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Placing Youth Sensemaking Center Stage to Improve Opportunities for Success in Postsecondary Education

by Vicki Park, Makeba Jones, Susan Yonezawa, Hugh Mehan & Amanda Datnow - November 23, 2009

This commentary argues that researchers, educators, and policymakers need to better understand low-income youth's perspectives about the opportunities and barriers preventing them from accessing, persisting, and completing postsecondary education.

In the United States, there are approximately 16.3 million low-income youth between the ages of 16 and 26 (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2009).  A disproportionate number of these youth are African American, Latina/o, and/or living in households headed by single women from low-income and poor backgrounds (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008).  The public recognizes that our nation’s future prosperity depends on investing in youth, yet many U.S. children continue to lack access to high-quality, well-resourced schooling.  Unequal opportunity ties impoverished youth to perpetual low-wage jobs and creates conditions that chronically “disconnect” youth from school and work opportunities.

The Obama Administration’s concerted efforts to use higher education as a social mobility lever increase attention to low-income and poor youth’s attempts to obtain postsecondary educational (PSE) credentials. While the federal government efforts focus primarily on the technical (e.g. improving curriculum or teacher quality), organizational, and financial elements of higher education, many universities and colleges, community-based organizations, and philanthropies have sought to improve access to higher education for low-income youth by mounting a broad range of programs. In spite of these extensive efforts, however, only 12.6% of low-income youth complete a 4-year degree by age 28, and three-quarters of those individuals went directly into a 4-year university upon high school graduation, rather than gaining access via community college or other pathways (Feliciano & Oseguera, 2009). These sobering statistics seem to suggest that many of the programmatic efforts to increase postsecondary access and retention for youth in poverty are not making as big a difference as we might have hoped.

At the root of this problem appears to be a knowledge gap about the target population for such policies and programs. We posit that educators and policymakers need to understand better low-income youth's perspectives about the opportunities and barriers preventing them from accessing, persisting, and completing their education.  A content analysis of research articles on low-income youth and postsecondary education reveals that most research has been quantitative. There is a dearth of qualitative research, much less studies revealing youth voices.  Low-income students, while not completely invisible, are often marginalized in studies rather than being the focus (Park, Watford, Neilson, Malagon, & Del Razo, 2009). Understanding how youth interpret their lives and futures – particularly how they make sense of their opportunities and barriers – plays an important role in mediating their actions and interactions with PSE institutions. New policies developed to serve low-income youth that fail to account for their voices and daily experiences can inadvertently reinforce barriers to PSE.

Our purpose here is to foreground the concept of sensemaking as a theoretical and methodological tool to unpack the conditions and circumstances that shape youth’s choices at key life junctures. How youth understand their choices influences their interactions (or lack thereof) with postsecondary institutions. We review the evolving models of sensemaking and draw on theories of everyday life and organizational change. We then discuss how sensemaking enables researchers to unpack how youth interact with organizational and societal structures and underlying cultures.


Sensemaking, generally defined, is the process by which social actors make meaning of experiences and ideas. Sensemaking is important as it precedes and frames decision-making and action. It is the mediating process by which meanings are constructed and actions are developed. Researchers’ understandings of sensemaking have evolved over time beyond models of rationality. This development has resulted in increasing acknowledgement of the complexity and situated nature of human reasoning and action.

Comprehensive Rationality: Sensemaking as Instrumental Calculation

Earliest models conceived of social actors as gathering all relevant information, considering all possibilities, and rationally applying rules or criteria when making decisions towards a goal.  Origins of this rational model lie in a Hobbesian conception of actors as utilitarian and value maximizing. Weber (1947) elaborated this notion, while it reached its apotheosis with Parsons’ (1932) delineation of the theory of action in terms of a means-ends schema. Schutz (1962), Schelling (1950), Garfinkel (1967), and Allison (1971), among others, have restated it. Comprehensive rational actor models assume that actors dispassionately and deliberately choose among all alternatives displayed in a particular situation and make choices weighing costs or payoffs to move them closer to desired ends.

