By Steven E. Wallis and Bernadette Wright
How can practical mapping help develop interdisciplinary knowledge for tackling real-world problems — such as poverty, justice and health — that have many causes? How can it help take into account political, economic, technological and other factors that can worsen or improve the issues?
Maps are useful because they show your surroundings – where things are in relation to each other (and to you). They show the goals we want to achieve and what it takes to get there.
‘Practical mapping’ is a straight-forward approach for using concepts and connections to integrate knowledge across and between disciplines, to support effective action.
Practical mapping is based on research showing that we are better at understanding situations and reaching desired goals when our knowledge is more ‘structured.’ We can see the structure of our knowledge by diagramming it to create a map. Below is a simple hypothetical example of a map showing concepts (in boxes) connected by causal arrows. (This simple example is not intended to be a complete or accurate map.)
Each box represents something that can be described and measured in the real world (a variable). Each arrow represents the cause-and-effect relationship between the boxes (to the best of our collective understanding).
We can ‘read’ each arrow on the map as “more of this causes more of that.” Starting at the bottom and moving up to the right, you can see that, according to this map, the more taxes that are paid to the state, the more funds there will be for educational programs, which in turn leads to more educational programs, and that leads to more people with work skills – and so on.
In the above (hypothetical) example, the light-shaded boxes come from research related to the business community while the darker-shaded boxes are from researchers in education. The darkest boxes are where their research overlaps – the concepts are of direct relevance to researchers from both fields – where their research results overlap and so where their perspective maps may be synthesized.
Creating your own map
To create a map for your research topic, use information from a variety of sources, such as academic research, trade publications, interviews with experts, and stakeholders. Maps can show knowledge from qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods. As in any knowledge pursuit, more data sources are better.
Start by reading the text found in the research results from your sources. Find the concepts (whatever was measured); then identify the causal relationships. For example, a report from the business side might say something like, “When our businesses grow from collaborative marketing, we will need to hire more workers.” That might ‘translate’ into the language of boxes and arrows as shown in the above figure’s upper-right hand corner (Correction January 2023, this should read upper-left hand corner).
Once you get used to the mapping process, you can more easily create maps incorporating research results from other disciplines. And, you can more easily collaborate with scholars and practitioners from other disciplines to help them create maps and merge them with yours to create a more complete picture.
A particular benefit of practical mapping in supporting interdisciplinary collaboration is that it provides a ‘common language’ of measurement and causality. By looking at how the concept in each box is measured, and if research has inferred any causal relationships between the concepts, it overcomes a common problem where researchers miss valuable studies from other fields when they use different terms to describe the same thing.
Do you already use some (or all) aspects of the practical mapping approach? What kinds of mapping have you used for interdisciplinary collaborations? What has worked well, and what might be done better?
To find out more and for step-by-step instructions, with additional free handouts and guides, see:
Wright, B. and Wallis, S. E. (2019). Practical Mapping for Applied Research and Program Evaluation. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America (Online handouts): https://practicalmapping.com/
Biography: Steven E. Wallis PhD is the director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Social Theory. His research is focused on structural perspectives of knowledge to accelerate the development of more useful theory, within and between disciplines, to help individuals and organizations more easily reach their highest goals.
Biography: Bernadette Wright PhD founded Meaningful Evidence to help nonprofits leverage social research to make a bigger impact. She works with nonprofits that are advancing social justice and public well-being in the areas of health, human services, and education.