Ethnographic Mapping

Ethnographic Mapping

Tom Martin, PhD


Because human action is closely tied to the physical spaces in which it unfolds, it is important that ethnographers pay close attention to the role that their location and surroundings play in their research. Maps allow us to record how our participants move across landscapes and through time, interacting with physical environments and with other people. As with all ethnographic recording, maps represent the ethnographer’s interpretation of people, places, and events; mapping is another way to record your unique perspective on how your research participants lead their daily lives.


While maps traditionally record physical spaces, like the layout of cities or patterns of movement within the workplace, they can be used to represent much more abstract things as well. In this chapter, we will begin by discussing maps that represent physical settings, then move on to talk about mapping life histories, organizations, and processes. These other kinds of mapping will allow you to interpret and represent more than just the setting of your research, showing the audience the ‘how’ and ‘why’ aspects, rather than just the ‘what’ and ‘where’. Regardless of what you are mapping, however, this chapter will stress that maps should always be clearly understandable, making the information that they present immediately accessible to the reader.


Throughout the chapter, I will illustrate each kind of map that I discuss with examples from my own research, where I conducted an ethnography in the wooden boat builder’s workshop, studying how apprentices learn the trade. I encourage you to look at each of the maps I made very closely, then think about how you might have done it differently yourself.


Mapping spaces


When you picture a map, you probably think of a road map, with intersecting lines indicating highways and city streets. Perhaps you think of a digital version with GPS, like what you have on your phone, since those have largely replaced printed maps in day-to-day use. These classic maps are ‘spatial maps’, representing physical spaces.


Ethnographers have long been interested in spatial maps because cultures are often better understood when the physical spaces occupied by the people of those cultures are taken into consideration. Ethnographic maps are different from traditional maps, however, in that they do not just represent the geographical features of a particular space; ethnographic maps also indicate how people interact with a space, or how particular spatial features interact with cultural practices (Pelto, 2016).


Take a look at an ethnographic map I made in one of the boat-building workshops where I did my own research (Figure 1), which has all the important tools and machine labelled. Note the rectangles labelled ‘table saw’, ‘shop saw’, and ‘bandsaw’, the names of tools that my fieldwork participants and I used every day.


Figure 1: A map of the ship’s workshop, from my own doctoral research

What makes the map above ethnographic, rather than just spatial, is that it also indicates how my participants and I used the space. At the top of the map, you will see two colored circles; these mark the general area in which my colleague Bennie and I would set up our work. As you can see, Bennie – who was much more experienced, having been a carpenter for decades – took up most of the prime space in the workshop, situating himself directly between the most common tools. I, on the other hand, claimed only a corner of the workshop, over by the refrigerator where I could not easily be seen. Because I was a new apprentice at the time, I wanted to stay out of sight while I worked on my projects so that no one could see the mistakes I was making. These interpersonal aspects of fieldwork, like participants hiding away or taking ownership of an important space, are important for fully understanding cultural interactions, and are usefully captured in a spatial ethnographic map.


In my research, because I was studying how people learn professional skills, I mapped out where people at different skill levels established themselves in the workshop and how these patterns changed over time. There are endless other ways I could have mapped out the same space, however; for instance, if I had been researching the effectiveness of the layout of the workshop, I would have marked every place where two carpenters accidentally bumped into each other (which happened all the time). Likewise, if I had primarily been researching social interaction in the workshop, I would have noted the places where my participants would sit at the end of the day, relaxing around the wood-burning stove on make-shift stools. When you make your own ethnographic maps, always remember to keep your research questions in mind to ensure that your maps present information that is highly relevant and support the goals of your research project.




Non-spatial maps


While the most common kind of ethnographic map shows a physical space (like the map in Figure 1), you can use maps to illustrate a variety of non-spatial phenomena as well. The following three sections will each describe a different kind of non-spatial mapping: life history maps, organizational maps, and process maps. Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list of mapping techniques, and that you should feel free to experiment with mapping in your own research to capture and interpret anything that you feel is best conveyed with images and diagrams, rather than just through text.


Life history maps


One useful non-spatial mapping technique is making ‘life history maps’, timelines on which your participants can indicate key events that relate to your research questions. In my own research, I asked my participants to map out the history of their careers as boat builders, indicating where they worked and what they learned. In the map below (Figure 2), a master boat builder named Lou drew a complicated map that shows the various phases of his career. Using a selection of colored markers, Lou indicated the different communities he saw himself as being a part of as his career progressed – brown was his community of school friends, green was his family, and purple indicated the wooden boat building community he belonged to when I met him.


