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Systematic and serendipitous discoveries: a shift in sensemaking

Journal article
Authors Roy Liff
Airi Rovio-Johansson
Published in Journal of Documentation
Volume 71
Issue 6
Pages 1250 - 1264
ISSN 0022-0418
Publication year 2015
Published at Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI)
Pages 1250 - 1264
Language en
Keywords abduction, qualitative research, sensemaking process, serendipitous, serendipity
Subject categories History of Ideas, Business Administration, Learning, Social Sciences Interdisciplinary


Purpose This paper aims to enrich our theoretical understanding of the phenomenon of sensemaking where a conceptual shift was provoked by a serendipitous encounter. Design/methodology/approach A theoretical framework consisting of three elements of reflexivity: the cognitive, the social, and the normative, all of which support the study. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in the investigation of a serendipitous Episode that occurred in a larger research project. This Episode took place at a meeting between a social welfare officer and a psychologist in which they discussed the treatment of a psychiatric patient. When the psychologist left the meeting for a brief period, the researchers, unexpectedly, were able to interview the social welfare officer alone. Findings This interview revealed a deviation from the institutionalised patient treatment procedure that was explained to the researchers in earlier interviews. The study shows that shifts in sensemaking are possible when researchers are open to serendipitous encounters. This shift in sensemaking in this Episode was strategic because it concerned the most important element of the actor’s decision making: the cooperation around the patient in making diagnoses and in prescribing treatment. Research limitations/implications It is recommended that researchers use the theoretical framework of reflexivity to test their sensemaking processes as well as remain open to changes in planned, traditional methodological approaches. Originality/value The study applies a post-hoc analysis with reflections on serendipitous events that may guide researchers when they encounter unanticipated events and make anomalous discoveries.

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