Sense making

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One cannot begin to address the concept of Sense-Making as a methodology without referring to its original developer and prime champion Brenda Dervin. This highly prolific and active researcher maintains an extensive website of articles and resources on the Sense-Making Methodology Site at





According the homepage of the Sense-Making Methodology Site:

“Sense-Making is an approach to thinking about and implementing communication research and practice and the design of communication-based systems and activities. It consists of a set of philosophical assumptions, substantive propositions, methodological framings, and methods. It has been applied in myriad settings (e.g., libraries, information systems, media systems, web sites, public information campaigns, classrooms, counseling services, and so on), at myriad levels (e.g., intrapersonal, interpersonal, small group, organizational, mass, national, global), and within myriad perspectives (e.g., constructivist, critical, cultural, feminist, postmodern, communitarian).”(2005)

This extensive description explains the robust nature of this methodology. This definition is qualified by: “On this site, Sense-Making (capitalized) refers to the methodology; sense-making (not capitalized) refers to the phenomena of making and unmaking of sense. ” As Dervin notes in the Sense-Making Methodology Reader, the definition is continually in flux and adapts to accommodate new research. (Dervin, 1999).




Growing from Dervin’s post-doctoral research in communication, Sense-Making developed as an attempt to bridge the distance between the polarized camps of communications theory. Indebted to the work of communications theorist Richard F. Carter, University of Washington Professor Emeritus of Communication and his work in applying communication approaches to the communications field, this methodlogy is applicable across a wide range of disciplines.





From its earliest stages of development in 1972 to the time of this writing, Sense-Making has found applications in many fields, including, but not limited to, library and information science, health, telecommunications, education, and political science.


In reference librarianship, the work of Patricia Dewdney (1986), independently and in collaboration with Brenda Dervin, on the concept and use of Neutral Questions, in a technique reference librarians can use in combination with and to break of the binary of Open Questions and the Closed Ended Question. Defined as: “A technique for interacting with clients, patients, users, and patrons called “Neutral Questioning” is based on Sense-Making assumptions and is termed “neutral” only in the sense that it allows the “listener” to ask only… sense-making questions (about moving and facing discontinuous situations, and not about content in the usual sense of the word.) Close-ended or dichotomous queries are not permitted.”(Dervin, 1999, 231).


These neutral questions can be used in Reference Interviews in order to take stock of the transaction itself and its goals, by allowing the user to self-reflexively evaluate and communicate problems and concerns to the practitioner. For example, when a reference librarian asks: “What led you up to that point?” the answer can help to identify the path of research. If the librarian asks: “What questions to you have?” or “What confuses you?” the user has the opportunity to reflect and express their current concerns. (Dervin, 1999, 266).


For additional information, please visit:


Abstract of: Dervin and Dewdney. (1986) Neutral Questioning: A New Approach to the Reference. Interview





The Sense-Making Methodology Site. (2005) Homepage. Retrieved November 21, 2006, from


Dervin, B and Foreman-Wernet, L. (2003) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected Writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. ix, 3-4, 162, 231, 266). Cresskill: Hampton Press.



Shannon R. Stuart