Essay: Information seeking behaviour models

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According to Wilson (2000), information behavior is the totality of human behavior in relation to sources and channels of information, including both active and passive information seeking, and information use that therefore, it includes face-to-face communication with others, as well as the passive reception of information as in, for example, watching TV advertisements, without any intention to act on the information given. Meanwhile, information-seeking behavior is the purposive seeking for information as a consequence of the needs to satisfy some goal. In the course of seeking, the individual may interact with manual information systems (such as a newspaper or a library), or with computer-based systems (such as the World Wide Web) (Wilson, 2000).

There are a number of information seeking behavior models focused by researchers such as Wilson’s Models, Dervin’s Sense-Making theory and Krikelas’s Information Seeking Behavior Model. Each model is differs from the comprehension and application aspects. For instance, Wilson’s Models identify information need as a cause for the overall information seeking behavior as well it is part of process in order ro satisfy the physiological need, cognitive need and affective need. Meanwhile, Dervin’s Sense-Making model emphasizes that information seeking is a sense-making process includes an individual to construct a channel between a context and an anticipated circumstances.

In summary, there is much other information seeking behavior models applied in various fields. The application may differ from one to another but they are changing from time to time.


Sense-making theory is created by Brenda Dervin back in 1972. Currently working as Full Professor of Communication at Ohio State University, Dervin is also recognized as researcher in communication and library science fields. Other than that, Dervin is Joan N. Huber Fellow in Social & Behavioral Science at the same university she served since 1986. Prior to this, she served at School of Information Transfer at Syracuse University and School of Communication at University of Washington. She also served as lecturer and visiting professor at several universities. With her ongoing research regarding information seeking, it led to the development of sense-making methodology.

Dervin obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism and home economics along with a minor in philosophy of religion from Cornell University. Meanwhile from Michigan State University, she obtained M.S. and PhD degrees in communication research. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in social sciences from University of Helsinki. She was appointed as the first International Communication Association’s president. Other than that, Dervin also actively review articles and is on editorial boards for the communication and library and information science journals.

1. International Communication Association (ICA)

In 1986, Devin served as ICA’s first president. She is the former president and fellow of ICA. During the election in 1985, Dervin organized a landmark conference, “Beyond Polemics: Paradigm Dialogues’ and senior edited two volumes growing out of that conference (Rethinking Communication, Vols. 1 & 2). She was awarded with ICA’s Steven H. Chaffee Career Productivity Award in 2002. Other than that, Dervin is also known for first introducing poster sessions at ICA conferences for steering the organization’s interest to actual internationalization as well as dialogue across research paradigms. Last but not least, Dervin has served as a regular member of the editorial boards as well as reviewer for a number of ICA’s official journals.

2. American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIST)

As part of American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIST), Dervin is an active member and has received its top award for merit in information science research in 2006. In addition, Dervin serves on ASIST’s editorial board of its official journal as well as known as the intellectual who gave momentum to the turn toward user-oriented studies of users. One of her literature reviews, “information seeking and use” written in 1986 is now a classic citation. Dervin is one from not many intellectuals that have gotten wide recognition in both fields of library and information science, and communication.

3. International Association for Media & Communication Research (IAMCR)

In communication field, other than be recognized as leader-researcher in UK-based ICA, Dervin is also an active member of Europe-based IAMCR. Dervin served on IAMCR’s governing council for ten years and led the organization’s book series. Thus, she is considered as one of few US based researcher who has obtained wide recognition in both US-based and European-based academic organizations.

4. Information Seeking in Conference collaborative (ISIC)

In library and information science field, Dervin has obtained recognition as a leader-researcher in US-based ASIST as well as in the Europe-based collaborative, namely ISIC. Other than that, she also acted as ISIC’s first significant plenary speaker at Finland in 1996 and at Australia in 2006. Not only she served as editorial board member, but she was also a reviewer for ISIC’s book and journal compendiums.

5. Editorial board and reviewing activities

Dervin is currently serves on seven editorial boards in information science, library science, and communication fields and serves as well as a regular reviewer for a list of fifteen journals. She served as editor of Progress in Communication Sciences for the first fourteen years of its publication, the first annual compendium (later published by Ablex) held in reserve to regular publication of state of the art reviews in the communication fields. Dervin, as senior editor also supervised some junior editors in their oversight of different communication-focused book series.

