Scaling Academic Research

Improving Understanding of Human Informants through Sensemaking

by Dr. CarrieLynn Reinhard

Exploring the Intricacies of Human Research - Challenges and Ethical Considerations

If studying humans was easy, then all academics would do it. Regardless of the discipline you operate from, you likely have gone through the discussion about all of the benefits of human research, as well as all of the problems that you need to consider when designing a study with human subjects and informants. Years of training help academics understand how to best design qualitative or quantitative surveys, experiments, and ethnographies to create reliable and valid measurements of people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Even with such years of dedicated training, sometimes for the academic researcher engaging with human informants, the matter comes down to a leap of faith. Do you trust what people tell you? Or do you consider their reporting flawed?

The concern and consternation about the reliability and validity of human informants has led to many an ethical discussion and attempt to address the matter epistemologically and methodologically. Best practices involving multi-methodology, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, triangulation, complex measurements and more all attempt to produce research from human informants that represents the authentic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of people in a way that is scalable and replicable. Even with all of these best practices there.can still be a failure to record accurate data from large communities in a short amount of time that can also be analyzed and presented in a timely manner to be practically applied to help those communities.

Addressing an Unnecessary Schism

Part of the potential problem lies in a schism and unnecessary divide between qualitative and quantitative research, and thus subjective and objective approaches to understanding humans. Qualitative research does indeed help produce more detailed information that can be authentic to a person's or people's subjective experience of human systems and their lives; meanwhile, quantitative can provide the scalability to gather information from large communities and recognize patterns in those communities.

Just as both overarching methodologies, and their commensurate epistemologies, have their benefits, they also have their drawbacks that can be offset by adopting the other. But designing, implementing, analyzing, and presenting one study that can maximize the benefits while minimizing the drawbacks has, in the past, been time consuming, especially for the academic researcher operating alone with an insufficient research budget.

Modern technological tools in human subjects research promote the design of complex, interdisciplinary, multi-methodological studies that can simultaneously understand the complexity of humans' subjectivity, while also being scalable to allow for locating patterns that afford enhanced understanding of representative samples and the populations being served by such research. represents such a tool that uses advancements in artificial intelligence to assist the researcher in gathering complex responses from samples and exploring such complexity through pattern recognition that is both qualitative and quantitative in nature. Additionally, the platform’s construction is informed by two schools of sensemaking studies - Active Sensemaking and Sense-Making Methodology.

These schools inform the epistemology and methodology built into the platform. Both schools train the researcher to gather in-depth stories from informants while also empowering the informant to work with the researcher to make sense of their own experiences. For Sense-Making Methodology, such empowerment is achieved through having the informant become a theorist as they interrogate experiences where they encountered gaps that impacted their movement through that situation. For Active Sensemaking, such empowerment occurs by helping the informant analyze the themes of their own stories when encountering demands placed on them from external structures and systems.

In both schools, the emphasis is phenomenological and hermeneutic, seeking to understand people’s experiences through their specific lived perspectives and sensemaking. And, for both schools, helps the research conduct a study that promotes in-depth exploration for any size sample.

The Power of Being Heard

An example of such a scaled sensemaking studied utilizing comes from Susan Bartels of Queen University in Kingston, Canada. Working with the International Organization of Migration, Bartels wanted to understand the experiences of Venezuelan women forced to migrate due to various geopolitical, economic, and personal reasons. The project utilized a multi-method approach that used to help them gather interviews of 9,339 Venezuelans in Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. From the collected stories, they learned about the informants’ concerns on gender-based violence and human trafficking. Perhaps most significantly, Bartels research was used, within weeks of collecting the stories, to help service providers help the migrants and refugees.

Bartels has also discussed the advantages to adopting a sensemaking studies approach to such research. Bartels' work demonstrates the key strengths of using a platform like that is designed specifically to collect, analyze, and discuss complex issues from a variety of perspectives. The sensemaking questions in an online space provide informants the ability to have anonymity and confidentiality combined with a sense of respect that helps to build a repertoire that is known to foster deeper, more authentic reflections and realizations. Informants can speak to their experiences in their own words, and using relevant tags can help to demonstrate connections to others’ experiences from their own perspective. Then, the research analysis dashboard helps facilitate member checks and community discussions around these connections to further explore the complexity of the issue and people’s experiences with it.

As Bartels notes, the end result is a more efficient method of conducting mixed-methods research compared to more traditional approaches” that “provides a more comprehensive understanding of complex issues by using indirect prompting questions to elicit more revealing responses.”

The goal of academic research is to improve our understanding of the world, the people in it, and how those people interact with one another. We seek input from human informants to improve the systems and processes that influence their daily lives, and which, through their actions, are created and maintained. If we are serious about involving multiple perspectives of complex sensemakers in the development of our human systems and processes, then we need to improve how we learn from them while also empowering them to co-construct this world. and a sensemaking approach to academic research can help achieve this goal.

Dr. CarrieLynn Reinhard
Dr. CarrieLynn Reinhard
Dr. Reinhard is a Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Dominican University. She studied with Brenda Dervin, creator of the Sense-Making Methodology (SMM), for her doctorate at Ohio State University. She has since used SMM in various research studies, such as understanding the virtual world Second Life to conflicts within fandoms. The latter project was published as Fractured Fandoms - Contentious Communication in Fan Communities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).