Dissertation

I’ll soon be finishing PhD studies as a Gates Cambridge Scholar in digital innovation and organizational ethnography. I work with a remarkable supervisory committee in professors Michael Barrett, Mark de Rond and Jennifer Howard-Grenville. My dissertation is titled Sensemaking and Human-Centered Design: A Practice Perspective.

The fourth chapter of my dissertation is titled Sensemaking In the Flesh: A Practice Perspective. Co-authored with my supervisors Mark and Jen, this paper is a video-ethnography of a world record setting voyage of the Amazon River. Below are a few of the videos featured in our paper–click the icon in the upper left corner of the video below to see the full playlist. For more information, please feel free to contact me at the address in the sidebar.

Abstract For Sensemaking in the Flesh
This study examines how people make sense of novel, unanticipated or confusing experiences, responding in practical ways to uncertainty and change. Despite significant advances, empirical studies of sensemaking have tended to depict the phenomenon as a cognitive process centred on interpretation. While Weick’s early work positioned sensemaking more holistically as arising from immersion in the stream of experience, reliance on archival data and retrospective interviews may have contributed to today’s relative neglect of action and the bodily senses. In this paper, we rely on a unique ethnography of a world-first attempt to scull the navigable length of the Amazon river. Drawing on extensive video data, we were able to document the concrete work of sensemaking as it unfolded in response to serious risks, routine uncertainties and puzzling surprises.

Our three empirical findings relate to 1) the bodily task of sensing our way into action; 2) how action is situated in the material world; and 3) the provisional character of sense, the making of which is a skilled and ongoing accomplishment. These interrelated findings sketch a tactile notion of sensemaking that we call sensemaking in the flesh. We use this phrase to suggest physical presence as well as a connotation of contact and materiality that transcends human bodies—to flesh out is to add substance. In the flesh also suggests studying sense and sensemaking activities at their point of production. Drawing attention to pragmatist and phenomenological influences in Weick’s (1995) seminal work on sensemaking, we argue that practice theoretical perspectives, ethnographic methods and the use of video data might ameliorate several recognized shortcomings in recent sensemaking research.

Abstract for the full dissertation
This dissertation explores how people address problems of real human concern in situations of complexity, ambiguity, uniqueness, conflicting values and rapid change. Such circumstances stretch formal and idealistic rules and procedures to the breaking point. And yet, people in a variety of fields work through such difficulties in a pragmatic manner, at times finding ways to assert their humanity. Sensemaking and human-centred design are related activities through which many people approach such work. Through cases in digital innovation, global health care delivery and an unlikely voyage of the Amazon River, this portfolio shows that they are relevant to a wide range of settings. Rather than isolating the components or key variables of such work and taking their measure, this research advances a more holistic view of sensemaking and designing as sociomaterial practices. My research is grounded in performing the phenomenon of study, offering insights from complex practice rather than a spectator’s study of it. This ethnographic approach has yielded theoretical contributions related to designing for the emergence of practices, embodied sensemaking, a more substantive notion of what it means to be ‘human’ centered and more pragmatic ways of investigating sociomaterial practices. By discussing sensemaking and human-centred design as antidotes to widespread failures of imagination in global health and development, this dissertation suggests a distinctive perspective on why these topics matter for the health of poor and marginalized people around the world.

Keywords: digital health, digital innovation, global health, human-centred design, ICT4D, imbrication, information systems, materiality, mHealth, organizational ethnography, practice theory, sensemaking, sociomaterial practices.




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