6. Authoring activities

The ISI index disclosed her works as cited more than 1,700 times in journal articles between 1970 and 2007. Dervin is estimated to be in the top .001% for scholars in the communication field as a whole. In other words, as a frequent author, Dervin is acknowledged as one of the most highly cited scholars in the fields of communication and, library and information science. Most citations on Dervin’s work focuses on the interrogations of methodologies used in analyzing users or audiences or patrons of a wide variety of communication and information systems. Sense-Making Methodology or what she calls “methodology between the cracks” developed by herself, pursues to address drawbacks in conceptualization and study of users as well as to provide a systematic approach at the same time, that can be used both qualitatively and quantitatively in developing critical practice for the design of responsive systems. Dervin also highlights that the latter can become possible only when communication is conceptualized and implemented communicatively.

7. Dissertation advising

For dissertation advising, Dervin has advised a number of doctoral dissertations and master’s thesis, most of which use Sense-Making Methodology in some way. Other than that, Dervin also use her website and email in order to provide advice regarding the use of Sense-Making, internationally. Numerous articles have been particularly dedicated to analysis of her work. In recent times, a doctoral student in Australia aimed his dissertation on the construction of meaning and significance of an “author” among information behavior researchers using Dervin as the ideal author.

8. Consulting with policy and service organizations regarding communicating procedures

Dervin held diversity of public information positions including communication specialist for the University of Wisconsin Center for Consumer Affairs, as well as public information officer for the American Home Economics Association, prior to graduate studies. Her research activities have blatantly fixated on applications to policy and practice for 35 years. She has consulted with a wide variety of organizations concentrating fundamentally on refining direct and mediated communication procedures within organizations and between organizations and their external constituencies. Her Sense-Making Methodology informed interviewing approaches are actively used by many such as librarians, social workers, peace negotiators, journalists, psychologists, and organizational knowledge management experts primarily in in Canada, Australia, California, and the state of Washington.

9. Focus of Dervin’s writings

The writing of Dervin is center primarily on meta-theoretic examinations of the requisites for conceptualizing communication communicatively, deconstructions of conceptualizations of users, methodological explications, and systematic studies on both quantitative and qualitative of user or audience sense-making and information seeking and use. In terms of common labels in current discourses, her work stresses on the philosophy of communication, dialogic communication, user information seeking and use, participatory communication, public communication campaigns, communication methodology, audience reception, and user sense-making. Although uses have come as well from a wide variety of other fields, persons drawing on Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology publish mostly in the library and information science, and communication fields.

10. Teaching activities

For many years, Dervin has taught diversity of courses including both literature surveys such as communication theories and philosophies of communication, and methodologies/methods such as user and audience studies, surveys, ethnographies. Dervin’s recent stresses in teaching have included undergraduate courses in knowledge, communication, power, and the in-depth qualitative interview. Meanwhile for graduate level courses, her emphases are in qualitative research philosophy and in-depth introductions to Sense-Making as interviewing approach and as methodology. For teacher ratings, Dervin’s are average or above in large population classes, and very much above average in smaller classes.

11. Research grants

Dervin has served as principal investigator since 1973, for grant and contract projects estimated at $7 million in current values. She is supported by agencies as varied as the National Cancer Institute, the California State Library, Ameritech, the US Office of Education, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.


The development of Sense-Making theory started off in 1972 where it was still in skeleton form. In 1983, it was articulated as Sense-Making. Under development since 1972 and first named as such in 1983, the term Sense-Making Methodology is now used to point to the methodological edifice that drives the approach and the terms sense-making and sense-unmaking are used to point to the phenomena the approach is designed to study (Souto, Dervin & Savolainen, 2009).

This theory portrays mostly on the intersections of the writings of European and American theorists in many field such as philosophy, sociology and cultural studies. The theories included John Dewey’s and Jerome Bruner’s constructivist learning theories, as well as many others. Other than that, Dervin also recognizes affiliates from different fields and discourse communities research funding agency, including scholars who have referred and used Sense-Making in their studies and researches. She also acknowledges her students and colleagues as individuals who have contributed in the development of Sense-Making Methodology over the years.

Other than Library & Information Science that applies Dervin’s Sense-Making, there are few other research fields that practicing Sense Making. For example, Russell’s sensemaking in Human-Computer Interaction, Klein’s sensemaking in Cognitive System Engineering, and Weick’s sensemaking and Snowden’s sense-making in Organizational Communication field.

