Why Is Sense-Making Methodology Methodological?

This is from a class paper I wrote for Brenda Dervin in 2006 at Ohio State University.

          The most efficient and useful way I can conceive of answering this question is by exploring it in relation to my phenomenon of interest, fandom.  Fandom has been studied using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, as a given statement about who a person is in relation to the object of loyalty, such as Star Wars.  But I am interested in an underlying factor of fandom that I think the application of Sense-Making methodology would help elucidate.  In particular, I am interested in exploring a person’s interaction with some “thing” they perceive as being important for some reason.  This “thing” can be a tangible object, such as a book or social group, or an intangible entity, such as a fictional character or God.  I am curious as to what drives this interaction, and whether or not there are similarities amongst interactions with “things” more traditionally seen as eliciting fandom, such as a sports team or television show, and “things” a person would less likely be categorized as a fan of, such as Jesus Christ or New York City.  I am driven by the possibility that by exploring this underlying factor, the concept of fandom may be better understood and the perceptions of fans would alter stereotypical perceptions of fans.  In struggling with how to apply Sense-Making as a methodology to design my particular recipe for studying this factor, several key elements of SMM proved to be fundamental in shaping my understanding of the methodology and the means by which I could apply it.

          One thing I am concerned about in any research I attempt is the possibility of allowing my own bias to enter into the interpretation I am making of the data I receive from my informants.  At the core of SMM is the interpretive philosophy that instructs the interviewer to allow the interviewee to construct, interpret, make-sense of their own experience (p. 7), thereby removing some of the potentiality of researcher bias.  Allowing the interviewee to triangulate around his or her experience means the interviewer and interviewee can engage in a dialogue about the phenomenon with the interviewer imposing little and allowing the interviewee to essentially engage in a self-dialogue (Dervin, 2003e; Foreman-Wernet, 2003).  I prefer this approach of engaging with the informant because of the nature of my phenomenon and the traditional bias regarding it; that is, the stereotyped perception of fans as being abnormal in how they relate to mainstream society, herewith redefined as “proper society.”  Also, because I myself am biased in what I hope to learn via this research, layering control on the interviewee, allowing the person being interviewed to be the expert of his or her own life, can hopefully reduce this bias and by elevating objectivity possibly illuminate the underlying factor.

          Sense-Making Methodology mandates reconceptualizes individuals away from being static creatures of habit, enshrouded with certain personological traits such as demographics or personality (Dervin, 2003a).  Rather, humans are to be seen as fluctuating, continuously constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing creatures – as animate verbs rather than inanimate nouns (Dervin, 2003e).  Labeling a person a “fan” is essentially ascribing to that individual a personological trait, one that is assumed to manifest in all aspects of that person’s life, including their interaction with “proper society.”  Instead of making such an assumption, the SMM interview, in particular the Life-Line Interview, is constructed to explore those situations, those time-space allocations, when being a fan is important to the person.  Also, by reconceptualzing fandom as a situationally-bound state of being rather than a personological trait, SMM leaves open the possibility of exploring the underlying activities, both internal (cognitive, affective) and external (behavior), that constitute what it means to “be a fan.”  Focusing on the activities can allow for the examination of fandom across different types of interactions with different types of “things”.  The interview would explore more the process of becoming rather than the state of being (Dervin, 2003d).  Hence, focusing on the activities, on the verbing aspect of fandom, can allow for the comparison of individuals who would be classified as “traditional fans” with those who would not be thusly classified, and in the end may explain more of what fandom is.  Thus it can become possible even within one individual to explore how the person understands the differences and similarities between these activities as they occur in different context not as the way society constrains the comparisons to be given the context (that is, not with the nouns society has given to compare traditional versus non-traditional fandom) but as differencing and similarizing their own experiences (Dervin, 2003c).  The self-dialogue of comparing with an individual is the first step in forming a dialogue across a variety of people and their contextualized fandoms. 

