4 years in understanding key aspects on cultural mapping

by Melisa Miranda Correa, May 2020

This post explains how a cultural mapping is more about collective feelings and memories rather than the creation of pretty maps.

What is interesting about cultural mapping is that consists on a constant learning practise, where the process requires as much attention as the final product. It is on that process where you, the researcher, allow people participating to transform their realities by imaging a different state of their surroundings, or by accepting problems on a collective way. When you map culture, you are not drawing pretty maps, it is more like taking notes, but instead of using a notepad, you are taking notes over a map, which is representing a meaningful space for people. It is like listening by mapping ideas and memories of others. Plus, the most intriguing part and the moment you feel you succeed on the task of listening is when you become invisible for neighbours who are now sharing a collective mental idea of the space, by sharing feeling and emotions, which are activated by the map that stands in front of them and that they interact with.

Cultural map can be defined as a methodological tool who puts together local stories, memories and rituals (Duxbury, Garret-Petts, and MacLennan 2015) revealing traces of placemaking as in meaningful places for people. It is rooted on the counter-mapping traditions, where maps are presented as alternative to the formal maps (Puleng, Einat, and Michelle 2015), In revealing those minority voices these maps can be used as bridges between common people and authorities, and eventually might have an effect on policy making (Crawhall 2010). This is the starting point of a cultural mapping process, or maybe what researchers have found in terms of impact and who gets represented by mapping culture and communities. 

What is relevant in the process itself, what are the steps and what actually happens when you interact with neighbours is what this post is about. The starting point is a key aspect, because every context and social situation are different, and the first community approach with a printed map requires a prior reflection and an adaptation of the methods based on the local context. The base map is your tool for engagement with people. Hopefully it is the result of a prior conversation and definition of the scale and the map extent. In my experience, the understanding of maps can be affected by the atmosphere of environments in terms of colours, materials, density and landmarks. For example, a rural area with a few roads but a clear distinction between green areas and desertic owns it needs a satellite image as a base map for people to locate themselves on the map. On an urban area with a ‘damero’ structure, meaning square blocks, a traditional map with names of the streets and a clear road hierarchy might be enough. A satellite image here might be confusing, because the look on the roofs it might not be familiar for anyone. This is related with map literacy, and despite preparing ourselves for the best reception of the base map, it depends on everyone’s own capacity of understanding maps (Liben, 2009).

My first experience of a cultural map was in Iquique, Chile 2016 where on a consultancy job our team was required to propose an urban renovation project. The scale was of a neighbourhood and a commercial area and a food market. We approach the managers of the biggest buildings to facilitate a meeting area and we hired a person with contacts on a local women’s network. She facilitated the communication with women living in two housing projects struggling with local violence, drug dealers and informal commerce on the streets. It was not the best place for families and a structural change was required. We also contacted the local GP and their inputs were worrying, migrant families living in small spaces and kids with no health register or attending school. The social situation was urgent. Then, as the budget allowed it, before starting the mapping process we had the opportunity of conducting focus groups with families living in this neighbourhood and some people working on the commercial area. These interactions allowed our team to locate the central problematics to guide the conversations joining the map afterwards. In sum, it is important to understand the context and conduct fieldwork prior starting the cultural mapping process.

Mapping activity at workshop on Iquique, 2016.

Over 30 people participated on the mapping process. They were motivated by the idea or fantasy of changing their urban situation by drawing problems and opportunities on a map. But in fact, here is the first thing you realise when mapping social spaces, that there is a subconscious process and a sort of positive reaction in being recognised by others. Every participant was aware that by drawing the current reality and a new one it did not mean that the situation was to change in the future, but it is a fact that people was leaving the room happier, as with new eyes to look around. There is an act of appropriation when looking at a map and interacting with it by placing stickers and writing on them. On this interaction people is revealing the interior of their everyday space, meaningful locations and addressing their own stories (Duxbury, Garret-Petts, and MacLennan 2015).  People by talking about the problems were transforming the feeling of a problematic urban environment towards specific issues that now they were able to name and share with other people who agree on their ideas. Some issues they identified were garbage on the street, malfunctioning lighting, drug abuse, traffic issues and accidents among other topics. After identifying problems, we asked participants to find opportunities and positive aspects. They mentioned the health centre and the commercial areas as positive elements in their urban space. They even remembered a bench that gathered elderly people every afternoon, but it has been removed. Then the owner of that bench explained that it was refurbished because they were aware of the value for elderly people, as a gathering space but also to rest between their walks.

To conclude, there are some key aspects in the process of cultural mapping process that are not obvious, and it is important to look at them with attention. The first one is to prepare a base map that is meaningful for the people you are trying to engage with. Then, it is important to submerge in the local context, to understand a little about the social situation in order to focus on the neighbour’s interaction, and not you as a researcher and people having to explain everything from scratch. When interacting with the map it is important to listen to the stories people is mentioning and try to locate them on the map. This is a step that would require an entire new post because is not easy to make people to locate issues, such as social conflicts, situations of poverty, however it is important to engage everyone in the conversation and allow the map to activate a collective memory of that space. On this example this happened by organising the problems first, and then identifying the positive aspects of that place. That gave participants the chance of looking at that space with new eyes, by agreeing with each other on the topics that are relevant for that community. In short, the act of mapping people’s memories and meaningful places is a key aspect of mapping, because it generates an unexpected output which is the activation of a sense of community and social networking that was not there before this process. In my opinion this is the most relevant aspect of cultural mapping, which is the act of having a conversation over a map and allow participants to interact with it, activating a collective memory of space, their space. The map as a result is less important than the process itself.

Crawhall, Nigel. 2010. The Role of participatory cultural mapping in promoting intercultural dialogue: We are not hyenas; a reflection paper. Web

Duxbury, Nancy, W.F. Garret-Petts, and David MacLennan. 2015. Cultural Mapping as Cultural InquiryRoutledge Advances in Research Methods: Routledge 

Puleng, Segalo, Manoff Einat, and Fine Michelle. 2015. “Working With Embroideries and Counter-Maps: Engaging Memory and Imagination Within Decolonizing Frameworks.”  Journal of Social and Political Psychology 3 (1):342-364. doi: 10.5964/jspp.v3i1.145. Web

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