According to Dervin (2007), Sense-Making has been defined as a ‘methodology between the cracks’ because it is informed by numerous research traditions, some of which are considered oppositional to each other, for instance, qualitative and quantitative, critical and administrative, American and European. As there are two kinds of theories; substantive theories and metatheories, with the difficulty of choosing, Dervin offers a third kind of theory which claims theory for methodology as a bridge between the two theories or in other words, “methodology between the cracks”.


Sense-making is a methodology whereby it includes an unambiguous view of human beings and the way they interact. As individual facing some problem or circumstances, he or she tries to make sense of the whole situation. Thus with their experiences or different sense-makings as well as the understanding of same occurrence are deemed as something that makes it possible to create a better comprehensive understanding. In other word, Sense-Making highlights on the significance of dialogue between different understandings of a situation along with the user’s understanding of a situation. This theory stresses on the discontinuities experienced by an individual when he or she encounters a gap and has to stop in order to find out what to do next. In short, Sense-Making in user studies concentrates on situations where an individual faces problems, the way the individual sees the problems and attempts to overcome them.


This theory being said is not simply a model of information seeking behavior but instead, ‘… a set of assumptions, a theoretic perspective, a methodological approach, a set of research methods, and a practice’ designed to cope with information perceived as, ‘… a human tool designed for making sense of a reality assumed to be both chaotic and orderly’ (Dervin, 1983).

Despites many researchers applying sense-making, none of them really deliver the concept or meaning of sense-making. Contradict to dictionary which provides better explanation ”When you make sense of something, you succeed in understanding it” (Collins 1987). In other word, sense-making is the act of gaining a grasp of something.

There are four fundamental elements of Sense-Making which are situation, gap, outcome and bridge. A situation in time and space, which defines the context in which information problems arise; a gap, which identifies the difference between the contextual situation and the desired situation (e.g. uncertainty); an outcome, that is, the consequences of the Sense-Making process; and a bridge, that is, some means of closing the gap between situation and outcome.


As the name implied, this theory is about human sense-making and sense-unmaking. It mainly focuses on dialogue and verbs instead of nouns. Instead of focuses on the objects that people do things with, this theory focuses more on the verbs as in what people, how they do it and why they do it that way. The dialogue here refers to the dialogue between an individual’s understanding of a situation and the different understandings of a situation. Dervin (2011) says the idea is to “stop talking to people in the nouns of our world, and allow people to put the nouns of their worlds on our plates, so that we can understand their material conditions. If we keep imposing our nouns, we’ll never hear. We’ll never find out.”.

Other than that, the Sense-Making theory demonstrates human information behaviour through time and space context or situation where the problems arise. This theory assumes that individuals move through space and time. Sense-Making studies in communication and information needs and use have found that patterns of gap-bridging behavior are better predicted by the way individuals define the gaps in which they find themselves, than by any attributes that might typically be used to define individuals across space and time, such as demographic categories or personality indicators (Spurgin, 2006). Even though people and situations perpetually changing, the patterns of interaction between them seem to be rather more stable.

In Sense-Making theory, its study focuses on human information use from the perspective of the user or individuals instead of the observer. This is because it assumes that user or individual is the expert of his own world and experience or situation. Spurgin (2006) states that since each individual is involved in developing strategies for bridging his own gaps, each individual consciously or unconsciously theorizes why certain strategies are appropriate or useful for him.

Sense-making theory emphasizes on the human information use as behaviors of a series of endless and continuous gap-bridging to construct sense of their world. As the concept reflects our everyday routine, it only makes sense that the process is ongoing and endless. Dervin (1998) states that the sense making and sense unmaking that is knowledge is a verb, always an activity, embedded in time and space, moving from a history toward a horizon, made at the juncture between self and culture, society, organization.


Dervin’s Sense-Making theory is widely used in many disciplines. Thus, there are various assumptions and principles as they differ from one researcher to another. We will be focusing on three assumptions in this study.

Firstly, Dervin (1992) states that the fundamental assumption is the ‘discontinuity’. Discontinuity or gap is one of the important elements in Sense-Making framework. It refers to the break that an individual needs in a particular situation. The gap existence requires an individual to find solution or seek knowledge or gap-bridging. This pervasive discontinuity can be evidenced in the difference between observations of the same person at different times, between different per-sons at the same time, and different persons at different times (Foreman-Wernet, 2003).

