This draft comes from a presentation given at the 2018 MPCA/ACA conference in Indianapolis.


Communication scholar Brenda Dervin created the Sense-Making Methodology as a methodological approach for conducting interviews that draws on metatheoretical concepts such as hermeneutics, phenomenology, and the humanistic approach to psychology. Since its formulation, Sense-Making Methodology (SMM) has been utilized across different disciplines through the development of interview protocols for both one-on-one interviews and focus groups. SMM has been used and/or referenced in hundreds of studies since the 1980s to understand how people make sense of themselves and the situations they are in by giving power back to them during the research study.

Some of these studies focus on people engaging with media products or with each other in relation to a media product. These SMM audience and reception studies demonstrate that the approach can be useful for studying fans because it brings a more systematic, and thus quantifiable, approach to a phenomenological, interpretive study of fan behavior, whether mental, emotional, or social. SMM would allow for studies that analyze how a fan makes sense of a situation involving their fandom and fan identity. Studying the situation from the fan’s perspective and interpretations would reveal the extent to which their agency existed in and influenced the situation, and the extent to which external factors shape both the situation and the fan. Additionally, because SMM requires the researcher to bracket themselves from the interview and provide the space and time for the participant to reflect on their own experiences, SMM encourages fans to become a theorist of themselves. Using SMM could then provide insights into how fans see themselves, their fandoms, their fan communities, and the situations in which their fan identities become activated and impacted.

Having fans theorize themselves through SMM interview protocols could help researchers better understand what it means to be a fan and the factors that influence their actions and reactions as a fan in situations involving their fandom and fan identity. Such insights could help researchers understand how fans interact: with other fans, anti-fans, and non-fans; with capitalist and oppositional organizations and forces; with sociocultural and political discourses and institutions; and, with the other areas of their life. This essay seeks to explain SMM and how it has been used to study fans through a case study. The case study demonstrates the insights possible from SMM’s application by suggesting a way to define being a fan and applying the concept of fandom beyond the traditional domains of sports, media, and popular culture.

Presenting Sense-Making Methodology

Sense-Making Methodology views humans as sense-making beings who continually attempt to make sense of the world and thereby understand what, why, and how things happen (Dervin 2008; Dervin and Foreman-Wernet 2003; Author 2018; Author and Dervin 2013a). They use these sense-makings to make decisions and move forward through the situations they face. According to SMM, humans possess the agency to struggle with and make sense of the multitude of stimuli and information that saturates the world in which they live. Their sense-makings may be cued or constrained by demographic, psychological or even sociocultural traits – such as women and men acting according to gendered scripts of behavior – or the sense-makings may result from unpredictable aspects of the situation that prompt them to actively engage with the situation to determine the best course of action. Perhaps some problem – a struggle, confusion or question – exists that they have never faced before; or perhaps they just do what they have done before. Regardless of the situation’s novelty or familiarity, SMM seeks to understand how the person makes sense of the situation and the behaviors that result from those sense-makings.

To understand how people make sense of situations, SMM relies on a metaphor to explain how people move through their lives. Founded in the work Richard Carter (2003), SMM uses the idea of discontinuity or gap as a universal of the human condition (Dervin 1975; Author and Dervin 2013a). Per this conceptualization, every moment in life is distinct from any other moment. People constantly move through life facing new moments, and they must make sense of the moment and themselves-in-the-moment. Sometimes the moment involves confusions they have handled in the past, and sometimes the moment contains questions they have never faced. Sometimes they can easily move through the moment out of habit, and sometimes they must negotiate the moment in new, unfamiliar, even emotional ways. SMM interviewers must provide them the time and space to reflect on the moment and their sense-makings in that moment; with SMM, the interviewee becomes a co-researcher, doing their own theorizing about their experience with the moment (Author and Dervin 2013a).

