Massive and Microscopic Sensemaking Call

Call for Expressions of Interest

As the world grapples with the fallout from the pandemic of 2020, people everywhere struggle to deal with everyday challenges. [there are struggles but also the renewal of old hobbies, finding pride or joy in small details of home-bound life, communicating in new ways with neighbors, maintaining personal or intimate relations through digital media, and the seeming constant across many cultures and regions, dealing with the deluge of information about the virus]. In this rare moment, the entire population of humans on the planet are brought together, confronted with the same crisis. But the experiences are not the same. There are obvious class distinctions that contrast  grave vulnerabilities against extreme privilege. Some people are well equipped to deal with isolation or social distancing, while others find it traumatizing, paralyzing, exhausting. While some are able to work remotely from home, others have suddenly lost their jobs. And for those in essential service industries, daily work life continues, even among perilous circumstances. Thus, while it seems a universal experience, it is not.

This is a moment in time that highlights matters of scale. We conceptualize it as a planetary, global pandemic, yet the virus itself is invisible to the naked eye. We can access precise data about numbers of people dying per day per capita per city per country, and at the same time, we have nothing but uncertainty and vagueness when it comes to information about how long the virus remains on surfaces, how far the virus travels through the air between people, how many weeks or months we need to shelter in place, how long countries will remain closed. In so many ways, the issue is massive, and at the same time, microscopic. These scales compete with each other as explanations for the ethnographic question: ‘what is going on here?’ They compete for our attention. They are simultaneously dialogic, oppositional, both/and.

This macro/micro problem is natural to all sensemaking. For this special issue of Qualitative Inquiry, we explore this juxtaposition as both a finding and a method. As a unique contribution to multiple academic conversations in response to this global crisis, all authors focus on three questions together

  1. In these times, how are we making sense of the Self, the Other, and the World? 
  2. How is COVID-19 helping us think about the relationships between humans, machines, and the planet?
  3. through this pandemic, how might we understand the relation between massive and microscopic sensibilities and ways of knowing? 

These are questions of human experience, certainly, but also of how the relationships between humans, more than humans, technologies, and the planet are characterized, understood, enacted, lived. What lessons can we learn from using the microscopic as the whole, or vice versa, how can we use the whole as a way to make sense of the granular?

Author-participants-makers will address these questions through autoethnographically inspired lenses, performing from and through their bodies, situated daily routines, and relations with embedded, embodied, and everywhere digital technologies. Collaboratively generated, this special issue brings to life many of the complexities, profound paradoxes, fears, and hopes that characterize the entanglements that bring us together and also separate the planetary ‘us’ in this moment. These pieces blur the boundaries between the present moment and possible digital futures. As a whole, this special issue reflects and promotes particular ways of knowing central to the greater community of scholars using and experimenting with qualitative approaches.


This special issue uses the provocation of the COVID-19 pandemic to return attention to the interrelationship between the minutiae of everyday life and the ‘grand scheme of things’; how the global scale of this crisis can help us make sense of the micro. It will bring together a group of writers who also found their way to this sandbox and want to experiment with ways of knowing, ways of working together, ways of finding meaning through the deep exploration of one’s own experience; alone together. This project and the accompanying Special Issue will provide a selective history of this moment, a trace of the vividness of these moments that have transformed, and will  continue to change our lives and our futures.

The process:

If you’ve made it this far into the CFP, you might be expecting that the process is experimental. It is. This special issue will be co-created in collaboration with all the authors, online, using short (mini) writing/method workshops plus a sort of “21 day challenge” format, often used for building a yoga or meditation practice. You don’t have to be an autoethnographic expert to participate.

Potential authors will propose to be a part of the process and submit a 300 word abstract with an idea. (see above questions 1, 2, and 3) We will then workshop our ideas into an autoethnographic approach and subsequently, into articles. This process is therefore something of a cross between a set of mini master classes on auto ethnography and a writing club, with the outcome being a collection of pieces that have been nurtured in and with the group, eventually co-creating a special issue of a journal. 

Thus, contributors can expect some mini workshops on how to write autoethnographic fieldnotes that might resemble but differ from a regular journal of one’s daily life; how to practice reflexive self-analysis; how to mine one’s own memory; how to use cultural prompts on oneself as a form of elicitation; how to use visual moodboards as a tool to think with; how to use situational mapping to explore what’s missing, or hidden from one’s viewpoint; and how to incorporate juxtaposition, disjuncture, bricolage, or the uncanny in the process of generating materials, analyzing the situation, or writing/presenting/re-presenting what we think we know to others.

The timeline is short, intensive. This promises to be both satisfying and frustrating. Anyone may withdraw at any time if the process is not fruitful/fun. The end products may look and feel quite differently, or may end up as a cohesive unit. This will emerge.

Editor Team

Annette Markham and Anne Harris

Anne Harris: anne.harris [at] rmit {dot} edu {dot} au

Annette Markham amarkham [at] gmail {dot} com 


April 21: CFP distributed and submission form opens: 

May 5: Deadline for submission of 300 word (2000 characters) abstract/idea for the experimental project. Submit here:

May 11: Decisions about submissions and notifications sent

May 18: Begin experimental series of “21 days autoethnographic challenge” with daily prompts

Late May-early-June: Workshop with team for developing pieces

June: Drafts completed and submitted to various calls, including the Qualitative Inquiry Call specified above

August 1: If accepted to QI, Submission of final copy to QI for (their) internal review

This is an aggressive timeline. It may not work for those who are not prepared for (or able to gear up for) such intensity, but that’s ok! People who participate might have other outlets for their work than the special issue. In other words, participants should not feel pressured to produce for the journal, or on this timeline.

This timeline, with all its intensity, is intended to facilitate activities and a sense of community and collaboration. This will help focus our attention in the moment, so to capitalize on the currency, the feelings of …whatever…in this moment, that may actually fade as we incorporate new routines.

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