Understanding the mechanisms of meaning-making for transformations toward sustainability: contributions from Personal Knowledge Theory

Benita C. Odii, Yanyan Huang, Marie K. Harder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The concept of meaning-making is increasingly identified as a crucial process and an entry point for sustainability transformations in a wide range of contexts and approaches, but it has not yet been studied in this field as an independent concept. In other literature, meaning-making has recently been focused on, yielding valuable information on how to better conceptualize and design events to trigger transformations. Furthermore, that study indicated the presence of underlying mechanisms of meaning-making, which might provide further design insights and theoretical underpinning. Here we investigate those underlying mechanisms, in a case which spans the two literatures. Village leaders in Botswana underwent the specialist shared-values crystallization group process within the WeValue InSitu approach and underwent a sustainability transformation, producing a significantly superior climate change adaptation plan. Using micro-concepts from Personal Knowledge Theory for line-by-line fine-toothed analysis, we reveal mechanisms underlying meaning-making by individuals and the group. The findings show two distinct types of micro-meaningmaking sequences were found: one was assimilative and a rarer one adaptive, involving participants modifying some premises. This distinction allows the micromoment of individual transformation to be identified, allowing ex and ante study to understand better what happened beforehand to cause it, and how it led onward to group and wider transformations. Another finding was that paired cognitive and communicative processes make up iterative meaning-making sequences where individuals take in new stimuli, understand tacitly, articulate the new meaning moreexplicitly, and repeat. Micro-meaning-making thus appears to be micro-integration between aspects of knowledge: tacit/explicit; external/internal. Design implications involve better considerations on assisting participants to access their own tacit spaces; to ensure they have shared experiences which allow intersubjective interactions to trigger and accelerate individual and collective meaning-making; that this space is protected from interruptions such as latecomers, stop–starting the session, and facilitators inserting personal content.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSustainability Science
Publication statusPublished - 4 Feb 2024


  • Meaning-making mechanisms
  • Integration
  • Personal Knowledge Theory
  • WeValue InSitu
  • Sustainability transformations
  • Transpositions


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