Action Mapping


An example of an action map for pregnancy complications
Action mapping is participatory method that allows participants to share, through words or drawings, their processes when confronting a potential problem, identifying locally available resources, various options/solutions, and the considerations involved in decision-making. Action mapping data provide accurate accounts of the kinds of mental maps people use, rather than concrete maps of reality. Action mapping can be a useful tool for engaging communities through participatory methods and facilitating a dialogue about relevant values and processes. “Mapping provides a visual representation of what a community perceives as its place and the significant features within it. These include depictions of natural physical features and resources and socio-cultural features known by the community” [1] .

Relevant Characteristics

Background and Placement within Participatory Action Research

Participatory action research (PAR) is an inductive, collaborative approach to research that allows themes and patterns to emerge from the local community, rather than external forces and forms of knowledge. Instead of informants, participants are collaborators and co-learners in a shared, democratic learning experience that seeks to elucidate the nuances of the local experience and generate community engagement. PAR “creates a social space and a dynamic of reciprocity that gives participants the power to make meaningful contributions to their own community”[2] .

Within anthropology specifically, PAR is rooted in the works of Paulo Freire and Orlando Fals Borda, their analyses of the social production of power and knowledge and their facilitation of new approaches and methodologies for social transformation and revolution [3] [4] . The theoretical framework of PAR can be used to facilitate these results in a variety of settings and under the guise of different names, such as community based participatory research, community action research, and collaborative ethnography. Despite the expansion of PAR ideologies to various fields of inquiry, including public health, education, and development, there is a lack of specific methods for PAR, and researchers often apply the PAR framework to traditional methods like interviews, and focus groups. Accordingly, this entry will focus on a specific PAR method: action mapping.

Uses and Settings

Action mapping has been used in several different fields of research to ask many diverse questions. Disciplines which commonly employ action mapping, include anthropology, public health, geography, sociology, and other social sciences aimed at active community engagement in the research process. Action mapping is also a method used by humanitarian or development planners in the design and evaluation portions of their programs. An example from agricultural development involves asking community members to draw a map of their land, making note of all water sources and when or how they are accessed. This can help identify priority water sources and discover barriers to reaching the cleanest or most plentiful sources[5] .

Community participants mapping local health strategies
There are few limitations on what types of settings action mapping can be used within; this is due in part to the flexibility of the method and its ability to be used with a wide variety of populations and individuals. It is ideal for both rural and urban populations, can be used with adults or children, and is suitable for literate and non-literate groups. There is not a minimal sample size required though it is helpful to have several interpretations of the maps drawn therefore small groups (3-5+) are ideal. These small groups participate in the focus group sessions after the action maps are completed and they discuss, modify, and elaborate on the pathways illustrated. An overall group of no more than 25 participants is ideal for engaging a variety of viewpoints while maintaining a manageable number of participants.

Goals and Outcomes of PAR Methods and Action Mapping

  • Elicits locally-relevant routes of action that utilize locally available and accessible resources, including both formal and informal pathways
  • Collaboration with the community and inclusion of local perspectives
  • Identifies places and people involved and potentially useful for intervention
  • Facilitates the dissemination of results and deliverables to community members in an acceptable format
  • Determines, elucidates, and validates community knowledge, views, and values

"Action Mapping Made Easy"

  1. Develop a protocol regarding the research question, including a clear question and appropriate probes.
  2. Provide writing instruments and a canvas for the ‘map’.
  3. Depending on the number of participants, work in a single group or small groups (3-5 participants) to ‘map’ solutions and routes of action, literally or pictorially. Small groups allow quiet or shy participants a more intimate environment to open up.
  4. Have groups share their maps and findings with the entire group and invite inquiry and discussion from other participants. Ask groups to explain their maps, the steps they have chosen, what the advantages/limitations of each option may be, what do others think of these options, etc. During these discussions, take detailed field notes, and if participants agree, audio-recordings can also be useful for the analysis process.
  5. During analysis, review action maps, researcher’s notes, and audio-recordings to code for relevant themes and patterns.
  6. Share your findings with participants and other interested parties.


