Systematic and serendipitous discoveries: a shift in sensemaking

Roy Liff, Airi Rovio-Johansson
  • Journal of Documentation, October 2015, Emerald
  • DOI: 10.1108/jd-08-2014-0107

A shift in sensemaking caused by unexpected discoveries.

What is it about?

This paper aims to enrich our theoretical understanding of the phenomenon of sensemaking where a conceptual shift was provoked by a serendipitous encounter. A theoretical framework supports our study consisting of three elements of reflexivity: the cognitive, the social, and the normative. Semi structured interviews were conducted to investigate a serendipitous Episode in a larger research project. This Episode occurred at a meeting between a social welfare officer and a psychologist discussing the treatment of a psychiatric patient. The latter briefly left the meeting and gave us the unexpected opportunity to interview the social welfare officer alone. In that interview, we revealed that the Episode illustrated a deviation from the institutionalised patient treatment procedure, explained to us in previous interviews. The study made visible the kind of shifts in sensemaking are possible when researchers make themselves open to serendipitous encounters. This shift was strategic because it concerned the three most important aspects of the actor’s way of making: how to make diagnosis, treatments and cooperate around the patient. Findings suggest that we recommend researchers to use a theoretical framework of reflexivity to test their sensemaking process and remain open to changes in planned, traditional methodological approaches. The study contains a post-hoc analysis and reflections of serendipitous events that may help guide researchers encountering unanticipated and anomalous discoveries.

Why is it important?

We recommend researchers to be open to changes in planned methodological approches as well as to use the theoreticak framework of reflexivity to test their sensemaking process.


Professor Airi Rovio-Johansson
University of Gothenburg

I think this research work was surprising for us, since we had not experienced that before.

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The following have contributed to this page: Professor Airi Rovio-Johansson