on these texts as secondary sources. Both books could, however, be construed as primary sources if read differently. Thus, Weick could have read Michnik's essays themselves and thereby had access to primary source material in his study of the Polish opposition. But because Weick is not an expert in this area he, rightly, relies on Schell's introduction alone. Schell is, at least presumably, an expert. Maclean's book, meanwhile, can only be a primary source of data on the work of Norman Maclean (a literary author). Indeed, I generally compare that book to Norman Mailer's A Fire on the Moon: both books tell us more about Norman than the "fire" they are ostensibly "about". (Though they do tell us a great deal about those fires, I will grant.) One of my questions, which I will take up in Friday's post, is: What sorts of critical principles guide our reading and "encoding" of these secondary sources when we use them to understand organizational sensemaking?

*I had a bit of trouble finding out how to make this substitution because Weick, as always, is a bit unclear in his writing. At first pass there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with this paragraph:

The democratic opposition movement in Poland, which started with the Worker's Defense Committee (KOR) in September 1976, is a dramatic example of heedful interrelating on a local scale that results in large changes on a national scale. Jonathan Schell (1987) has described the unfolding of these relationships in sufficient detail that we are able to encode them into resources for sensemaking.

But because I wanted to quote the second sentence alone, I needed to replace "these relationships" with a more informative label. So, look back to the first sentence; what "relationships" might Weick mean? I.e., how would I complete a phrase like "the unfolding of [the relationships among ...]"? Perhaps with "Polish workers", but Weick doesn't actually tell us that. (Polish doctors and lawyers and teachers have been involved as well, for all I know.) If he had said "the unfolding of such interrelating" there would have been no problem. Simply replace "such" with "[heedful]". But now another problem emerges: Schell has probably not read Weick. So what he was describing in detail was not, I presume, heedful interrelating. He was describing the relationships between members of KOR and their "unfolding". Encoding these relationships as resources for sensemaking is Weick's contribution. There is another possiblity, namely, that Weick is talking about the relationship between changes on a local scale and changes on a national scale. But this doesn't work either because Weick wants KOR to be an example of how sensemaking facilated a causal relationship between changes on these two scales. The national changes were the results of sensemaking, not resources for sensemaking. I'm nitpicking, of course. But that really is my job.


lobster said...

iv been reading your writings about sensemaking, and they r really interesting. and its interesting that it relates to so many areas.. as im in the ESL are, i wanted to as you what do you think is the role of sense making in regard to first language(L1) and a second language (L2). cheers

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'm not sure there is any direct connection between my work on sensemaking and my interest in ESL. Sensemaking is an organization theory and I work mainly with organization theorists who are trying to become more proficient users of English. I'm tempted to say that the theory of sensemaking (construed as a style of writing) gets in the way. I don't think sensemaking theory (at least as pursued in org studies) has anything to teach teachers of English as a second language. But I'm not sure.