When your Model Doesn’t Work

People will often tell you that the PhD journey is often a tale of the unexpected: rarely the linear route that you might hope for or anticipate when you start out. I certainly found that to be the case in my own experience, but it has to be said, those twists and turns definitely enriched the journey (though some were painful at the time).

One of the perhaps unexpected aspects of my doctoral research involved the methodology itself. I undertook a qualitative study investigating how non-Māori librarians in Aotearoa learn about and engage with Māori knowledge. The research employed an approach adapted from Sense-Making, a distinct methodology and set of methods devised by Brenda Dervin and colleagues in the discipline of Communication Studies, but widely used in my own discipline (Library and Information Studies) due to its strong connections to information and knowledge.

Sense-Making is described by its creators as a methodology which incorporates a metatheory (a framework for creating theory) and a method (specific and detailed types of interviewing) based on a model or metaphor (Dervin, 1999). It is a process model where an individual is walking along in their life situation and they meet a gap in their knowledge or information which prevents them from proceeding (e.g. Dervin & Nilan, 1986). The individual must find a way to bridge this gap in order to move forward to achieve and outcome. There are factors which will act as helps, and others that act as barriers to moving forward.


So in the first stage of my research, which was interviews with non-Māori librarians, I used an approach based on one of the interviewing approaches used in Sense-Making, called life-line interviewing. This involved asking participants to list all of the instances of learning and engagement in relation to Māori knowledge that they could think of. They then chose between one and three of these instances to discuss in more detail. These detailed questions were based on the Sense-Making phases of Situation, Gap, Bridge and Outcome, and the factors which acted as Helps and Barriers to Sense-Making. Seemed straightforward, or so I thought.

But it didn’t take long to realise that perhaps there was a mismatch between how participants saw their journeys of learning about and engaging with Māori knowledge and how the Sense-Making model conceptualised them. Initially i thought that this was just my inexperience at interviewing, and while there was a certain element of that (strict adherence to the Sense-Making approach requires in-depth training in the specific approaches to interviewing, which was not available to me at that time), similar issues kept occurring over and over, which indicated that something bigger was going on. At the time though, I sat through a lot of my interviews feeling that it was all going terribly wrong and what was I going to do? I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be able to find any common threads with each interview going in such different directions and some with wildly different responses to the model I was trying to use to engage them. But I persevered, and really there was a lot of common ground covered by interviewees that I didn’t see initially.

When the interviews and focus groups were over and it was time to fully focus on data analysis, I was able to see beyond the difficult moments in individual interviews and reflect on some clear problems with the Sense-Making framework and approach for investigating how non-Māori engage with Māori knowledge. Some of the big problems were the fact that non-Māori would not necessarily get to a place of being ‘stopped’ and feeling that need to bridge a gap, because deciding not to engage is a socially acceptable option. This, along with the individual level focus of the Sense-Making process, highlighted the Western perspective of the model which created problems when applied to a topic at the interface of two cultures.

So don’t worry if your framework doesn’t work in the way you expected: take it as an opportunity to step back and learn even more about your topic.

To find out more about non-Māori librarians and Māori knowledge, you can access my thesis here: https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10063/9167/thesis_access.pdf


Dervin, B. (1999). On studying information seeking methodologically: The implications of connecting metatheory to method. Information Processing and Management, 35(6), 727-750.

Dervin, B., & Nilan, M. (1986). Information needs and uses. In M. Williams (Ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (Vol. 21, pp. 3-33). White Plains, NY: Knowledge Industry Publications.

About Kathryn Oxborrow

Dr Kathryn Oxborrow is the temporary Researcher Development Coordinator at AUT's Graduate Research School. In her PhD research she investigated how non-Māori librarians in Aotearoa learn about and engage with Māori knowledge in their lives and work. Kathryn is originally from the UK and moved to New Zealand in 2010.

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