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Sense and sensibility

‘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.

L-R: Anton Wright and Mark de Rond, on their boat.
Mark de Rond and fellow rower Anton Wright, Brazil, 2013
Mark de Rond
Professor Mark de Rond

“Sensemaking”, 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.

The study 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.

Using video 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.”

Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville.
Co-author Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville

While the 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.

The paper – entitled “Sensemaking from the Body: An Enactive Ethnography of Rowing the Amazon” – is co-authored by Mark de Rond, Professor of Organisational Ethnography at Cambridge Judge Business School; Isaac Holeman, a recent PhD graduate of Cambridge Judge who is now Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Department of Global Health; and Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor in Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Find out more

Visit Professor Mark de Rond’s faculty webpage