The Sense-Making Triangle underlines and explains SMM’s methodological metaphor (Dervin 2008; Dervin and Foreman-Wernet 2003). At the bottom of this triangle, SMM places the gap, which suggests that people experience lengths of time in which they find themselves struggling with questions, confusions, concerns – issues that give them anything from a brief pause for reflection to a lengthy period of consternation as they determine what to do. The gap metaphor suggests that when people find themselves facing a problem, they take actions to make sense of the problem and address it – even if they unconsciously decide just to do what seemingly worked in the past. The rest of the metaphor focuses on understanding how a person attempts to bridge the gap and move through the situation (Dervin 2008; Dervin and Foreman-Wernet 2003). SMM asks people to consider what they did and did not do, and how they saw these actions, as they worked through their situations. A person’s bridging can involve anything that helps them make sense of the situation and what to do or not do in it.

With this metaphorical foundation, SMM informs different interviewing protocols meant to foreground the person’s subjective, interpretive, phenomenological perspective on their experience. Because SMM views people as theorists of their own lives, the design of SMM interview protocols seeks to empower people to speak as much or as little as they like about how they see their situation and all the factors that comprise it (Dervin 2008; Dervin and Foreman-Wernet 2003). To assist people in being theorists of their own lives, SMM interviewers bracket their own power as interviewers to give people the time and space they need to fully reflect on their situations (Dervin 2008; Dervin and Foreman-Wernet 2003). The SMM interview protocol keeps questions short and repetitive to remove any bias or influence the interviewer may bring into the interview. The interviewer must create a neutral space where the interviewee can engage their own interpretive activities as they work through just how and why they did what they did in that situation. This interpretive activity involves a repertoire of trust and an attempt to interrogate and surround the phenomenon under study, prompted by the questions the researcher asks of the person, the focus on listening by the researcher, and the power given to the person to draw their own connections between the various elements of the situation (Author and Dervin 2013a).

Applying SMM to Audience Studies

Because SMM focuses on how the individual engages with the world to work through a gap, this includes understanding how the individual uses any sources of information to move through the situation. Because sources of information can help or hinder how a person works through the situation, SMM has been used in various reception studies to understand how people make sense of and use the media products in their lives. Such studies have considered how people interpret, negotiate, and use various media products in different situations. SMM, then, allows for a different way to conceptualize the relationship between audiences, media products, and media use that goes beyond the theorizations common in media effects and uses and gratifications approaches (Author and Dervin 2013a).

Reception processes should be studied within specific situations when people decode and recode media products (Author and Dervin 2013a). Decoding means the perceptions, interpretations, and sense-makings of the media product, its technology, and its content. Recoding means the cognitive, affective, and physical actions taken to apply some aspect of the media product to the person’s situation or life. Thus, to understand a person’s engagement with media requires going beyond the basic media uses and effects framework, and allows for an interdisciplinary approach with different academic disciplines that also study these relationships, such as information studies, education, and political science. To have such an understanding requires focusing on the situation in which the person engages with the media product. A situationality approach means asking the person to recall the specific situation of media engagement to allow the person to theorize how they intepretively and materially engaged with the media product as a part of moving through that situation. In terms of audience and reception studies, SMM brings attention to how people make sense of their time engaging with media products, before, during and after such engagings.

Additionally, an SMM approach to such studies seeks to reduce the researcher’s assumptions about any structures (e.g. sociocultural influences, media product characteristics, personality or demographic traits) that may influence a person’s media engagement. Instead, SMM interviewing protocols call for attention to the person’s agency in the situation through their decoding and recoding of the media product, which allows for how the person sees those structures influencing their lives (Author and Dervin 2013a). Various studies have utilized this methodological approach to study different types of media engagings (see Dworkin, Foreman-Wernet and Dervin 1999; Foreman-Wernet and Dervin 2006; Hohle 2014; Author 2008; Author and Dervin 2012; 2013b; Shields 1999; Spirek, Dervin, Nilan and Martin 1999). These studies have demonstrated that using SMM allows the individual to take control of their own recollection and provides them with the reflective tools needed to dig deeply into their experience and even see things they had not seen before.

