Applying “sensemaking” (Dervin-style) to the world of communication research

Yesterday I attended the OU Department of Communication Sooner Conference. Attendees included regional undergraduate and graduate capital “C” Communication (I’m beginning to decode is considered like the capital “T” of Truth) students sharing their research and “ideas.” Our keynote speaker was professor Joe Walther, who I learned during a private lunch conversation was at one time an “uncommon” scholar. (Interesting.) The conference theme centered around computer mediated communication (CMC), which now is a hot topic. When Walther began looking at it some 20 years ago, it was not.

The World Wide Web revolution seems to have ensnared most, including shiny new researchers. To borrow from famous communication scholar Paul Watzlawick, “one cannot not communicate”—without technological mediation, I might add, that is for some of us lucky enough to be on this side of the digital divide. (Another issue for another post.) Indeed, notwithstanding the hotly contended debates over intellectual capital, pornography, diminished social skills, and just plain TMI, I believe good can come from leveraging new media.

I tried to make a small contribution in this direction with my Sooner Conference presentation. Although lacking a theoretical framework, my intent was to use a real-world experience to demonstrate how the participatory “read-write” web could be used in academic health care research teams. And even more so at my age, to perhaps inspire just-off-the-line researchers to see a different purpose for their thesis questions—more than scholarly research for the sake of expanding a theory, but also to help real people with real problems.

This is where my need for “sensemaking” comes in. Brenda Dervin has spent a lifetime helping explain how people make sense of their world, i.e.,  fill cognitive gaps by making sense of observed data. My current gap—real-world applied science vs. theoretical, academic research—is wide and cavernous. And it’s scary. On one side of the canyon, I see how communication research can alleviate some the ills of the world by applying principles of study results. On the other I see the legacy of academic research preoccupied with grooming new scholars, suggesting the outcome is sharing what they know with other scholars in peer-reviewed journals with high impact factors and at peer-attended conferences.

Thankfully, government funding agencies, e.g. the National Science Foundation, seem to be forcing a bridge. In 2007 the intellectual merit section of the NSF Grant Proposal Guide added “transformative/translational research” requirements to applicant proposals, asking “to what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?” For example, in the field of medicine findings in basic research should more quickly and efficiently be adopted into medical practice and, thus, meaningful health outcomes—whether physical, mental, or social.

As I attempt to make my mark in health care by bridging my real-world experience with academic norms, I find myself struggling, trying to make sense of it all. My twitter moniker reveals that I am “Known to question the status quo. A holistic thinker. A knowledge sharing/collaboration evangelist. An empowering friend. Studying Health Communication.” I’m finding these renegade qualities challenge the espoused value of academia—nurturing thinkers and their “ideas.” Bringing my real-world perspective into the discussion is challenging “them” and me. It’s uncomfortable to say the least.

With encouragement from a handful of like-others I gain courage to continue my commitment to engage in this sensemaking. By, with, and through CMC I am determined to translate my future health communication research into helping people. Thanks, Dr. Walther, for showing communication researchers “methods” for looking at CMC attributes that lead us in that direction.


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