The limitations of comprehensive rationality became clearer when notions of bounded rationality (Simon, 1949) emerged which accounted for greater complexity in contextual situations and limitations on humans’ information processing. This “bounded” model of rationality recognized that social actors usually extract main features of a problem without capturing its full complexity. Bounded rationality theories recognize that people have limited resources to gather information and problem solve, as such social actors seldom consider all alternatives and pick optimal courses of action.  More commonly people find a course of action that is “good enough.” For example, deciding whether to go to college or get a job after high school is a complex choice influenced by the information one is exposed to, decision-making timetables, future aspirations and opportunities, etc.

From Rational Choice to Practical Action

Bounded rationality is superior to comprehensive rationality for research on sensemaking among low-income youth because it is more consistent with lived reality thereby assisting researchers to describe more accurately what social actors actually do in everyday problem solving situations of choice. But bounded rationality has its own limitations.  In particular, the specter of comprehensive rationality still hovers over it. Descriptions of bounded rationality project a sense that social actors are broken or deficient information processors because they settled on quick solutions or did not consider the full range of possibilities (Hutchins, personal communication). Furthermore, decisions are not always made in a linear and deliberative fashion as even models of bounded rationality suggest.

More recently, social actors have been depicted as “practical actors,” following routines and standard operating procedures within contexts that include cultural and political dimensions. These types of realizations have led researchers to move away from models of rationality—whether comprehensive or bounded—to an entirely different, third, way of thinking about sensemaking. Social actors face choices all the time, but in making choices, they seek guidance from the others’ experiences in comparable situations, or they repeat what they have done before in comparable situations. This idea—that “actors associate certain actions with certain situations by rules of appropriateness” (March & Olsen, 1984, p. 741 quoted in DiMaggio & Powell, 1991, p. 4) has been called “practical action.” Practical action is characterized by the use of routines, conventional practices, and standard operating procedures that operate in semi-automatic, non-calculative ways.  The focus on taken-for-granted processes and schema as they enter into routine, practical activity departs from the preoccupation of researchers who embrace more rational, calculative aspects of decision making.

Choices could also be governed by less obviously functional or instrumental reasons.  For example, youth’s choices regarding postsecondary pathways may be governed by emotional or cultural factors, rather than any sort of informed calculation of costs and benefits associated with particular paths of action (Alexander, 1987; Hargreaves, 1998).  This viewpoint ascribes a normative or “non-rational” base to actions, rather than viewing choice behavior as goal-oriented or utility maximizing (Alexander, 1987; Petracca, 1991).  Youth may forgo postsecondary education because of fear that it will separate them from their families or cultural communities.  Still, others may choose work over PSE because it reaffirms their sense of identity (e.g. Willis, 1977). When talking about youth choices, a host of factors including expectations, routines, and ideals are implicated in the process besides instrumental calculation.  Moreover, individual choices are not divorced from structural, political, and cultural considerations.

Sensemaking and the Social Construction of Identity

We are mindful of the dangers of magnifying individual agency and, in turn, obscuring the ways in which the larger context, such as the organizational field (e.g. education), enables or constrains these processes. Therefore, recognizing the dynamic nature of the sensemaking process requires examining how identity is formed through the interaction between how social actors view themselves (Varenne & McDermott, 1998) and how society views them. Social categories or positions in society – class, race, and gender – are not mere descriptors, they are lived experiences for youth when they move through their school day interacting with teachers and counselors, shopping at local malls, or looking for jobs.  Feminist scholars have long argued this point through standpoint theory, where they use the concept of positionality to explain how one's identity is always constructed in relation to the settings and contexts in which one lives (Banks, 1993; Collins, 1997).

The concept of positionality partly explains how unequal opportunity converges with individual agency.  In this way, choices and subsequent actions are prompted at the intersection of practical action and positionality.  Sensemaking is driven by what is meaningful, credible, and coherent to the social actor based on lived experiences across multiple social contexts (e.g., school, work, home, peer groups, church, etc.).

