Maps as Method: Space as an Analytic Tool in Conflict and Post-Conflict Research

Amanda C. Ball, Brown University

Published on: February 17, 2021

Sample cognitive map of Nairobi, credit to author.

“Space does not determine conflict, but conflict produces, structures and restructures space.”

When space is addressed in the study of peace, war, and social conflict, it is usually within the context of borders or refugee camps, with the occasional nod to memorials of specific events in a conflict. Often these spaces are analyzed for their symbolism, for what they represent to the different actors involved, or their role as a backdrop or container for some social moment. However, space is fundamentally shaped through conflict. Critical geographers, along with sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists, are steadily calling on scholars to employ space as an analytic category. This would create opportunities to analyze the way that social positions can inform everyday practices in conflict and post-conflict settings. What does it mean for our methods as social researchers?

Scholars already examine how security practices in UN peacekeeping operations and post-conflict humanitarian missions transform everyday life around the world, from Haiti to Goma to Kosovo. Employing space as an analytic category creates room for understanding how power and violence are materially produced. Power and violence also shape physical and social relations at different scales, from the global to the local. For example, authors agree that certain material practices, like creating temporary compounds for aid workers in disaster or post-conflict zones, effectively segregate aid workers from aid recipients and local communities. Another example of this is using SUVs for transport, particularly in remote areas without paved roads which enables aid workers to literally create their own paths. One of the indirect effects of aid in a post-conflict setting becomes the ongoing presence of aid organizations and aid workers that transform the spaces they inhabit by creating temporary infrastructure to deliver aid, often alienating local communities in the process. Sparked by changes in UN policy regarding the security of its workers in post-conflict environments, the fortified aid compound serves the needs of the aid community and minimizes the need for interaction beyond the compound walls. In short, conflict shapes the spaces around it, and spaces shape conflicts and post-conflict social relations.

So, how can researchers actually identify how space is constructed and used in practice as part of their methodological approach? Data collection on the way that space is used or the meaning it takes on is usually done through participant observation, ethnography, or in-depth interviews. But when it comes to understanding how spaces are used and shaped by the actors that use it in conflict and post-conflict contexts, I believe we can employ other tools that allow us to triangulate data and have stronger understandings of the social aspects of conflict in the short and long-term. One way to do this is through the use of cognitive maps and what I call a “mapped calendar” method, which can bolster interview and observational data to show how space is imagined, actually used in practice, and described by its inhabitants.

In my current work, in addition to in-depth interviews and participant observation, I utilize cognitive maps and mapped calendars to develop a deeper understanding of how respondents of different backgrounds and ethnic groups use a city, in my case, Nairobi. First, I ask respondents to draw a cognitive map of Nairobi without any “official” mapping references or tools. I ask respondents to draw on a blank page, to the best of their ability, a rough map of Nairobi with all of the neighborhoods they can label, and to indicate frequent routes they travel and particular locations including home, recreation, and work. Cognitive mapping is used to identify what sites respondents note as important and how they relate them to each other. The goal of this exercise is to identify how interviewees imagine the city spatially before gaining insight into how they actually move around the city as residents.

Next, I ask respondents about concrete experiences they have had in the city in order to better understand where they actually spend time and how they move around the space. To do this, I ask respondents to identify their neighborhood, and then to describe where they went over the past week in a calendar format and to mark these places on a map, going day-by-day. I also ask them to note how they got to each place (e.g. on foot, by bus, by matatu [informal bus], personal driver, etc.). This mapped calendar provides more concrete data about where respondents spend time, frequent, and move throughout the city, and juxtaposes with their cognitive map of the city. Being able to map daily routes across several groups may reveal patterns to movements or identify borders or boundaries throughout the city.

The combined use of these techniques individually introduces novel strategies through which sociologists can understand the variety of lived experiences within one spatial area, such as a neighborhood, city, refugee camp, or border area. This combination creates a method that allows for the triangulation of respondent’s perceptions, denoted in the cognitive map, with their actual behaviors, marked in the mapped calendar, and the articulation of daily life and social meaning given in interviews. These methods can be applied across contexts, from conflict zones to post-conflict settings to understand the way that space is transformed and shaped materially and symbolically by violence and the material consequences of war.