Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

The Materiality of Sensemaking

Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

The Materiality of Sensemaking

Article excerpt


Two influential perspectives in organizational studies that focus on different aspects of enabling, constraining, and forming organizational action are the notion of sensemaking and the influence of material objects on organizational functioning. This paper explores the coupling of these two perspectives, which often are seen as opposite. Based on evidence from two case studies, we argue that these perspectives, taken together, unlock a deeper understanding of the processes that unfold in organizations and call attention to the materiality of sensemaking as important to understanding organizations.

Key words: Sensemaking, materiality, technology, architecture, workplace design

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If people have multiple identities and deal with multiple realities, why should we expect them to be ontological purists?


Sensemaking is a key word for a perspective that focuses on an important set of activities in organizational settings, by emphasizing the fundamental role of the actions in organizations that construct meaning or make sense of situations (Weick 1995). The perspective is attractive due to its rich set of applications in organizational life, and through links to other key processes in organizations, such as learning and identity construction. Further, as an inherently social and processoriented approach that gives attention to micro-processes as well as ephemeral phenomena, the sensemaking perspective has obvious affinities with recent interpretive and narrative approaches in organization studies.

In this article, we explore one critical reflection on the current sensemaking literarure: the idea that sensemaking is purely cognitive or mentalist, as expressed by Kornberger and Clegg (2003: 76): 1We challenge the current fashion for the purely cognitive conceptualisation of various processes usually identified as the driving forces behind organizations (of which Weick, 1995 is the most sophisticated).' While Weick's theory clearly refers to cognitive processes, a characterization of the theory as 'purely cognitive' calls for a closer reading. If this characterization should prove to be correct, it could marginalize the approach in relation to recent developments in organization studies.

In this article, we argue that materiality matters in sensemaking - it is misleading to conceive of the organization in purely cognitive or mentalist terms. Specifically, we contend that:

* Sensemaking processes are anchored in and engage with material settings,

* There is ample evidence that Weick's formulation of sensemaking is not purely cognitive

* The understanding of sensemaking processes gains from an even closer involvement with theories of materiality.

* The sensemaking perspective gives important insights to design studies

This article contributes to the emergent trend in organization studies that recognizes and emphasizes the materiality and corporeality of organizations and societies, which can be understood as thinking, working, and collaborating bodies within buildings, among technologies and art, together with a myriad of other artefacts, which all are interwoven in an equally complex, material society (cf. Hatch 1997; Becker 2004; Gagliardi 1996; Gieryn 2002; Law 1993; Strati 1999).

In the following sections, we review perspectives on materiality in the organizational literature, examine sensemaking, and explore tensions in Weick's work that leave open possibilities for including material contexts in sensemaking processes. We use case studies to support our argument for materiality as an important element of sensemaking, and the article concludes with implications for scholarship and practice.

Immateriality and Organization Studies

In organization studies, materiality has a fairly marginal position, since organization studies and the very concept of Organization' - have been developed through an abstraction from the physical. …

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