Mapping as a Research Tool: How to Empirically Grasp the Refiguration of Spaces?

29. März 2024

In the field of socio-spatial research, mappings are considered a valuable method for the investigation of social life and societies through a spatial lens. Mapping can be used to grasp and analyze spatial practices, spatial perceptions, spatial knowledge, socio-spatial inequalities (Genz & Lucas-Drogan, 2018), and—surely on a more abstract theoretical level— spatial figures underlying the dynamic constitution of space. By mapping beyond the spatial arrangements of social goods and infrastructure to highlight the spatial patterns, imaginaries, and discourses of people and communities, researchers can gain deeper insight into the social and cultural dimensions of varied landscapes. Mapping can also be used to analyze historical changes in land use, demographics, and environmental conditions, as well as to monitor ongoing changes and future developments in urban, rural, hybrid, and mediated landscapes.

Indeed, mapping is a powerful tool for understanding the complex interactions between social and spatial dimensions. Yet, as objects of power (Wood & Fels, 1992), maps always convey a certain view of the world, and researchers should reflect on this perspective. Mappings created by researchers are particularly shaped by their own values and experiences (whether related to gender, class, or race). Reflecting on one’s own position involves acknowledging that maps are not objective representations of reality, but “operative images” (Krämer, 2008, p: 94), which “constitute the represented and make it possible to operate with it” (Krämer, 2008, p. 23, own translation). Thus, mapping oscillates between surveying and creating the world. While there are methods in which interview partners and research subjects create maps, in our workshop we focused on maps created by the researchers.

Sophie Krone, PhD candidate of the CRC 1265, organized a workshop about mapping; the objective was to create space for transfer and exchange, especially about the interdisciplinary experience and body of knowledge produced by researchers in the first phase of the CRC 1265 (2018-2021). Guest speakers she gathered included:

• Carolin Genz, a senior researcher with vhw Forschung. She is a former associate to the CRC 1265, a geographer, and urban anthropologist. She has been developing qualitative methods within her anthropological research practice, especially in the framework of the “Urban Ethnography Lab” founded in 2015 at the Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies in the Humboldt University Berlin.

• Julianne Heinrich, a planning scholar, Principal Investigator and head of the graduate school at the CRC 1265. She has been developing a strong methodological discourse about spatial research methods.

• Jamie-Scott Baxter, Séverine Marguin, and Vivien Sommer, are all members of the CRC 1265.  In 2018 they founded the Hybrid Mapping group at the CRC and have since been developing relevant methods.

The workshop was structured around three parts. The first provided an overview of mapping as a multiple research method; the second engaged participants physically, with hands-on sensory experiences and experiments in mapping; the third included thematizing mapping as a synthesizing tool, useful for the analysis of socio-spatial complex situations.

PART I: Overview of Mapping as a Multiple Research Method [Julianne Heinrich & Séverine Marguin]

The first part of the workshop provided an overview of the different mapping techniques in socio-spatial research: mental maps, ethnographic sketches, layered analysis of spatial structures, joint spatial displays, GIS mapping, time mapping, actor mapping, architectural mapping, critical cartography, counter-mapping, and atlas, among others. Which mapping techniques are suitable for which research objects? How can they be combined with other methods? Juliane Heinrich and Séverine Marguin provided categorization and examples of mappings implemented in research processes (image 2), insisting that the choice of the methods always depends on the pursued research question.

PART II: Mapping Exercise [Carolin Genz]

Within a skill-building approach, the second part of the workshop provided material and exercises both in and outside the seminar room to experience mapping as a research tool. From an anthropological perspective, the workshop considered notions of mapping as a contemporary and interdisciplinary qualitative research method for detailed analysis of urban transformation processes. To prepare for the main exercise, the participants gained insight into various forms and types of mapping in ethnographic urban research (e.g. cognitive, performative, counter mappings).

Alongside participants, we entered the urban field in Ernst-Reuter-Platz, a site in our everyday working life. Here, we searched for instances of wonder, surprise, and promise within our observations. Mapping can provide valuable insights to the symbolic structures of a city (Greverus, 1994) and help uncover meaningful spaces and places. Mapping may also support areas that are overlooked or neglected by including marginalized neighborhoods, informal settlements, or areas lacking access to essential services (e.g. healthcare, education, transportation). By mapping disparities, researchers can draw attention to social inequalities and advocate for policies aimed at addressing them.

During the workshop participants were asked to go outside to “sense the city”, mapping their experiences and observations in urban space, focusing on using their bodies and senses. Part of the exercise included reflections on positionality, as the main lens through which participants experience urban space and embedded spatial practices. The main idea was to consider how to “do” mapping and develop a research technique, (e.g. accessing the field, “sensing of place”) to improve understanding of embedded spatial practices, logics and structures. Finding tools that structure and materialize our senses with creative modes of visualization is one approach to uncover culturally meaningful spaces and places in urban contexts.

