The world loses a treasure: My interactions with Brenda Dervin
Naresh Agarwal, Simmons University
Brenda holding a “Dr D. puppet made by students”
Brenda Dervin, one of the foremost thinkers of our time, died in Seattle, Washington as the year ended on December 31, 2022. She was 85. Along with her Sense-Making Methodology, cats and birds, and interest in reading, writing, poetry, art, and music, among others, she was passionate about “humans who commit their lives to justice and the improvement of the human condition”. She wrote in her university bio, “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I consider myself a postmodern modernist. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, a modern postmodernist. On Saturdays, I rest.” She died on a Saturday.
Brenda Dervin was Professor Emeritus of Communication at Ohio State University. She was a Fellow of the International Communication Association and served as its first female president from 1985 to 1987. She is famous for her work in the fields of communication and library and information science, best known for her Sense-Making Theory and Methodology, which has been widely adopted and applied by researchers across disciplines. A frequently-cited author, she has more than 17,000 citations on Google scholar.
I have been among the countless researchers who have been enamored by the research and writings of Brenda Dervin right since my Ph.D. days. Even as part of academic writing, Professor Dervin’s writings were refreshing, and forthright, and broke several rules. I learned more about her work, first when she identified as the reviewer in an early 2006 manuscript that was eventually published in March 2022 in Information Research (“I used Dervin above as my example because, of course, as you may guess I am Dervin”), and later in the 2012 paper summarizing the Sense-Making Methodology. I quote Dervin’s past writings in the 2012 paper where she says, “we need to find a way to help people be tolerant of the fact that other people see the world differently and that not all differences between human beings need to be resolved.” In navigating between various polarities such as quantitative versus qualitative and theory-driven versus practical, Dervin termed her quest as her “schizophrenic search for the ‘in-between’” or “philosophically anchored methodological consideration”. Dervin wrote that “I felt it must be possible to do audience studies capitalizing both on the systematizations that typify quantitative studies and the interpretive and critical sensibilities that typify qualitative studies.” These considerations led to the development of the Sense-Making Methodology.
I saw in Dervin a philosophical and intellectual mentor, and identified completely with her, especially in dialectic thinking and in my refusal to slot people and things into categories. She was a person I had never met, apart from seeing her from a distance at an ASIS&T Annual Meeting luncheon, and short, infrequent email exchanges over the years. A big moment came in August 2021 when she agreed to be interviewed by me. In the multiple recordings we did that September, email exchanges, zoom meetings, and phone conversations until February 2022, she turned from Professor Dervin to “call me Brenda”, “you get [understand] me”, “if you hear a sound, it means I fell.” Then she would add, “you were supposed to laugh.” 🙂
In preparing for the interview, she wrote to me “it appears that when you’ve worked in the field for 60 years you’ve got a lot to think through! also I think that because I was a first female of reputation across these growing enclaves what really happened is that I was in many ways both fortunately and unfortunately a kind of gadfly that cut across all of these different fields and whose purpose was not to advance them but to advance the interest in communication defined broadly .. I think I had a little success with this mission which was my only mission. I say a little success. It certainly wasn’t large!” Professor Dervin was being modest. Because of her neck injury and her disability, she said she would do the interview laying down on her side talking into the iPhone. She also told me, “You will be the last person I will be interviewed by”. When I would protest, she would say, “I get around in an electric scooter. I am 84 and falling apart.”
The fascinating interview of over 2 hours is available on the Project Oneness World website. She talks about her life including misogyny, contempt, neck injury, disability, and her refusal to be slotted or to slot people into categories. I would highly recommend the reader to at least watch from this point, where she talks about happiness, and death, this being her last interview, and gives mentoring advice for people. Here’s a one-minute trailer.
Project Oneness World interview – September 2021
When she listened to my ASIS&T business meeting speech on taking over as ASIS&T President in November 2021, she wrote saying “Read ur asist speech. You are very special. ”. I was not any more special than what she made me feel. Brenda knew how to praise effusively and to be deeply grateful. I’m sure she would have praised her students, colleagues, and caregivers equally and made them feel special. Christine Urquhart, Senior Lecturer Emeritus, Department of Information Studies, Aberystwyth University, UK, who first informed me of Brenda’s passing, said that she had received these descriptors for Brenda – “a mentor”, “a rockstar”, “force of nature”, “an inspiration”, and “indomitable”. She was certainly all of these and more.
Sanda Erdelez, Professor and Interim Dean, College of Organizational, Computational, and Information Sciences, Simmons University (who Brenda had described to me as “one of my favorite and most respected LIS folks.”) had described Brenda to me as a national treasure. In Brenda’s passing, the world is less rich as it has lost one of its valuable treasures. I have lost a person I deeply admired and a valuable friend. ASIS&T and the Information Science and Communication communities have lost a stalwart.
At one point during the interview, she said, “Keep in contact with me. I love you. I can hope the feelings are mutual.” They are 🙂 Farewell, my inspiration and friend, and an inspiration to all those who have known your work and will continue to know and build upon. Sense-Making will keep making sense!
Naresh Agarwal is the Immediate Past President of ASIS&T and Professor and Director, Information Science & Technology Concentration at the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University. He can be reached at [email protected]
Useful links on Brenda Dervin and Sense-Making
Sense-Making Methodology Institute https://sense-making.org/
Agarwal, N.K. (2012). Making sense of sense-making: Tracing the history and development of Dervin’s Sense-making methodology. In T. Carbo & T.B. Hahn (Eds.). International perspectives on the history of information science & technology: Proceedings of the ASIS&T 2012 Pre-Conference on the History of ASIS&T and Information Science and Technology. (pp. 61-73). Medford, NJ: Information Today.
Agarwal, N. K. (2022). Integrating models and integrated models: towards a unified model of information seeking behaviour. Information Research, 27(1), paper 922. https://doi.org/10.47989/irpaper922
Dervin, B. (Feb 2011). Connecting with Specific Publics: Treating Communication Communicatively. Eastern Spotlight: Brenda Dervin, Lecture at Les Schwab Room, the Spokane Arena. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foyH6eoIseQ
Dervin, B. and Foreman-Wernet, L. with Lauterbach, E. (Eds.) (2003). SenseMaking methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Kelly, M. (2021). An interview with Professor Emeritus Brenda Dervin,
The Information Society.
Reinhard, C. D. (2022). A Conversation on the History of Paradigmatic Dialogue in Communication Theory: Brenda Dervin and the 1985 ICA Conference. In The Handbook of Global Interventions in Communication Theory (pp. 29-41). Routledge.
Urquhart, C., Lam, L. M. E., Cheuk, B., & Dervin, B. (2020). Sense-making/sensemaking. Oxford Bibliographies in Communication.