Sensemaking reconsidered: towards a broader understanding through phenomenology

Published August 2020 by Professor Jorgen Sandberg


  • The mainstream view has it that sensemaking is episodic-deliberative; it is triggered by episodic interruptions of organizational activities, forcing agents to deliberately search for how to restore the interrupted activity. This view has been increasingly questioned, as research has revealed that sensemaking in organizations does not consist of one, but of several different types.
  • What is missing from current attempts to grasp and define sensemaking more comprehensively is a deeper exploration of the ontology of sensemaking. Such an exploration is critical because the ontology underlying prevailing sensemaking research privileges an ontological split between subjects and the world, which makes it too narrow for investigating and grasping sensemaking more comprehensively.
  • If we are to understand sensemaking more comprehensively— that is to say, if we are to account for types of sensemaking other than the episodic deliberate type—we need to move beyond merely identifying different theoretical approaches, valuable though this is, to broaden the ontological ground of sensemaking.

What’s new

  • We develop a typology of sensemaking in organizations that reconsiders existing sensemaking research by providing a more coherent and integrative conceptualization of what defines sensemaking and how it is connected with organizing. Such a typology yields several benefits: it will increase construct clarity; it will show what each type of sensemaking consists of and how different types are related; it will demonstrate how sensemaking and its outcomes are related to organizing; and it will indicate how future investigations and theorizing may proceed.
  • Drawing on existential phenomenology, we make the following core claims: (1) sensemaking is not a singular phenomenon but comprises four major types: immanent, involved-deliberate, detached-deliberate, and representational sensemaking; (2) all types of sensemaking originate and take place within specific practice worlds; (3) the core constituents of sensemaking within a practice world (sense–action nexus, temporality, embodiment, and language) are played out differently in each type of sensemaking.

Bottom line

  • Sensemaking is continuous and comprises of multiple types
  • Sensemaking originates neither in cognition nor in social interaction alone, but in specific meaning giving practice worlds, which agents inhabit.
  • Grounding sensemaking in the mode of agents’ engagement with organizational activities shows that it tends to be (a) mainly sensorially (pre-reflectively) accomplished when agents engage in immanent sensemaking, in the context of routine action; (b) more cognitively discursively accomplished when agents deliberate (in either an involved or a detached manner) on what they need to do, following an interruption; and (c) even more cognitively discursively accomplished when agents, inhabiting a secondary practice world, engage in representational sensemaking.

Link to paper

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