PART III: Mapping as a synthesis tool [Hybrid Mapping Collective]

In the last part of the workshop, we thematized the potential of mapping as a synthesis tool, a tool for integrating different sets of data (e.g. visual, textual, numeral, qualitative, and quantitative). Mappings allow for projecting, superimposing, and consequently, relating the data in a common reference frame. For researchers, this makes it possible to visually highlight congruences (i.e. geographical concentration), interdependencies (i.e. spatial connection between two actors), proximity-distance relationships (i.e. recording circulation patterns), and other features. Through repeated reconstructions of maps within the iterative process, new hypotheses and findings were expanded upon for the conducted research.

Image 5: An example of Hybrid Mapping. Image: © Julius Fittkau, Zoe Hochstein-Morran 2023.

Reflection: What are possible transdisciplinary applications?

Developing and applying mapping methods has been conceptualized in the workshop as a way to empirically address the complexities of a world in constant transformation. Interpretative Mappings, as they have been presented here, can allow us to think about the multiple spatialities[1] that we are all embedded in to better understand societal transformation. 

The diverse disciplinary backgrounds of the speakers demonstrate the transdisciplinary potential of mapping methods for the research of socio-spatial phenomena. Applications of mapping range from sharpening researchers’ senses to their field, to the use of different methods of data collection with participants, and the analysis and presentation of empirical material. The practical experience of creating sensory maps during the workshop showed how mapping can enable both researchers and participants to have a physical, bodily experience in perceiving the social and material environment.

Mapping can also be a strong means to engage with communities, as the experience and practices of critical mapping, counter-mapping and participatory mapping show. The power relations embedded and (re)produced in the mappings not only require a reflection on one’s own positionality, but also uncover social power relations inscribed in our environment through collective and critical mapping processes. These themes were not central to the workshop but should become the subject of further workshops.

The workshop conducted was a great opportunity to learn about and discuss the speakers‘ experiences in their professional lives with researching spatial phenomena through mapping practices. The workshop gave participants new inspiration for their own research, and to continue to advance the development and use of multiple mapping methods in the CRC.

Author Biographies:

Dr. Carolin Genz conducted research at Humboldt-Universität Berlin, the University of Toronto, and Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies. Her research focus includes urban transformation, housing, gender, and age dynamics. She has been a senior scientist and coordinator of the research cluster „Housing in Urban Development“ at „vhw – Bundesverband für Wohnen und Stadtentwicklung e.V.„since October 2022.

Sophie Krone is a PhD candidate at the CRC 1265 in the subproject A01 “Geographic Imaginations” conducting research on atmospheres of ontological (in)securities in rural areas in Germany. Trained as a sociologist she is now working in the field of cultural geography with a focus on qualitative methods and emotion-related research on spaces and places.

Dr. Séverine Marguin, sociologist, is head of the methods lab at the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC): “Re-Figuration of Spaces” at TU Berlin. Her research focuses on cultural and knowledge sociology, sociology of space, interdisciplinary and design-based methods. She is one of the main editors of the journal “Architecture and Culture”.


Genz, C. & Lucas-Drogan, D. (2018). Decoding Mapping as Practice. An interdisciplinary approach in Architecture and Urban Anthropology. The Urban Transcript Journal, 158(4).

Greverus, I.-M. (1994). Menschen und Räume: Vom interpretativen Umgang mit kulturökologischen Raumorientierungsmodell. In I.-M. Greverus (Ed.), Kulturtexte. 20 Jahre Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie. (p. 87-111). Frankfurt am Main: Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie.

Krämer, S. (2008): Medium, Bote, Übertragung. Kleine Metaphysik der Medialität. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Wood, D. & Fels, J. (1992). The Power of Maps. New York: Guilford.

Further Reading

Baxter, J. S., Marguin, S., Mélix, S., Schinagl, M., Singh, A. & Sommer, V. (2021). Hybrid mapping methodology – a manifesto — SFB 1265 Working Paper No. 9. Berlin: TU Berlin.

Becker, H.S. (2016). Learning to Observe in Chicago. In A. Schwanhäußer (Ed.), Sensing the City. A Companion to Urban Anthropology (p. 7-9). Basel: Birkhäuser.

Heinrich, A- J., S. Marguine, A. Million, J. Stollmann (Eds.) (2021). Methoden der qualitativen Raumforschung. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch. Bielefeld: transcript.

Ingold, T. (2000). To Journey along a Way of Life. Maps, Wayfinding and Navigation. In, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (p. 219-242). London: Routledge.

Perkins, C. (2009). Performative and Embodied Mapping. International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (p.126–132). London: Elsevier.

Powell, K. (2010). Making Sense of Place: Mapping as a Multisensory Research Method. Qualitative Inquiry, 16 (7), 539–555.

[1] The concept of multiple spatialities is part of the theory building of the CRC. Based on a relational notion of space, it refers to the idea of entangled and interrelated spatialities. These can be negotiated at different scales and may be part of conflicting dimensions. It emphasizes the positionality of collected voices on specific phenomena.