          Research that allows for this type of dialogue, the interrogation of traditional classifications of fandom, is a fundamental aspect of Sense-Making, and is part of the philosophical grounding that drives the way this research is conducted.  The dialogue generated by, first, having the interviewee speak with him or herself and, second, by having different people circle the same phenomenon from their different perspectives, allows for the interrogation of the assumption of an absolute truth.  With the traditional notion of fandom, the media industry and media research has historically considered the audience of their products as a uniform mass, all responding to the message in the same way (Dervin, 2003a; 2003f).  The uses and gratifications paradigm attempted to disrupt this assumption, but they succumbed to the same fallacy of generating a classification system to describe individual’s interactions with the media and the message by assuming that a human’s interaction with the media is a unique type of interaction (Dervin, 2003f; 2003g).  The paradigm has largely been unwilling and thus unlikely to engage in dialogue with other disciplines that may clarify how human’s interactions with the media are at the base not all that different from their interactions with other objects – given situational constraints; stereotypical perceptions of the media may impact how a person interacts with it, but these stereotypical perceptions may also vary due to the situational constraints.  Sense-Making could alleviate this assumption by engaging in a more comprehensive dialogue regarding fandom, with its classification as an interaction with media and then allowing for a comparison with other interactions. 

          The above are three main points that assisted me in understanding how I would apply Sense-Making methodologically to explore my phenomenon of interest.  Sense-Making, with its philosophical roots in constructivism and critical theory, provide the means of examining a person’s interaction with that dear “thing” while reducing my imposition on their experience through a biased or haughty interpretation.  This reduction is accomplished by asking questions that do not challenge the interviewee’s intelligence or ability to speak for him or herself; instead, the questions are designed to circle the experience, allow the person to talk through the experience from a variety of angles – to essentially research him or herself.  While the interviewer is engaged in a dialogue with the interviewee, it is through this circling of the phenomenon that the interviewee engages in a self-dialogue.  And yet, because of the focus on verbing, away from the jargon-laden nature of nouning, because of the focus on the process rather than the being, it is possible to engage in a dialogue with the phenomenon across various individuals and situations, across both similarities and differences.  All of these points I think would serve the study of “fandom,” and just the general topic of media use.

          So why is Sense-Making methodology?  To approach research with a methodological perspective is to approach research systematically with a philosophical reasoning behind the choices one makes during the research process (Dervin, 2003g; Foreman-Wernet, 2003).  The approach one takes can impact research the way approaching cooking can be influenced if one is taught French haute cuisine versus American Texas barbeque.  Sense-Making mandates that one’s approach to research should consider the person as a constantly and inconsistently fluctuating individual who goes through live making-sense of each moment encountered, and to empower this individual with the greatest gift of all: voicing the innermost of their thoughts, feelings, wants, decisions.  The interviews that constitute the methods constructed around this philosophy encapsulate this tenet by situationally locating the individual and by asking non-noun questions that are absent the tone of an expert challenging a non-expert.  The interview does not assume that the individual knows all the answers immediately like some pre-programmed computer.  The questions circle the experience, and allow the individual to do what comes naturally, make-sense of the moment by moment experience of the interview to potentially make-sense of that phenomenon driving the interview.  It’s allowing the interviewee the time at the stove to cook whatever the interviewee may feel like eating at that time, be it French, TexMex, or even Chinese.  All the interviewer has to do is offer the choices and receive the banquet that is offered.

References

          Dervin, B.  (2003a).  “Communication gaps and inequities: Moving toward a reconceptualization.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 17-46).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

          Dervin, B.  (2003b).  “Users as research inventions: How research categories perpetuate inequalities.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 47-60).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

          Dervin, B.  (2003c).  “Verbing communication: Mandate for disciplinary invention.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 101-110).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

          Dervin, B.  (2003d).  “Given a context by any other name: Methodological tools for taming the unruly beast.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 111-132).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

          Dervin, B.  (2003e).  “Sense-making’s journey from metatheory to methodology to method: an example using information seeking and use as research focus.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 133-164).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

          Dervin, B.  (2003f).  “Mass communicating: Changing conceptions of the audience.” In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp.197-214).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

          Dervin, B.  (2003g).  “Audience as listener and learner, teacher and confidante: the Sense-Making approach.” In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 215-232).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

          Foreman-Wernet, L.  (2003).  “Rethinking communication: Introducing the Sense-Making methodology.”  In B. Dervin & L. Foreman-Wernet (Eds.) Sense-Making Methodology Reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. (pp. 3-16).  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

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