Applying SMM to Fan Studies

I have conducted several studies that utilize SMM to study fans and the idea of being a fan or fandom. My dissertation (Author 2008) sought to understand how people make sense of gender stereotypes in relation to their media use. While I asked people about media products they only engaged with once, I also interviewed people about media they repeatedly returned to. Asking about such repeated returnings could be conceptualized as a basis for being a fan – a point I will return to later in this section. A follow-up study to my dissertation (Author and Miller 2015) focused on the men in the study discussing how they saw issues related to gender appropriateness in their consumption of media meant for women (i.e. Sex and the City or musicals). From the dissertation, this SMM Life-Line interview (Dervin 2008) asked men to interrogate how issues of power and ideology in their own experiences related to their views on gender. Using SMM provided these men the ability to reflect on their own experiences with gender norms, in a way that perhaps allowed them to feel more positive about their fandom of something socially and culturally stereotyped as inappropriate for them.

At that time, however, I was not specifically interested in fans, but I did begin thinking about fandom as revolving around this concept of repeatedly returning to some object of affection. Indeed, the case study I present in this paper comes from that period and my early thinking on the topic. Before presenting that case study in detail, I want to address my other study using SMM that more directly focuses on fans and fan communities. In a larger study (Author 2018), I used SMM to structure Micro-Moment Time-Line (Dervin 2008) self-interviews with fans, having them recall times when they had problems with other fans, non-fans, or even anti-fans. In an analysis of what I termed fractured fandom, SMM allowed me to probe how communication processes led to problems within fan’s lives, fan communities, and fandoms – and to determine if communication could provide the solution to such fractured experiences.

These two studies utilized SMM in different ways to understand fans, fan communities, and fandoms. The work conducted for my dissertation examined how fans made sense of a specific media product, and thus their potential fandom surrounding that object of affection, with attention paid to their theorizing about gender in relation to their fandom. The work on fractured fandoms used SMM to gather stories of contentious communication and then analyze those situations to determine what led to the fractures, what happened during the fractures, and what ended those fractures. Thus, the first study focused on media reception from a fan’s perspective, assuming that repeatedly returning to a media product constituted a basic level of fandom, while the second study focused on communication problems and processes involved in established fan communities and fandoms. Both studies either assumed a person’s identity as a fan and directly sought situations from people’s experiences of fandom.

The case study I present in this paper deals specifically with how to define a person’s fan identity. Instead of assuming a person as a fan or seeking for people by addressing their fan identities, this case study suggested a different approach by using SMM to demonstrate a defining feature of fandom and using that feature to explore a person’s experiences with their different fan identities. This case study comes from an interview I conducted in graduate school to develop a definition of fandom as founded on the idea of repeatedly returning to an object of affection. I sought to develop an interview that could compare different types of fan identities across an individual’s life to show the common threads that connect these identities together. In a sense, I hoped to demonstrate that fandom involved more than sports, media, or popular culture objects, while also showing how important being a fan was to people’s perception of themselves and their life.

In this case study, I used an SMM Life-Line interview (Dervin 2008) to ask a college-aged, white male participant to recall engagements with three different objects of affection: a media thing, a locale thing, and an activity thing. The participant chose video games as the media thing, a city park as the locale thing, and writing as the activity thing. For each engagement, I asked him at what age he started the engagement and how long it lasted. Following that, I asked him standard SMM questions to surround his experiences of the engagements with that thing when he first engaged with it and the last or most recent time he engaged with it. These standard SMM questions included:

  • What led to the first engagement?
  • What questions, concerns, confusions did he have?
  • What ideas, thoughts, conclusions did he have?
  • What emotions, feelings did he have?
  • How did what happened relate to his sense of self?
  • How did they see power in relation to what happened?
  • What helped, facilitated him at that time, and how did it help him?
  • What hurt, hindered him at that time, and how did it hinder him?
  • If he could wave a magic wand, what would he change?

These standard questions were asked repeatedly, with changes to wording only to reflect the situation being discussed, to focus the interview on the participant’s agency to self-theorize and work through how they make sense of their lives, both at the time of the situation and in reflection on it.

To present the results of this interview, I conducted an analysis relying on grounded text analysis: I read through the transcript of the interview several times to locate themes in how the participant made sense of these experiences. This comparative process revealed overlapping themes of how he saw himself, his life, and what matters most to him. Overall, six themes emerged, reflecting both positive and negative reflections on those fandoms.