Figure 2: Lou’s career map


As you can see from the complicated map above, I let my fieldwork participants represent their own life histories in this exercise, and some (like Lou) came up with fairly complex ways to draw out their stories. The great advantage of having your participants draw their own maps is that they get to draw out their life histories exactly as they understand them, using whatever format they think makes the most sense. A drawback of this technique, however, is that no two maps are every directly comparable, since everyone creates their map in a unique way. If you want all of your maps to make sense as you look at them side-by-side, you should either specify precise instructions for your participants or draw the map yourself as your participants narrate their life story. If comparability between maps is not a major concern for your research, then letting people draw their own maps is a great way to get graphical representations that you would never have imagined on your own.


Not all life history maps display stages in a person’s career, although the prominence of work in people’s lives usually means that jobs appear somewhere on a life history map. If you want to record how people moved around over the course of their lives, you might consider combining a life history map with a spatial map, drawing lines of movement over a map of the state, country, or whole world. Alternately, if your research questions refer to figures your participants can measure (or even estimate), you might want to use a life history map that looks more like a line graph, with dates on the X axis and something like income or personal happiness on the Y axis.

Organizational maps


Another helpful mapping technique is called ‘organizational mapping’, in which the researcher creates a graphical representation of an organization, community, family, or other social structure. These maps are helpful for two reasons: First, they show the reader who the key players in the ethnography are, and how those people relate to one another. Second, organizational maps illustrate identities and power relationships, helping the reader to understand the social structures that govern the participants’ behavior.

Figure 3: An organizational map of one of my fieldwork sites

In the map above (Figure 3), I displayed several of my colleagues in the boat workshop, showing their professional roles and where they fit within the organizational hierarchy. As you can see, the map immediately conveys the sense that the workshop had a tight hierarchical structure, with one person on top and increasingly-larger groups below them. Color-coding the different professional roles helps the reader to immediately understand that the volunteers in the workshop (orange) far outnumber the permanent staff (black and red), indicating a key aspect of the power dynamic in the workshop. Maps like this can be comprehensive – that is, they can list every person in the organization – or they can be representational, like this one, where only the most important players are mentioned by name. The empty circles in the map above indicate people who were present in the workshop during my research, but whom I did not observe directly; it is helpful to give the reader this overview of your fieldwork setting in addition to specifics about people you focus on in the written text.


When you are making your own organizational maps, make sure to consider how the overall shape of the map relates to the information it displays. Since the map in Figure 3 shows a hierarchical structure, a pyramid was an obvious choice. If you are mapping a co-operative organization where everyone has equal decision-making power, however, you may prefer to arrange your icons in a circle. For organizations that share members, such as project groups within a corporation, you may choose to use several overlapping circles, resembling a Venn diagram. Whatever shape you choose, make sure that it immediately conveys some significant aspect of the organization you are representing, and that the aspect being displayed is relevant to your research questions.

Process maps


An important aspect of ethnographic research to keep in mind is that human beings do things. Ethnography is never static; it describes people moving, making, and generally getting things done. Sometimes, you will need to map out these processes for your reader, who might have a hard time understanding your written description alone. Take for example the following description of knot-tying from my project:


To teach the knot, the beginner is given a mnemonic story of a rabbit popping out of a hole, running around a tree, then retreating back into the hole, in which the rabbit is the end of the rope (in blue in Figure [4], left), the hole is a loop in the rope’s middle (red), and the tree is the ‘standing end’, the section of rope not being manipulated (green). This story is recited during bowline-tying until the novice can see the different parts of the knot as it develops, at which point the procedure becomes obvious and the mnemonic is no longer needed. (Martin, 2019, p. 199)


On its own, the written description above is hard to follow. Looking at the accompanying pictures (Figure 4), however, it makes a lot more sense:


Figure 4: A process map of knot-tying

The left-hand image in Figure 4 is overlaid with three colored lines, indicating the different parts of the knot that my participant is tying. This image may strike you at first as being a photo illustration, rather than a map, but remember that ethnographic maps are defined by the recording of human action and interaction in space or over time; from that perspective, mapping the movements of a person’s hands as they do culturally-significant work is certainly an example of ethnographic process mapping.


In the ethnography of work, process mapping is often essential for conveying the complex activities within productive occupations. You might be interested, like I was, in recording the steps in a skillful activity. Alternately, consider recording how people interact with machines at their jobs, or how logistical supply chains keep the workplace running. Each of these processes are more clearly represented to your reader in images, since they have several inter-locking activities happening in parallel.


