Research methods (2): Mental mapping

4. What are mental maps useful for?

Mental maps provide an insight into the role of space and place in participants’ lives.

Mental maps are an innovative research method because they provide a way of literally seeing and hearing participants’ experiences in a city that may go unrecorded if the studies of space and place rely solely upon words.

Mental maps provide a way of understanding:

  • the way people produce and experience space,
  • the everyday life of neighbourhoods,
  • forms of spatial intelligence,
  • dynamics of human-environment relations,
  • the ways different social groups have different spatialities;
  • how social space may be diminishing (though rising property values, disintegration of community networks, reduction in services, feelings of insecurity)
  • correlations between how people feel about certain parts of a city and the way the city is structured by territory, crime rates, ethnic populations, environment, and more.

Mental maps are a useful way to tell the stories of marginalized groups in cities, such as, racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, disenfranchised youth, poor city residents, children and students.

They offer a way to track safety, fear, stress, belonging, ownership, spatial access, territoriality and excitement regarding different place, and how people experience the right to the city.

In the future of mapping, both spatial and beyond, mental mapping projects will provide a wealth of information to affect the everyday lives of the oppressed and marginalized, policy and planning at all scales, and theoretical contributions of human-environment relations.

Case Study:

In the article “Blurring the Geo-Body: Mental Maps of Israel/Palestine” Efrat Ben-Ze’ev (2015) uses mental maps in conjunction with other research methods to examine how Jewish and Palestinian high school students in Israel imagine national boundaries and territoriality. She explains:

“We asked students to draw two maps on a blank page: one of their “country” (al-bilad in Arabic and ha-arets in Hebrew) and its bordering states, and another map of “the Middle East” (al-Sharq al-Awsat and ha-Mizrah ha-Tikhon).The choice of the term “country” was intended to avoid as many ideological connotations as possible, although there is political baggage attached to any terminology. Other terms that could have been used — such as “the state” or “Israel” — are of- ten taken to be political statements, implying recognition and acceptance of these entities. In any event, the term “country” did not raise any objections among the participants.13 Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the intervention of this study cannot be understood neutrally. The mere exercise of drawing a map of the country echoed assignments carried out in class, which is couched in a nationalistically oriented curriculum.

In addition to the map drawings, we used a questionnaire to elicit information on difficulties posed by this task, as well as the participants’ backgrounds (age, sex, religiosity, parents’ profession, and approximate income). We also con- ducted focus groups (four within this sample) and interviews (four within this sample, who were not in the focus groups). We asked about sources of geographic knowledge, the students’ acquaintance with maps, places, borders, and neighboring countries, and their travel experience (with whom, when, to where). The study clarified that the map drawing exercise, supposedly presented as a simple repetition of work previously done in class, posed a challenge to many, as well as a source of frustration (2015, p. 240).”

Reflecting on the “blurred geo-bodies” rather than geopolitically defined territories revealed by the students’ maps Ben Ze’ev asks:

“What could be the implications of this blurred geo-body? Ostensibly, citizens who are not acquainted with the country’s geography can easily be maneuvered into complying or even supporting political moves which they do not fully grasp. The geographic implications of a one-state or a two-state solution would be hardly discernable for the participants of this study. At the same time, these fuzzy geographical perceptions open up a new set of potential resolutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If what matters is the symbolism of the geo-body, rather than its territorial shape, perhaps less prominence should be given to territory after all (2015, p. 250).”


Ben-Ze’ev, E. 2015. Blurring the Geo-Body: Mental Maps of Israel / Palestine. The Middle East Journal, 69 (2): 237-S30.