Identity creation. Across all three objects of affection, and thus six different situations of engagement with that object, the participant reflected on how each fandom related to the development of his sense of self. For the media activity, he recalled how important video games have been to him since his childhood. He described them as a “road mark for my life” while reflecting on how playing them “turned me into a loner. So, like I said, for everything that’s good about it, there’s something bad that offsets it.” While this reflection suggests a negative relationship with the object of affection, he also discussed how this experience related to a positive self-perception: “I particularly pride myself on that I am able to [be self-reliant] because not everybody is.”

His reflections on the experience of repeatedly returning to a specific city park as a child were “what [I] remember earliest, and a lot of things happened back then, and it was just something you could go back to.” Like the video games, he said going to this park “sort of sparked who I am now, kind of started me down that trail.” He also had a negative and positive appraisal of this fandom. He thought favorably on these experiences and how they got him outdoors, away from his video games, as “up until then I was pretty much a shut-in.” Yet, at the same time, how he ended this fandom – when his family moved away, forcing him to leave it – indicates a negative period in his life.

His experiences with writing involved attempts to find himself, and his voice, through his form of expression: “I enjoy writing.” He said that writing allows for “my own expression, my own ideas” to come through, and to learn how to be heard: “It’s that whole idea, you know, is that you are creating something and that’s pretty much the bottom line of it.” Unlike the other two engagements, this one did not involve the theme as seen from positive and negative perspectives. Writing was only seen as leading to a positive, helping him discover and develop his sense of self. This lack of a negative perspective on identity creation may also explain why writing did not feature the same self-blame themes as the other two fandoms.

Self-blame. As already seen with the identity creation theme, the participant’s relationship with the object of affection had both a positive and a negative valence, indicating complicated fandoms. This negative relationship with the object of affection also occurred when the participant critiqued himself. With the video games, he referred to himself as “kind of a loner” because “I didn’t have a lot friends, I lived in a pretty remote part of town” and that the video games served as “whatever gets you by.” Being called “plenty of names” growing up led him to internalize them and blame himself for his poor social standing. Although he made friends later that also liked video games, as he grew up he “start[ed] to believe [the stereotypes] after a while…because in every stereotype there’s at least a salt of truth.”

With the city park experiences, the participant felt that having to abandon the fandom due to his family’s move was somehow his fault: “why me, what did I do wrong?” When his mother fell ill, he had to end this fandom, and after leaving the hospital, just before their move, his mother “was really, really angry.” Being young, and not understanding what was happening, the participant tended “to equate those things together because back then it was I didn’t know any better.” In both fandoms, he blamed himself, either for repeatedly returning to it, as with the video games, or ending the engagement, as with the city park. His actions with the video game play seemed to cause him pain, as he felt he resembled the gamer stereotype – a loner, without friends, who substitutes video for companions. His inability to return to his favorite city park related to his feelings of powerlessness over his family’s relocation.

Thus, for both fandoms, the participant’s engaging or disengaging with the fandom caused him pain, and he blamed himself for that pain because he saw those actions as under his control. With writing, he did not blame himself. Instead, he saw writing as emerging out of a negative period in his life: “I was depressed. I didn’t have something to do in my life.” Rather than blame himself for letting writing take control of his sense of self, as with the video games, or his emotions, as with the city park, writing seemed to function more as a way out of his self-blame, serving more as a source of inspiration.

Inspiration. Across these fandoms, even with a negative relationship between the fandom and his identity, the participant could still see the fandom as serving an inspirational role in his life. For instance, he wanted to play video games to experience things he otherwise could not. Playing video games allowed him to do extraordinary things and to form aspirations: “every kid wants to be something great – an astronaut, a fireman, you know, a superhero, and I was no different. … It’s just, it’s something you aspire for.” He knew he most likely would not have the extraordinary life he experienced playing the video games but dreaming of doing so was important: “Someone once said that when humans lose their ability to dream, they lose their ability to live. And I agree with that statement wholeheartedly.” Playing video games provided the means to think through possible goals for his life.

The participant liked going to the city park as it helped him meet new people and make friends, which was something he found difficult to do as a child, leading him to play the video games alone. When forced to move, he had a friend “who I talked to before I left and he was sad to see me go.” Having this connection with another person, because of this park fandom, inspired the participant to improve himself: “that idea that somebody really cares about you leaving is something that really helps, really helps drive you to do better things.” His video game fandom provided him with life goals, and the relationships from his city park fandom helped him think that he had a life worth living.