Map-making techniques


Now that you know some of the different kinds of ethnographic maps available to you, how do you actually go about making one? As you have probably guessed, most ethnographers do not have the resources to bring advanced cartography equipment into the field – and even if they could afford such luxuries, they would generally be too busy conducting participant observation to use them. Luckily, ethnographic maps are not primarily concerned with spatial precision; that is, measuring distances within the workshop down to a quarter of an inch is not nearly as important for an ethnography as recording how, when, and where people move throughout a workplace. Here are some suggestions for how you might collect the information you need for an ethnographic map:


  • Work from pictures: You may not have time to sit down and draw out the maps you want while you are fully immersed in fieldwork. Instead, consider taking as many pictures as possible, then reconstructing a map of the fieldwork environment later at home. If you have something of a fixed size handy (e.g., a yard-stick) position it in your pictures to get a sense of scale


  • Use video: If your participants consent to being video recorded, you can try to place your camera in such a way that it captures an overhead view of your fieldwork setting; if you are in an office, resting it over a door jamb will give you a birds-eye view of movement between cubicles. Speeding up this video when you watch it at home will give you a good sense of how people move around during the course of the day, and will help you to capture this movement on maps of your own making.


  • Use copyright-free resources: Many existing maps are in the public domain, meaning that you can use them for your own research purposes without paying anyone. If you want to track someone’s movement across the country over the course of their career, you may consider downloading a copyright-free map beforehand as a template, then drawing onto that. The important part to this process is making sure that the image is free to use and free to modify for your own purposes; check with the Open Source Initiative to make sure that the license for an image allows you to do what you want to do.


  • Collaborate with your participants: In most instances, your participants will have a better sense of important landscapes, processes, and organizational features than you ever will. Consequently, you might want to ask your research participants to make the maps with you, or even for you (assuming this does not impose too much of a burden). Normally these will be simple sketches of how they understand the features of the world that you are asking them about, rather than full-blown visualizations – you can re-interpret the maps you collect later to make them clearer to the reader, or simply include them alongside your text as-is.




Ethnographic maps record human action and interaction in space and over time. In many cases, these maps look like everyday road maps, indicating the layout of the researcher’s fieldwork site; these maps are called ‘spatial maps.’ What makes ethnographic maps unique is that they display the ways in which fieldwork participants interact with the space, rather than just its geographical layout. Since ethnography is essentially ‘recording culture’, spatial ethnographic maps interpret and display how culture unfolds within physical spaces and places, structuring the movements and activities of the people there.


A wide variety of non-spatial mapping techniques exist as well, allowing the ethnographer to record more abstract aspects of research like life histories, organizational structures, or practical processes. These maps are highly interpretive, and require that the ethnographer spend a good deal of time thinking about how best to display aspects of their ethnographic data. When these maps are done well, however, they provide useful ways for the reader to immediately grasp ideas that would be very difficult to represent through text alone.


In summary:


  • When you make your own ethnographic maps, always remember to keep your research questions in mind, so that you ensure that your maps capture information you need for your project.


  • Consider using maps to represent a variety of aspects of your fieldwork, from physical spaces to processes and organizational structures.


  • Enlist the help of your fieldwork participants in making maps, as they will bring their own helpful interpretations to the mapping process.


Study Questions


  1. What are the four kinds of ethnographic mapping discussed in this chapter?
  2. How do ethnographic maps differ from traditional maps, such as road maps?
  3. How does the shape of an organizational map affect the information it conveys?
  4. What are strategies for using technology to assist you in your map-making?
  5. What kind of maps could you use to help the reader understand your own research, or to help you organize your ideas in the field?

Key Terms


Ethnographic mapping: The process of recording and displaying human action and interaction as it unfolds in space and over time.


Spatial maps: Maps that indicate the physical features of a landscape or environment. These maps most closely resemble traditional maps, such as roadmaps or surveyor’s maps.


Life history maps: These maps display some aspect of a research participant’s personal development over time. Life history maps are commonly used to represent changes in work history, interpersonal relationships, or political affiliation.


Organizational maps: Organizational maps display the structures of organizations, and often indicate key power relationships that the organizational structure affords. These maps also serve to document who is present during fieldwork, and what their relationships to one another are.


Process maps: These maps serve as diagrams to help the reader understand a technical process. They can represent work process involving physical tools and materials, or can indicate steps in something work, such as a decision-making process.





Martin, T. (2019). Getting ‘the feel’: Craft learning as perceptual transformation (Doctoral dissertation). Oxford University. [Available at this link]

Pelto, P. J. (2016). Applied Ethnography: Guidelines for Field Research. Taylor & Francis.