Next, Dervin (1992) states that individuals experience and observe their world differently and need to create meaning or make sense of their world. Humans always are potentially changing, or becoming, “sometimes decentered, sometimes centered, sometimes fluid, sometimes rigid” (Dervin, 1999). With their everyday routine being reflected, they will need to make sense of the situation on their own or by seeking way to overcome it. Thus, by focusing on perspective of respondents, the information or data obtained is more unambiguous and specific.

According to Foreman-Wernet (2003), information is not seen as independent of human being but as products of human observation in both physical time-space and psychological time-space according to the variation of people’s situations and experiences. He implies that information is the outcome or product resulted from human study in certain circumstances along with human experiences. Therefore, information does not come out of nowhere but instead a product of human’s activities.

Last but not least, information is created as a specific moment in time-space by one or more humans, but not in a strict constructivist sense (Dervin, 1992). Foreman-Wernet (2003) indicates that no human movement, either individual or collective, can be fully instructed or deter-mined a priori. That the only way to hear another’s world is to invite and assist the other in describing that world as much as possible entirely in the context of his experiences, understandings, and meanings (Dervin & Frenette, 2003).

Shown in Figure 1, an individual is seen trapped in a certain circumstance, constrained in time-space. The individual portrayed as crossing a bridge is used to figuratively describe the way that humans are required by the human condition to bridge gaps in an always progressing and ever-gappy “reality.” The individual is seen confronting a gap that takes place in particular situation. By means of the process of gap bridging, people pursue ideas or information and take part in other activities through the time-space continuum that lead to aftermaths.


In Sense-Making methodology, first it develops a plainly participatory and dialogic methodology for interviewing. As elaborated, the observation is on the individuals instead of observer. Thus, the focus is to ensure individuals speak their mind in order for researchers gain useful information. In the methodology, it depicts from the theory and executes the theory to the interview practices. Thus a concept of situation-gap-outcome is fully utilized in the process. Other than that, Sense-Making methodology also can be used in both qualitative and quantitative studies. For instance, focus groups, surveys, in-depth interviews, guided participant observation. In addition, this methodology directs varied interviewing approaches. Below are some Sense-Making methodology approaches according to Dervin (2008);

 SMM micro-moment time-line interview

Individuals are asked to recollect a time when something happened, and to narrate that something as if telling step-by-step of how it happened.

 SMM life-line interview

Individuals have to recollect all the events that fit the criteria of a critical entry – time/space is drawn out over the length of the informant’s entire life. After all the events have been listed, individuals are asked to recollect certain ones on which the list of queries will be triangulated.

 SMM micro-element interview

Individuals just narrate what happened but not in details or steps by steps.

 SMM outcome chaining interview

This approach focuses on how individuals build the connection between information and self.

 SMM Q/ing interview

The aim is to make use respondent sense-making to comprehend and expand specific messages.

 SMM focus group interview

In this approach, instead of allowing individuals to respond to others instantly after, even interrupting, all responses are recorded on a worksheet that requests for diverse types of common responses, such as agree/disagree. Therefore individuals can answer the list of queries without interruption, for first round.

In Figure 4, it shows a list of question that can be used in order to obtain results from each element. From this list, it expands the probability of questions related to study accordingly. Researchers or observers can develop their own question set based on this list.


Micro-moment time-line interview

Micro-moment time-line interview is the central technique of Sense-Making approach which involves enquiring respondents the details of what happened in a situation step by step or rather known as Time-Line step. Respondents then asked regarding questions they had, or thing they need to find out or make sense of.

Close-ended Sense-Making Interview

In this method, respondents are asked to anchor themselves in recent real life situation. After that, they are asked to briefly describe the situation and reasons why they choose that situation, followed by rating scale session.

Helps/Hurts Chaining

As for this methodology, it is focuses on how respondents seen information as helping or hurting. For example, the interviewer asks the respondent “And, how did that help?” or “And, how did that hurt?”.

Q/ing interview

In this technique, respondents are asked to read a message and stop whenever they have a question. Then the interviewee will conduct an in depth analysis for each question.