When it came to his writing, it seems the participant found an outlet that gave his life meaning. He recalled how “I was a basket case, pretty much, and then once I found out I wanted to do this now, it really gave me that kind of, it really gave me a drive of something I wanted to do. I want to be the one to find the truth.” His love of writing helped him deal with the darkness in his life. His other fandoms functioned in similar ways; playing video games helped him cope with being alone and the friends from the park helped him cope with having to lose that place of refuge.

Escape. Thus, all three fandoms helped the participant cope with something in his life. He turned to video games when “my family was going through a lot of problems then, and I guess that’s where that whole idea started is that I just wanted to sit down and forget about it.” Playing video games helped him escape the tensions affecting his family at that time. As a child, his powerlessness caused him to think that “sometimes ignorance is the best policy” because “when you cannot affect what’s going on around you…the only thing that logically follows is to remove yourself from that situation until it blows over.” Video games became a source of escape to make it easier to handle the problems that plagued his family.

He also saw the park as “a safe place” with “other people there” that he could escape to after getting into trouble at school. According to the participant, “I got into it a lot with people because, I’m sure you can figure this out, I have a big mouth and I run it like a sailor. And back then it got me into a lot of trouble because I didn’t, for one I didn’t know any better.” The park became a place of refuge, as his mother would wait for him there, making it “a safe place because not only is this a place that I know but my authority figure is here to protect me.” This park became a place of respite from the fights he instigated, and his ability to connect with others likely furthered his perception that he could relax and not worry while there.

As with his other fandoms, the participant stated that writing also allowed him to “get away,” but this idea of escapism is not as negative as using video games to hide in ignorance or escaping to the park to hide from the pain he caused others. Instead, he saw the escapism offered by writing as leading to something better: “along the lines of the wanting to get away, but in the same vein, it’s more of wanting to express something.” He saw writing as learning to express his own personal truth – to share his experiences with others and allow them to view the world through his eyes. While writing is normally seen as a solitary activity and thus a potential escape from reality, the participant hoped this fandom would improve  reality, for himself and others. While he may need to escape for a time to do so, he ultimately hoped he could connect to others through this fandom.

Self-improvement. In a way, the inspiration and escapism are intertwined themes, as they both involve the participant hoping to better his life by engaging with the object of affection. At the same time, the participant also hoped to better himself in the process. As mentioned, as he grew older, he connected with others who liked to play video games and finding these fans and this fan community apparently helped him learn how to care about others: “you try to see everybody for being equal.” He did not like seeing others “picked on for their own tastes.” While he earlier derided himself for being a stereotypical gamer, he disliked seeing others referred to that way, leading him to want to do “my best to understand other people before myself.” In these later years, his video game fandom became “more of trying to validate myself as a person in that idea that if I’m accomplishing things – I know it sounds pathetic – but it’s that idea that even if you are accomplishing things on a small scale that you are still accomplishing things.” As his fandom progressed, it helped him want to become a better person; even if he could not do the extraordinary things video game characters could, he could still make small changes that matter.

Additionally, it may be that his fandom of the park “kind of started me down that trail” of self-improvement. He started going to the park in elementary school and thus making connections with others. He found it difficult to make friends due to his shyness, but at the park, he felt that “I could actually talk to people.” Making those connections perhaps helped him find others who played video games, which then helped him to start caring about other people. Thus, his video game and city park fandoms inspired him to improve himself and his relationships with others.

With writing, however, he focused on improving his skills: “what can I do to make myself a better writer?” He sought to improve these skills through his interactions with others. Because he had learned to care about others and their opinions: “constructive criticism makes you a better writer. Without the ideas of others, you can’t really better yourself.” Learning how to form relationships with others in the previous two fandoms served to help him develop this fandom, and through this fandom his sense of self: “when I had people read my work and say, oh yeah, this is pretty good, of course it made me feel good, because that’s what you want to hear.” What started out as an activity he did for fun had moved into something he took more seriously: “I still do it because I like it, but I do it because I want to find answers. And I guess that’s, that’s what my thing is.” His fandom of writing helped him find himself.

