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Participatory mapping


“Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are the stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used.” Warren, 2004

Participatory mapping is a group-based qualitative research method that gives participants freedom to shape discussion on a given topic with minimal intervention from researchers. Mapping can generate a rich understanding of the connections between people, places and organisations over space and/or time.

People taking part in participatory mapping

The approach attempts to subvert some of the power dynamics between the investigator and those being investigated allowing the space for participants to identify and define the issues, ideas and experiences that are important to them through representation on paper. For participants it can lead to new understandings of an issue, of a locality and the influences of wider social, political and economic forces. It may also increase the relevance of a study as the questions being asked are the important ones for those taking part. For the researcher it can often provide a surprising and rich set of data which can be both visual (the maps produced) and auditory (the conversations). 

Getting started

There are a number of principles to consider when running a participatory mapping session. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should be considered food for thought. 

  • The process of producing maps will capture both shared and distinct experiences of those involved in the study. It is important that both the maps and the discussions are captured by the researcher
  • The map should show information that is relevant to those taking part in the study. It should represent their agenda
  • The maps produced should be representative of the language and symbols used by that community. For example, if you are working with students and their social experiences of university, you might expect logos and symbols such as Facebook, or Twitter to emerge
  • The process of taking part in a session may lead to new understandings for both researcher and participants and can also facilitate further action
  • Maps do not have to be drawn on pieces of paper, they can be designed over time, with passers-by contributing over weeks or months, they can be created online or in all sorts of spaces

Deciding to run a participatory mapping session

Mapping can explore participants’ experiences over space or time – variations of the method include the production of timelines, volunteering journeys or ‘rivers of experience’ as well as maps of physical space.

Unlike a focus group, where facilitators ask questions from a pre-prepared topic guide, during mapping there are no set questions and there is minimal intervention from the researchers. This means the method is very flexible and can highlight issues that you could not have anticipated. You can also gather data from a larger number of people than is possible for a focus group in a short space of time. 


A successful mapping session relies on enough participants turning up in the right place at the same time, therefore careful planning is required. Recruiting participants can be the hardest part of the project, so ensure invites are sent out through a wide range of channels.

Facilitators need to pay close attention to the environment in which a mapping session takes place. This means you should think carefully about the time of day that you will hold the session. You will need to book a room large enough to allow people to walk round the room freely. Using places that are familiar and easy to find is essential.

Participants in mapping, like all qualitative research, must be able to give their ‘informed consent’ to take part. It is very important that the participants taking part in the mapping session understand why you are running the session, how the maps and recordings will be used and that they are free to leave the session at any time. You can explain this verbally to the whole group at the start of the session but you also should consider preparing a leaflet explaining the project. You must negotiate consent to record the session. It may be enough to ask the group if they feel comfortable doing so, having assured them that no-one outside the research team will listen to the recording. However, it may also be appropriate to ask each participant to sign a consent form – you could leave these on a table and ask individuals to come up during the session to sign as and when they feel comfortable doing so.

Ideally the room should be arranged with a number of round tables so that small groups are able to sit around each table. Cover each table in paper tablecloths or with large sheets of paper so that students can write or draw directly onto the table. Provide coloured pens, pencils, sticky notes or other drawing materials. Make sure you offer refreshments.

Remember the maps produced are not the only materials that will be analysed, the discussion is just as important. Mapping sessions should therefore be recorded, ideally using a digital recorder that you can borrow from your university. You should also have access to a camera so that you can take photographs of the maps produced – the original maps will often be difficult to store.


There need to be enough facilitators or helpers to make the session run smoothly and you should also be able to signpost participants to support or information services as needed.

It is important to note that the aim of the mapping session is not just to produce a series of maps, but to use the maps as a tool to encourage discussion. The role of the facilitators is therefore to get individuals to talk about what they are mapping and why. 

The facilitators should begin by setting the scene. They need to introduce the purpose of the research to the whole group, explain how the session will work, and negotiate consent to record the session (see above). It is then best to start with introductions and conduct an icebreaker activity to get the group warmed up and talking to one another.

A good plan is to then run an opening exercise such as asking individuals to write down answers to the question for example ‘What is the first thing that comes into your head when you think of the university?’. This gets participants thinking about the topic. They can then share their answers with others and begin to group responses into themes.

The next stage is to begin to ‘map’ experiences or ideas about the topic in a visual fashion. This may involve drawing or listing ideas on paper. The facilitator’s role here is to manage the process, not direct the content. A good facilitator should:

  • Ask questions that enable participants to ask right questions
  • Ask questions that enable participants to challenge assumptions 
  • Ensure participants follow through their own emergent ideas
  • Explore implications of connections that are mentioned
  • Ensure the essence of conversations is recorded / noted

It is important to end the session on a positive note as well as thanking the participants. You could ask each table to present their maps back to the rest of the group or ask each participant to offer a final comment.


Taking notes during the mapping is important, but these should be written up very soon after the session ends. It is wise to set aside an hour after the close of the mapping in order to type up notes and record your reflections of the session. Once notes are written up and transcripts produced, it is a good idea to hold a group analysis session with the people who took part in the mapping. You are analysing the maps produced, the content of conversations and the field notes or reflections produced by all the facilitators. Those taking part in analysis should begin by identifying the key thought streams or themes that seem to have emerged through the data – this stage is called ‘coding’. You can then begin to group related or linked streams and name these under themes. It is important to review and refresh the themes. You can write up a mapping session under a series of thematic headings, illustrated by quotations from participants and the images of the maps. 

External resources

The International Fund for Agricultural Development has produced this good practice guide for participatory mapping.