On the one hand, deficit orientations, theories of meritocracy, and rugged individualism and bootstrap beliefs can frame youth's identity and aspirations. On the other hand, institutional support systems can have an impact on the daily lives and academic trajectories of aspiring youth (Stanton-Salazar et al., 2000; Conchas, 2006). Capturing the complex ways students from poor backgrounds interact with various institutional agents requires careful attention to the cultural workings of institutionalized inequality and lack of opportunity.  

Young people make sense of the social circumstances in which they find themselves—even the most desperate conditions.  Youth from many social classes use communicative strategies to manage the impressions they convey to others about their identities and “world views.” The “lads” (Willis, 1977), the Hallway Hangers (MacLeod 1989), and the “vatos” (Foley, 1990)—three groups of young people descended from working class fathers—resist the norms and conventions of schooling, a sadly ironic strategy that condemns them to remain in the same socio-economic situation as their fathers. By contrast, Venkatesh (2008) shows us the confidence young men feel as gang members in a dangerous life.  MacLeod's (1989) brothers are examples of motivated black males working hard to achieve success through education even in the face of unequal opportunity structures in their high school and surrounding low-income Boston neighborhood. Middle class Mexicanos who were “makin’ it” did not necessarily abandon their historically grounded ethnic cultural practices; instead they added competencies in order to work the system as “clean cut jocks,” con teachers, and entertain friends.  These sensemaking strategies enabled these middle class Mexicano youth to have it both ways—becoming mainstream conformists while maintaining a cool ethnic image among their working class peers (Foley, 1990).

Some commentators have suggested that African American youth from low-income neighborhoods have adopted an oppositional ideology, “acting white,” that directly challenges conventional American wisdom about the relationship between academic performance and occupational success. The ideology and practice of resistance contributes to the lowly position of low-income Black youth in the occupational structure because they refuse to develop the skills, the attitudes, the manners, and the speech necessary for achieving success in school and the workplace (Ogbu, 1987; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). By contrast, although Black and Latino youth may describe certain practices as “acting white,” “acting black,” or “acting Spanish,” they employ these expressions primarily for cultural reasons not academic reasons, i.e., to facilitate in-group solidarity and to express cultural symbols of pride and self worth (Carter, 2005; Horvat & O’Connor, 2006).

In the end, students’ choices may in fact be motivated by a combination of structural, social, cultural, and individual factors and theoretical explanations. Central to this discussion, however, is an assumption that youth are in fact active choice-makers.  Institutional environments do not solely determine people’s actions. “Social actors [do not] function as passive role players, shaped exclusively by structural forces beyond their control; they become active sensemakers, choosing among alternatives in often contradictory circumstances” (Mehan, 1992, p. 3).  It is therefore critical to study youth sensemaking and the interaction among youth and the specific institutional contexts in which they spend their time. It is important not only to understand what youth believe and why, but also to interrogate how youth form their perceptions and beliefs. Such studies would offer policymakers, educators, and researchers a new perspective on areas of opportunity for improving rates of socio-economic success for youth from poor backgrounds. Ultimately, our purpose in placing youth sensemaking in the front and center of research on postsecondary access and opportunity is so that youth from poor backgrounds are better served by policies designed to improve and enhance their life prospects.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 23, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15845, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:21:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Vicki Park
    University of California, San Diego
    VICKI PARK is Assistant Research Scientist in Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
  • Makeba Jones
    University of California, San Diego
    MAKEBA JONES is Project Scientist at the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego.
  • Susan Yonezawa
    University of California, San Diego
    SUSAN YONEZAWA is Project Scientist at the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego.
  • Hugh Mehan
    University of California, San Diego
    HUGH MEHAN is Director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego.
  • Amanda Datnow
    University of California, San Diego
    E-mail Author
    AMANDA DATNOW is Director and Professor of Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
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