methodology Methods research methods

Situational Mapping

In my own research, I use various types of visually-oriented mapping techniques. Today, i want to talk about situational mapping, using the phrase developed by Adele Clarke in her work on situational analysis, but also drawing on traditions of concept mapping, mind mapping, or in my own history of teaching argumentation and public speaking, audience and context mapping, which I used long (decades!) ago to teach university students how to analyze rhetorical situations in preparation to build arguments that would be more persuasive because they would be targeted for various types of audiences.

Situational mapping brings more flow and movement into my own process. I’m an ethnographer trained in interpretive sociology, who has studied digital culture for more than 20 years now. While doing fieldwork studies of online relations and cultural formations (circa 1995), I realized boundaries of fields are discursive and interactive, not physical. Of course, they’re also material, but if we use ‘field’ to mean sites of meaning, or if we study culturing as a continuous accomplishment versus cultures as the static outcomes of interactions, then boundaries are made and remade, interactively and repeatedly, in variation.

More crucially and ethically, i realized that as i moved through various contexts and situations online, my own movements were creating these boundaries. I was moving along pathways toward meaning, but these were being generated by me, and I am bound by my own sight lines. As a caveat, I recognize this story oversimplifies the complexity of fields as networks but in longer treatments of this topic, I am rather more careful to include technology as an intimate relationship in this dialogic/dialectic construction of boundaries.

What becomes a unit of analysis, the object of the researcher’s gaze? Considering that we are also bodies, literally, conducting research, how can we get more of our senses in the processes of analysis? In a way that is simultaneously playful, sensory, and forensic, and systematic?

Mapping fosters a greater sensitivity to movement, connection, and serendipity, both in the phenomenon and also in the researcher’s relationship to the phenomenon. The goal is to embody the perspective of moving with and through the data, rather than standing outside it as if the phenomenon could be observed, captured, isolated, and scrutinized outside the flow.

One core idea in situational or context mapping is to generate visual renderings of situations under study, repeatedly. Which helps us orient ourselves in relation to the unit of analysis, as well as highlight the complexity of relations between various agents or elements of situations.

Rather than reducing the scope, this practice of mapping generates more data, more directions, and more and more layers of meaning.

To be less abstract about situational mapping

There are lots of ways that it happens. And it takes a different shape depending on whether you’re using it to open up research questions, a moment you observed, an emergent finding, a set of relations, or other.

My favorite starting point is to put a single word in the middle of the page. It could be a person, place, or thing, a noun or verb, or a short phrase. You put whatever it is, small in the middle of a big page, and then you write at the top of the paper the question that’s going to guide your brainstorming.

Let’s say I’m working on a project about how algorithms influence people’s everyday lives. Let’s say I want to focus on a specific pattern that I see emerging in some interviews I’m doing, Where participants talk about how they perceive their relationship with streaming services, like Netflix. The first says “I feel like i literally have no control over what i see on social media anymore!” and the other person says “Why can’t i find anything to watch on Netflix?”

I sympathize with both questions and my instinctive response is to ask “Why does this happen?” –but that’s not the best social science question. Instead, I generally start with a question that prompts my mapping like: “What are all the elements of the situation that are influencing it?” or more specifically, “What are all the human and non-human agents that influence the situation?”

This is a practice of systematic brainstorming. using words in circles, connected to other words in circles, by lines. It ends up showing you movement flow, and relations and margins and distances. It will identify some things that are obvious and show me some surprising elements. Either way, I’m just initially trying to identify everything that influences this situation. I’ll use space on the paper as naturally as possible and I try not to think too much as I do this. And then, after ten minutes, I’ll stop. Because otherwise I could just keep going on forever.

The next step is to pick any word on this initial map and put this word in the middle of a new page and start a new map. Here, I might ask a different question. That’s not because the first question is no longer relevant, or that the first map is complete, but that this new word probably would be easier mapped with a different question.

For situational mapping to be manageable, be sure to use a question to guide your brainstorming.

It may not be easy to find a great prompting question. Good questions come over time. I don’t worry too much about this. The entire mapping process is about testing many different types of questions – to see what works for you but what also opens up this particular phenomenon. And you’ll end up generating a lot of things you’ll never use in this iteration of maps, but some of this will be extraordinary and surprising.

I advocate three “back up” questions. These are my favorites when I get stuck or need a quick start for starting the process. If the first map is based on “what are all the human and non human elements influencing this situation,” then the next question might be: “who has power and who doesn’t in this situation?” And the third question might be: “how do I feel about this? Or how do they feel?

This is where it starts to gets messy: Because you’re going to open up what was a small unit of cultural information and explode it out into a million pieces–or what feels like a million pieces. Each map opens up new directions and possibilities. Following these pathways may generate entirely different sets of ideas about this topic. Maybe i started talking about Netflix choices, and now, on map 49, I’m mapping about sexism, because that’s just where the mapping led, in a systematic way. And I’m wondering: What am I doing this for? Instead of just abandoning this crazy messy process or leaping to some conclusions, I keep mapping.

After far too many maps and pieces of paper, I am likely to start again. But this will be a more informed and narrower set of maps. At this stage, I may start to limit myself to five words that matter to me the most at this moment, for whatever reason (hint: likely, these are emergent themes). I’ll put each one on five different pieces of paper and map each with a question like: “Why does this matter culturally?” followed by another set of maps of the same terms using the prompt: “What systems or histories might have caused this?” or “who benefits?” or “what or who is missing from this picture?”

This is actually a very natural process of making sense of anything you’re looking at or doing inquiry about in life. We move through environments and make connections and relations in our minds. We follow threads of ideas based on what we are attracted to….or maybe what repulsed by. In those disciplines where the main method is thinking, a lot of this analysis is not ever visibilized. Context mapping helps generate this visibility, when one can then start to reflexively and ethically analyze the logics, critically interrogate one’s own sight lines, or the desire lines that have been shaping what we pay attention to, without noticing. Finding and following this marginalia is quite important (for many reasons I don’t get into here).

Mapping defamiliarizes the context. It helps the researcher get past their initial, and very likely limited, perspectives. It’s a good technique, because once the researcher gets so far away from what they thought was the main point, they can actually start to see what may be a better point. They can start again from a more nuanced, informed perspective.

My five tips

  1. Put the date and a number X of ___ on every map.
  2. Map repeatedly, never just once, to build iterative strength
  3. Use micro moments and sub-questions rather than the whole field or main RQ.
  4. Use space on the paper as naturally as possible (for concept mapping) and then pay attention to the margins.
  5. Map longer than you want to, long after you want to quit. Don’t do it all at once.

Resources available on request.


Interested in pilot testing my forthcoming Video Series “On Method?”

Situational mapping is one part of the series.

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