Global Sensemaking

Tools for Dialogue and Deliberation on Wicked Problems

Philosophical aspects of sensemaking and operational definitions

An e-mail exchange between some members of the steering committee got me to thinking about more philosophical (and psychological) issues regarding the nature of sensemaking. And then my practical side got into the fray, wondering if we shouldn't spend a little time trying to explicate our individual definitional ideas about what we think this thing is. I was struck by noting the number of definitions for the word sense in The noun definition that seems fitting is: "16. an opinion or judgment formed or held, esp. by an assemblage or body of persons: the sense of a meeting." But the verb definition: "20. to grasp the meaning of; understand," seems to capture much of what I take sensemaking to entail.

Philosophically I wonder about sense, in the latter definition, related to truth and understanding (where psychology enters the discussion). It seems to me that someone can make sense out of a phenomenon in ways that satisfy them personally but are not veridical. Take an extreme case of a deeply religious person having a profound subjective experience - a vision as it were - and taking it as a revelation, when in fact it is the result of a brain tumor! To them the vision made sense. But to you or me it is a tragedy.

People are always making sense out of so-called evidence when it fits their ideological perspective. Surely we are not thinking that the sensemaking of global issues is of this sort. Sense is such a personal thing in this regard.

Group sensemaking strikes me as more like science, if it isn't 'meta-science'. In other words, we want to make sense we all agree on that isn't just another kind of ideology or dogma, but based on objective reality. Where science, or at least the reductive approach, aggregates facts and data, sensemaking, like integrative methods, puts the facts into context with a larger environment. Sensemaking, in my view, is about understanding reality sufficiently well that one feels comfortable making statements about the future. That is, not necessarily making predictions, but anticipating future possibilities based on understanding how the world works.

Perhaps I'm the only one who finds this kind of exploration fascinating, but, again, my practical side asserts that some deeper shared agreement on the philosophical underpinnings of sensemaking is needed to get to a good operational definition. And that is necessary for developing tools to help people make sense. Maybe everyone else here has plugged into a literature that has already been there, done that, and I'm just late to the party. Just trying to make sense out of this stuff!

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I keep returning to this post as useful, worthy of reminding. I am growing increasingly interested in evolving a set of sensemaking pattern languages. Perhaps there are hints in your post.

Returning to my comment after posting it, I see that it does not immediately follow the post I reference; I'm forced to fiddle with indent length. Mostly, this is an added comment related to user interface; must room for improvement. Would that we could conduct this thread in Debategraph...
Your "Mostly, this is an added comment related to user interface; must room for improvement. Would that we could conduct this thread in Debategraph." reminds me of how "discourse-based document portal" seems so abstract until an actual interface lets us down.

I remember chewing on this specific (reply indentation) with Dan laLiberte (He implemented HyperNews) ... that was '96 ... so, what's that, well over a decade!
When it's inconvenient it seems to troublesome to fix, and then it isn't immediately present it seems too abstract to bother with ... and so it goes.
Responding to Mark's 22 July post re Theory U and how it can play out in group work:

I'm reminded of the Visual Explorer tool developed by Chuck Palus and David Horth at the Center for Creative Leadership, which I think can be used in exactly this manner at least for the left side of the U. I've certainly experienced it myself.

I see someone else has made this connection as well -- look for the "Visual Explorer" reference on this page.
Just a small quibble on George's July 25 post, where he said: " I conclude that ultimately all sense is made in the head."

I get uncomfortable with talk of heads in this manner, as somehow being disconnected from bodies. Sensemaking, really, is not, ever, solely an intellectual or mental activity. It's something people do and people act out of their experience, which includes their desires, emotions, feelings, etc. as much as it does their thoughts. In this I find the "technology as experience" school to be very helpful, exemplified by McCarthy & Wright, as well as Dervin's approach to sensemaking which takes a more whole-person approach than some others.
Let me also add one more caveat: cognition is also (i.e., can also be understood as) as a shared phenomenon a deep level - perhaps at its core. This perspective is developed by social anthropologist Edwin Hutchins in his "Cognition in the Wild" (
Thanks for that link, Bob. Here's a bit from it that may be of interest for those not inclined to read the whole thing:

"In particular, the ideational definition of culture prevents us seeing that systems of socially distributed cognition may have interesting cognitive properties of their own. In the history of anthropology, there is scarcely a more important concept than the division of labor. In terms of the energy budget of a human group and the efficiency with which a group exploits its physical environment, social organizational factors often produce group properties that differ considerably from the properties of individuals. Clearly, the same sorts of phenomena occur in the cognitive domain. Depending on their organization, groups must have cognitive properties that are not predictable from a knowledge of the properties of the individuals in the group. The emphasis on finding and describing "knowledge structures" that are somewhere "inside" the individual encourages us to overlook the fact that human cognition is always situated in a complex sociocultural world and cannot be unaffected by it."
When I started nibbling at problems of taxonomy and ontology (in general, but with reference to brain processes specifically, as though to create a nomenclature) I found lots of good reference material on social cognition.
That's not particularly novel, but what really dates back is the understanding that the categories taken as foundational to IQ testing are actually all culture laden.

That such understandings aren't appreciated only speaks to the political dynamics of innovation, "paradigm shift" &tc &tc ... the oligarchs' skillful management of their wealth and power.
Spidering Benjamin Mako Hill I happened onto this page at the HCI wiki: "Social psychology perspective on collective intelligence" ... feed-back/feed-forward; a dynamically balanced system is re-entrant! :-)
That's part of a whole wiki that is a handbook of collective intelligence. Nice find, Ben. Thanks.
Yes, Jack, I noticed that it was in a wiki. Actually I wrote that in as part of the the first line ... just before the link ... "at the HCI wiki".

But actually my point was that none of this is novel.

p.s. just looking at the 51 pages / 3.8K comments to "HealthCare" on the Change.Gov site ... it appears to me there's no praxis to be found. "The point is not to talk about it; the point is to engage it!" [my paraphrase of Karl Marx on philosophy.]

No disconnection implied. Of course I meant in the brain. Ultimately the patterns of synaptic strengths in the brain record all, even the emotional and body maps a la Damasio. I'm not just talking about cognitive impressions. Affective is just as important.
My post last night was a late-night stab at coherence. I'll try to sort out some more coherent points this morning. If I were to capsulize my thought about the intersection of George's desire for a product - an operative/usable/testable models of a problem - and Jack's desire for a participatory process of tagging, annotating, connecting, dialoging.

1. Mark's note offered some social structuring to the participation Jack proposes: converse, dialog, find allies, create, care. The last process "care" is elaborated: "the group activity differentiates. Some ongoing maintenance, caretaking, is delegated to a subgroup, paralleled by some kind of governance, feedback." It is this need for governance and feedback that my comment addressed.

2. Scott's "Do Good Guage" addresses some important aspects of these processes. The rules for Ben Franklin's "Junto" point to a governance process that promotes respect for arguments. Perhaps of special interest may be the stricture that "to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties. " Franklin seems to be anticipating the modern concept of "reinforcement". Both positive and negative expressions are seen to distort a "rational" assessment of problems. Perhaps we are better able to see both the benefits and the difficulties that come with separating emotion and reason.

3. The structures for regulating communication that I mentioned above have been proposed by Rawls, Habermas and others, based on their view of "interests" and how they operate in social discourse and governance. I would suggest that there area some critical variables in the communication process that should be taken account of in designing a "sensemaking" system.
a. Knowledge/ignorance ("Veil of ignorance"): Rawls' "original position" tries to show that the best way to get someone to take a disinterested view when designing a social structure is to keep that person from knowing what position or role she will play in the system - the "veil of ignorance". The idea of "rounds" in a game makes it possible to start afresh, so the rewards of one hand don't accumulate to subsequent hands. Each time the cards are dealt, we are behind a "veil of ignorance".
b. Identity/Anonymity. Some information is best conveyed by trusted participants. But the role of anonymity may be important in such structures as markets or opinion polls.
c. Group/individual. To some extent we all want to maximize the choices available in our participation in sensemaking. But the imperative for individual control can in some cases subvert processes of group regulation and governance. How can a group balance and channel individual needs/desires and channel them within group structures and processes. Again, the governance issue. Polanyi, in his book "Personal Knowledge", proposes looking at academic/scientific communities for models of group/individual communication that create a particular kind of freedom, constrained by truth.

In any case, I haven't read all of the sources mentioned by Jack, George, Mark and Scott. And I can't expect my references to be fully understood. So this is just a contribution to an ongoing dialogue.






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