Return to innocence. In the end, each fandom’s impact on the participant’s life may have led to a sense of nostalgia, of wishing he could return to that time in life when he first engaged with that object of affection. While each fandom helped him grow and mature in some way, he still expressed a desire to return to those initial feelings that emerged from engaging with the object of affection.

With video games, the participant lamented learning more about the commonalities of genres in games, and how this knowledge changed how he experienced the games: “something that used to be exciting has become routine.” When asked about what he would change if he had a magic wand, he said he would “want to be a kid again. Well, to have that same kind of innocence for when I first started playing, because after you do something for so long, you don’t feel the same way about it anymore. And that feeling, it’s probably one of the greatest things in the world.” The initial thrill of playing a video game, of learning how to control and master it, dulled throughout his life. Although it may have helped inspire him to become a better person, that initial reaction to this object of affection could never be the same the more he repeatedly returned to it.

The desire for that same thrill emerged in his discussion of his writing fandom. He stated that he wanted “to be able to get the same kind of joy that I got from writing at first. It’s not the same kind of thing that I get now, but to have that idea that you are enjoying what you are doing moreso…” He wished to have both this joy and the professionalism he felt he had developed throughout the years. However, he recognized that “it’s really something you can’t have both ways” as he sought “to find a balance” between the inexperienced joy of learning to write and all that he learned about developing his craft and voice. With video games he just wanted to relive that affective reaction that helped create his new fandom, but with writing he hoped he could maintain the feeling of joy while being more serious about writing and what it could mean in his life.

With the city park, however, this reminiscing was different, as he indicated a desire to return there free from the guilt of thinking he had to leave it because he had done something wrong: “I would say that it would give me a place to go for a couple more years. I would have imagined that by that time I would be grown-up enough to understand why this is happening – that it’s not my fault.” Having the fandom end outside of his control means that he possessed a different sort of nostalgia for the park. Perhaps, if he could go back, he could regain something he felt had been taken from him. At the time of the interview, he still played video games and writing, thus his reminiscing dealt more with bringing back those initial feelings of joy that initially helped form the fandom. He wished he could regain that feeling of joy and the accompanying feeling of control over his own life.

Defining Fandoms and Fans

This participant’s three different fandoms involved tensions between identity creation and self-blame, escapism and inspiration, and a desire to improve himself and to return to a time perceived as better. Whether the fandom involved a media object, a location or an activity, his passion and his interpretive and physical behaviors involved in engaging with that object of affection demonstrated the complexity of that fandom. His fandoms were filled with both positive and negative thoughts, feelings, and actions, all of which overlapped regardless of the type of fandom discussed.

The type of fandom did not determine the type of thought, feeling, or action that occurred. Instead, they all related to each other because they composed his life and his experience of his life. Rather than see his life as a collection of different fandoms, this interview illustrated how his experiences with/in those different fandoms all related to the central concerns of his life in complex ways. His fandoms were both an expression of how he sees himself as well as helping him to see himself in new ways. Being a fan of anything that matters to the fan highlights the struggles the fan faces throughout life. A fan does not express different identities through different fandoms, but instead expresses the same life struggles across different fandoms and even within the same fandom across time and space. He repeatedly returned to things that mattered to him affectively and cognitively, and those returnings also helped him see himself differently and to change over time.

Overall, this approach to studying a fan helped demonstrate the utility of studying being a fan as involving repeatedly returning to something that matters, helping to expand a definition of fandom I previously proposed (Author 2018). At any fandom’s center lies an object of affection, whether physical (e.g. media product, locale, sport) or abstract (e.g. ideology, activity, theory). A person has some type of affective stance to that object, from highly positive (e.g. fan) to highly negative (e.g. anti-fan). This affective stance relates to some cognitive need or gratification for engagement, from situational and personal to general and communal. Based on the affective stance and cognitive need, the person engages in behavioral activities that become expressions of the fandom; such behavioral activities begin with repetitive (i.e. repeatedly returning) at a basic level and then expand into discursive (i.e. fan discourse), cumulative (i.e. fan collections), productive (i.e. fan art, fan fiction) and/or transformative (i.e. cosplay, fan activism). Overall, this definition views a fandom as an attitudinal state (Author 2018) as it represents something that the fan sees as fundamentally defining their perspectives and actions when activated in fandom-related situations.