According to Dervin (2008), there are a set of primary instruction in the conduct of Sense-Making Methodology. We will be focusing on some of it. First, there should be minimal interference by observers and researchers. This is because Sense-Making focuses on informants and their experience, not on researchers. Great care is taken to allow the respondent rather than the researcher to describe and define the phenomenon in question (Foreman-Wernet, 2003).

Second, observers need to understand that informants come without preparation. They do not come with scripted answer and line. Instead they come with their experiences and will provide answer based on their know-hows. It would be spontaneous and unscripted and observers should be able to gain new insights.

Next, informants will have to talk only about situations that real and they have experienced. Here it emphasizes that informants should not make things up and instead tell about their reality and how they overcome it. Based on their experience, information obtained would help in the study.

Other than that, Sense-Making also instructs on the use of Sense-Making Methodology set of question in order to channel information answer and information to the principles of methodology, of verbs and dialogue. According to Spurgin (2006), researcher using the Sense-Making approach must take care to frame research questions and gather data in such a way that the expertise of the individual participant in the research can be uncovered and his theories elicited.

Last but not least, it also encourages the use of redundancy while interview process as it is an important tool in building the bond between informant reality and observers understandings. With use of redundancy, observers will be able to grasp the whole situation and the reality of informants. The information obtained is out of their box and understanding and solely from the perspective of users as the Sense-Making emphasized on.


From the explanation above, one can say that the fundamental theory is straightforward and effortless. The theory is presented to us in a form of a story that closely mirrors our everyday experience. It starts with an individual encounters a problem in certain situation. He needs to bridge the gap using information and solution or by using what he had experienced before. However, the outcome differs in every situation, as well as the individual might gain new insight. Solomon (1997) emphasizes that an important aspect of sense-making as a process is the struggle of people to understand a problem that drives them to seek meaning for in many situations and many circumstances they are content to take no such action.

Additionally, Sense-Making theory also seems to be universal. With this being said, this theory is applicable to several other disciplines and not limited to library science and information field. Dervin (2012) states that researchers who use Sense-Making as a theoretical base “publish primarily in the communication fields and/or library/information science fields although uses have come as well from a wide variety of other fields including, as examples: nursing, medicine, counselling, religious and spirituality studies, telecommunication policy, museum studies, journalism, web design, ethics, public education campaigns, audience reception, environmental education, technology studies, consumer and family relations, social work, cultural studies, psychology, political science, philosophy, sociology, architecture.” The reason for this is the fact that the theory is multidisciplinary: it holds elements of at least communication studies, cognitive science, sociology and information studies (Savolainen 1993b, 26).

Other than that, the strength of Sense-Making also lies on its methodological consequences as the whole process of sense-making can lead to the problem nature along with the extent of information need which generate outcomes out of it. Thus, observers will be able to understand more regarding the problem nature as they interview individuals who experienced it. According to Strom (2006), Sense-Making give a more valid description of possible problems and how they may be solved, than if users are asked to suggest improvements to an existing interface.


Despite the simple presentation of how Sense-Making theory works, the theory itself has never been clearly and thoroughly explained and brought down to the empirical level step by step. Morris (1994) found that most people “easily understand the notion of information in the Sense-Making approach after it has been explained to them. However, they do not see it this way without having it explained.”

Other than that, there has been insufficient discussion on the impact of empirical results on the theory. While many researchers apply this theory in their fields, there is no clear discussion of the results. Kari (1998) implies that the fuzziness of sense-making theory has apparently been such that it has even caused misunderstandings and misuses of the theory in some studies.

As the concept of sense-making applied, it is rather difficult to identify the theoretic foundations of this theory. With its universal nature, the meanings could be differing depending on the disciplinary or paradigmatic of the speaker. According to Kari (1998), the term sense-making has been used to refer to a set of assumptions and assertions, to a theory, to a set of methods, to a methodology, and to a body of research results. Sometimes, therefore, one sees sense-making referred to as a theory of conducting interviews about sense-making (Dervin, 1992). In other words, sense-making is sometimes assumed clearly or derived deductively. It differs depending on the speaker and the conduct of study.


In summary, compared to other theories, Sense-Making is a theory that focuses on individuals and their perspectives which has contributes to many other studies fundamentally. In development over thirty years, this theory is an adaptable and universal theory which applicable in many disciplines that however lacking of explicitness and development.


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