‘Sensemaking’ comes from the body as well as the mind: a new study from Cambridge Judge Business School on a 2,077-mile rowing trip down the Amazon shows how the body’s capacity to ‘feel’ its surroundings can find a sensible way forward.
or how people work to understand ambiguous, novel or confusing issues and
events, is an influential area of organisational studies not usually associated
with nappy rash, food deprivation, and angst. But most academics haven’t rowed
2,077 blister-racked miles down the Amazon River.
A novel paper
from Cambridge Judge Business School about a rowing trip down the Amazon, just
published in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal, breaks new
ground in the emerging field of “carnal sociology” by focusing on how
sensemaking can unfold from the body.
revolves around the 2013 voyage by study co-author Mark de Rond and a fellow
rower from Cambridge, Anton Wright, who rowed from Nauta, Peru, to Macapa, Brazil,
in 32 days, earning a place in Guinness World Records for the first row
of the navigable length of the Amazon. The great river varies in width from 200
feet to 120 miles, depending on rainfall, and is widely considered the world’s
most hazardous and voluminous.
In contrast to
prevailing beliefs that sensemaking is principally a cognitive activity, the
authors use the Amazon trip to show how the body itself initiates the process
of making sense of uncertain and ambiguous situations. While sensemaking is
typically studied for its importance in guiding decision making, when people
face sometimes dramatic uncertainty in their organisational environments (think
NASA’s Challenger disaster or the current coronavirus outbreak), sensemaking is
increasingly seen as important to how people navigate daily ambiguities.
The Amazon row
showed how everyday sensemaking relies not just on people’s minds and talk, but
on their bodies’ capacities to sense, suffer, and experience the present
through individual embodied histories, including muscle memory. The study emphasises
how a rower’s hunt for currents isn’t just a matter of thought and navigational
skill, but also a “standard bodily practice” often done “through
feel, by their hands, legs and backs noticing the movement of the boat and
transmitting information about the boat’s direction and the other rower’s
intentions through the boat and oars.”
The study’s findings
reflect an analysis of 755 video segments filmed on board the bright yellow ocean-going
double scull. The analysis also relies on a first-hand account of “how
things felt” on the Amazon trip – physical pain, claustrophobia, exhaustion,
the bodily reaction to wind and currents – in shedding new light on how the
body is deeply complicit in the otherwise social process of sensemaking.
footage to detect the real-time engagement of the body in sensemaking revealed
that “the body’s capacity to ‘feel’ its surroundings, or its sensate
nature, can be critical to finding a sensible way forward,” the study
concluded. “The relative lack of talk in many of these sensemaking
episodes highlights the importance of the body not simply in service of the
mind but also as a means of acting in sense.”
setting for this study is unusual, it extends existing work on the role of the
body in more mainstream organisations, such as investment banks, hospitals, and
computer gaming companies. Anyone working in contemporary organisations will no
doubt recognise that how they are feeling physically, emotionally, and in
relation to the others around them crucially underpins how they think and
interact. The article leverages the unique Amazon rowing data to unpack the
body’s central role in sensemaking, which until now has largely ignored the
importance of bodily senses, skills and situated experience.