Conclusions: Implications for Applying SMM

Over the years and across the SMM studies that I have conducted, I have found one of its main strength lies in its possibility to compare different types of situations. With my dissertation (Author 2008; Author and Miller 2015), different people described various experiences with a range of media products, but all from the perspective of how their perspectives on gender related to those experiences.  My work on virtual worlds (Author and Dervin 2012; 2013b) compared situations of engaging with a movie, the Nintendo Wii, City of Heroes, and Second Life. The fractured fandom study (Author 2018) compared situations involving different types of fandoms, fan communities, and communication problems. This case study compared three different types of fandoms given the common feature of repeatedly returning to some object of affection.

Because SMM focuses on the person’s theorizing of the situation, the comparison point can be either the specific person or some defining characteristic of the situation. Using the person as the comparison point could allow for studying the lifespan and trajectory of a fandom across a person’s life to understand how a fandom changes over a person’s life and how a person changes over their life because of their fandom(s). This case study illustrates that application. Perhaps an approach that applies Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to this trajectory is useful. According to Maslow (1943), people meet their higher functioning needs after meeting their more basic needs. Conceivably a trajectory of fan-life operates with a similar hierarchical structure: affectation for the object leads to commodification of the object leads to identification as a fan leads to socialization with other fans leads to self-reflection about the fandom leads to philosophization about the fandom. A fan’s identity may start with recognizing an affection for some object and then proceed up the hierarchy to self-reflecting and philosophizing about the meaning of that fandom in their life – or the fan’s trajectory may stall out at the identification level in the hierarchy, perhaps resulting in fractured fandoms and fan communities (Proctor and Kies 2018; Author 2018). Applying SMM to study fans could help us understand a fan’s life, how it changes over time, and how it impacts other areas of their life.

Using the person as the comparison point could allow for studies that look across different fandoms or even different areas of life not traditionally conceptualized as fandom. Along with comparing different sports, media, and popular culture fandoms, this case study demonstrated that the same fan identity issues can be found when engaging with a local or an activity. This comparative analysis could also be extended to other areas of life, such as food, religion, and politics. It may be that fandom involves repeatedly returning to what matters most in a person’s life, and that, like attitudes, what matters most ties in with deeply held beliefs about the world (Author 2018). If accurate, then a person’s religious and political ideologies should align, from the fan’s perspective, with any sports, media, or popular culture fandom they have. The self-theorizing aspect of SMM could help illuminate these connections.

Finally, using some characteristic of the situation as the comparison point could allow for comparisons across people. A limitation of this case study is that it only considered one person, indicating the need to interview more people and compare their experiences with different types of fandoms. The fractured fandom study, however, demonstrated the ability to compare people and fandoms to find commonalities in how fans communicated with one another (Author 2018). Furthermore, comparing across fandoms –especially by including nontraditional fandoms – could illustrate that fandom is a common aspect of life and of being human. What happens in a fan community resembles what happens in other communities; a fan identity interacts and interrelates to the other social identities a person has. The comparative potential of an SMM study could help illuminate and educate about these commonalities.

These different potentials for applying SMM suggest both the main limitation right now and the future direction: more studies must be conducted using SMM to fully demonstrate what can be learned from the approach. The comparative potential suggests future directions for what to study and how to study it. As with all of fan studies, much can still be done, and should be done, to expand the boundaries of the field, and SMM presents one way to do so.


Carter, Richard F. 2003. “Communication: A harder science.” In Communication, a Different Kind of Horse Race: Essays honoring Richard F. Carter, edited by Brenda Dervin and Steven H. Chaffee, 369-376. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

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Author, CarrieLynn D. and Brenda Dervin. 2012. “Comparing Situated Sense-making Processes in Virtual Worlds: Application of Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology to media reception situations.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 18 (1): 27-48.

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Author, CarrieLynn D. and Kevin Miller. 2015. “Men Watching Sex and the City, My Little Pony, and Oklahoma: The interpretation of gender appropriateness in the reception of cross-gendered media products.” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 12 (1):

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