Material Abstractions: using maps in ethnographic research

When I first saw a map of St Petersburg, my hometown, I was in my mid-twenties. I remember being at a loss. In front of me was a complete stranger of a city. I couldn’t locate any of the familiar streets and squares, parks and canals, not even my own house. I had come to know the landscape by walking it, measuring distances with my feet and eyes, never needing to check how I got from one place to another. I simply knew my way around.

Intimate knowledge of one’s home, neighbourhood or city, is embodied knowledge at its best. Intuitive and instinctive, sensory and corporeal, such knowledge is surprisingly hard to communicate and share with others.

The mental map of my hometown I had in my head was anything but cartographic. It didn’t consist of north and south, east and west. My city was made up of street crossings and shortcuts, bends in the river and bridges over it that went up at night. You could be stranded if you weren’t on the right side and the right time. It was visual, it was tactile, it was full of smells and noises, and it was uniquely mine.

This was why, when faced with an abstract, two-dimensional and impersonal representation – a map – it didn’t immediately line up with my city. However, as I kept studying the map, I slowly began to recognise familiar features, to connect the dots, to discover the known in the abstract. My embodied knowledge could now be dis-embodied, and then picked apart and communicated through navigational points of reference. I could tell a story of my hometown, my relationship with its distinctive spaces – and I could share it with someone else.

Our relationship with cities and the spaces we inhabit tell many stories about ourselves and our lives. As we cross our cities on our way to and from work, on a night out or on an errand, we are tangled in webs of social, cultural, and technological significance.

We choose one route over another, because it may feel safer, is more picturesque, or most efficient. We prefer certain city areas and avoid others. We use technology to plan our journeys, to count our steps, to keep ourselves entertained and communicate along the way. The decisions we make – on which route to take, or where never to go at night – are instinctive. We don’t need to rationalise them to ourselves or others. They simply make sense.

So how do we, as ethnographers, get to the heart of these intuitive, subconscious processes? How do we help people turn these implicit, unspoken understandings of a space – be it a city or their home –  into something they can share?

This is an important challenge because doing so will allow us to understand a commuter’s mobility needs and transportation challenges. It will allow us to grasp a person’s home ecosystem and appreciate the spaces within it.  It will help us appreciate the role – and the place – of technology in a modern household, or in a modern city.

Mapping people’s lifeworlds

We can always start by asking questions. Typically, we ask people to show, not just tell. As ethnographers, we participate and we observe. However, there comes a point where verbal communication can only get you so far. On a recent urban mobility project, we realised that to better understand people’s relationships with their spatial environment, we needed a map. A material abstraction that would allow respondents to graphically articulate mental models that would otherwise be hard to access. At minimum, we hoped people’s cartographic commentaries would allow us to better understand unfamiliar cities. But by asking our respondents to annotate city and neighbourhood maps, we invited them to share and communicate not only spatial, but social and emotional, functional and experiential aspects of their relationship with their city.

As they outlined routes and drew circles around neighbourhoods, people highlighted where work, leisure, socialising and other activities belonged on the map. We went on a captivating journey with them. We learned about the city’s mobility infrastructure – but also about its many faces, wonders and imperfections; we learnt about people’s socio-economic past and present, and about their goals and aspirations for the future. We learnt about parenting and dating, grocery shopping and networking. Moving up and down the map together with the respondent, we were able to get a bird’s eye view of their lifeworlds.

Mapping domestic space

The insights the map exercise gave us access to were of such value we decided to repeat the exercise in a study focused on technology in the home.  Moving from urban to domestic space we asked people to sketch a rough floorplan of their homes, highlighting where they socialise, seek peace and quiet, work and entertain themselves and others. This activity, followed by a home tour, allowed people to produce a visually compelling, representation that gave us insight into how they shaped and engaged with their home.

The floor plan showed us where they spent time with their kids, which areas were reserved for work and which were technology-free. Beyond the spatial ‘where’s’, we also learned about the ‘when’s’ and the ‘why’s’ and the ‘how’s’ of their household life. As people sketched and talked we learnt about the meanings of different spaces. We learned about the ebb and flow of their daily routine, understanding how certain actions took place in specific spaces. This approach allowed us to see where a certain type of technology did (or might) fit in people’s homes and lives – both spatially and conceptually.

Mapping meanings 

As we study homes and cities, families and individuals, we need ways to access the most habitual and embedded of practices, ones that are hardest to communicate and explain verbally. We need to find ways to access things which people don’t typically articulate.  Spaces (be they vast urban landscapes like São Paulo or semi-detached homes) are experienced with our bodies and senses. Our engagement – and therefore our understanding of them lies beyond words.

As Karl Polanyi put it “we know more than we can tell”. Maps can provide a bridge between the physical and mental spaces people inhabit as they live and make sense of the world.

They say a picture may be worth a thousand words. A map, it seems, offers so much more than a picture.