A mapping tool for researching space and place

NCRM news
Michael Donnelly, Sol Gamsu and Sam Whewall, University of Bath

Space and place are increasingly on the research agenda right across the social sciences – creating enormous challenges for researchers – not least given the huge theoretical debate about what constitutes the spatial and its highly elusive nature. For the past year and a half, we have been carrying out research to understand the spatial imaginaries of young people on the cusp of progressing to university – harnessing their orientations to space and place using a new mapping method we developed.

This research is part of a 3-year study into the geographies of higher education, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (award no. ES/N02121/1) – which has involved over 180 young people across 20 fieldwork sites from all four corners of the UK. The mapping method developed through the programme of research provides an ideal tool for use in researching a wide range of other social phenomena.

Half a century ago, Gould and White1  presented their new cognitive mapping method, one of the early methodological developments in this area. Cognitive mapping methods since then have been developed and used in myriad ways across academic disciplines. In building on this work, and crafting our own methodological contribution to researching space and place, we had four guiding principles in mind:

1. Foregrounding geography.  We aimed to elicit perceptions, feelings and orientations that were explicitly geographic and concerned places participants inhabited as well as their sense of the ‘other’ in geographic terms.  

2. A weak framing of space and place.  Where conventional maps, ideologically and artificially carved up with borders and/or formatted according to particular structures, are used, participants’ imagined geographies are strongly framed for them.  In foregrounding geography, we intended to loosely frame the research instrument in order to allow for the widest range of possible imaginaries to be elicited.

3. Capturing subjective vantage points.  A key challenge is to capture the specificity of place; the multiple and unique perceptions of what constitutes a place; and how places are both spatially and socially connected/disconnected and proximal/distant in the minds of individuals.  

4. A relational geography.  Our method seeks to explore young people’s broader geographical imaginary. This allows for the relationality of place to be captured – how, for the individual, meaning is attached to place through its relation to another place.

The method we created involves participants completing a ‘mapping exercise’ prior to an individual interview. For our own project, we were interested in the UK, and so the mapping method only presented a map spanning the UK territory – however, the method could be adapted to capture a wider or smaller geographic area – to suit the particular research project. The mapping tool contains other relevant information on the research project as well as instructions on what to do. In completing the mapping exercise, the participant is asked to colour-code their printed map according to the following key: green = ‘places where you would prefer to live [in our case, for university]’; red: ‘places where you definitely do not see yourself living [for university]’; orange: ‘places where you would not mind or are indifferent about living for university’; blue: ‘places you do not know or haven’t really thought about.’ The map provided omits place names and county/national borders, so that participants’ geographical perceptions are not framed for them; rather, they are permitted to show the researcher their subjective geographic imaginaries. In using the method, this sometimes resulted in participants inaccurately labelling places. Whilst some could see this as a drawback, in many ways, any geographic inaccuracies are important and insightful data in themselves.

The follow-on interview provides an opportunity for participants to narrate the construction of their map to the interviewer. In our research, this began with participants being asked “tell us about your map and how you came to use the different colours” – which generated a very detailed and thick description of young people’s geographic imaginaries – feelings and perceptions about different places in the UK, stories they had heard about places, experiences of being in different places etc. Underlying their narratives was a highly subjective conceptualisation of space and place – to some young people, cities, towns and villages figured heavily, whilst others conceptualised it in a broader sense of broader regions or countries within the UK. What is clear from developing and using this method is the advantages it bring to the research process. In a forthcoming journal article, we outline what we believe are its five key affordances in eliciting the spatial imaginaries of research participants. The mapping tool provides a further alternative to the standalone interview in researching spatial phenomena across the social sciences.


1 Gould P.R., White R. R. (1968) The mental maps of British school leavers. Regional Studies 2(2): 161-182.