  • Flexible and open-ended
  • Suitable for literate and non-literate populations
  • Ideas and interventions originate from within the community, facilitating local engagement, involvement, and relevance
  • Low-cost and not technology-dependent
  • Portable
  • PAR establishes a closer relationship between scholarship and community empowerment
  • Can be useful in triangulating findings from other data collection methods


  • Action Mapping can be challenging to organize and manage because, by nature, it may flow into avenues the researcher has not anticipated. However, this can produce rich data.
  • Competing goals can be an issue when project leaders have different values than individuals in the community and when community individuals have differing perspectives. This can lead to frustration and dissatisfaction for both researchers and community members.
  • Ideally, action mapping requires well-established rapport, which can take time before community members trust the researcher and are comfortable sharing their knowledge


Analysis of the action map data usually begins during the process of data collection and continues on after collection has been completed in order to identify relevant themes and patterns throughout the research project, which may help to guide probing and other avenues of inquiry. Along the lines of community-based and participatory research approaches, researchers may choose to involve local community members in a collaborative analysis process. Community analysis of the action maps is often done in small groups, within which discussion can elaborate and contextualize the illustrations, and provide both participants and researchers with greater insight in to the maps produced.
Similar to other qualitative methods, the analysis of action maps involves the coding of data outputs, including the written/drawn maps, researcher’s notes, and transcriptions of audio-recordings for relevant themes and patterns. Analogous to the analysis of qualitative data collected during focus groups and informal interviews, the data collected through action mapping can be analyzed using content analysis, and coded according to identified themes.

As with any analysis of qualitative data, researchers should be aware of patterns, because when saturation, or a consensus in narratives, is reached the researcher can feel confident that they are tapping into a cultural or social reality rather than just an individual’s opinion[6] . It is useful when using participatory methods to continuously analyze, and incorporate community perspectives throughout the research. This approach allows the project goals and results to be shaped by the entire research process and creates deliverables grounded in community needs and perspectives, ensuring sustainability and mutual satisfaction[7] .

Cleaning and streamlining data may also be conducted in order to maintain the authenticity of the data collected, which may be useful for community deliverables. For example, data may be cleaned and organized, such as participant maps or audio-transcriptions, for inclusion in a short pamphlet, poster, or other research deliverable that may include direct quotes and drawn maps identifying local resources and routes of action[8] .

Method in Context

Action Mapping in Reproductive Health

Movimiento Manuela Ramos, a USAID-funded reproductive health project in Peru, employed action mapping to understand how participants confront a variety of women’s health issues, including controlling fertility and treating agua blanca. During participatory action research workshops, primarily Quechua speaking participants pictorially mapped out various routes of action, including herbal treatments, community healers, and biomedical resources. These visual depictions were included in the final publication of results that was distributed to participants, funders, and the national ministry of health, allowing for a local understanding of women’s decision-making processes and the courses of action in regards to a variety of women’s health issues[9] .

This video demonstrates how action mapping can be used to reach a goal by laying out the steps needed to reach that goal. In this scenario, the goal is the acquisition of skills and knowledge. However, the same concept can be applied to how to address a problem, such as partner violence or unintended pregnancy.

Action mapping in plain english from NCTAFE on Vimeo.

Online Resources

This link is to a guide to resource mapping, another name for action mapping, from the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. This guide focuses on strategies for building the capacity of communities to better serve youth with disabilities and their families[10] .

Action Mapping Made Easy: Contains step by step tips and information on how to use action mapping in e-learning.

Further Reading

Method space is a site similar to the MedAnth wikispace page, which lists a lot of works related to different types of mapping.

Scavarda, A., Bouzdine-Chameeva, T., Meyer Goldstein, S., Hays, J. M., & Hill, A. (2004). A Review of the Causal Mapping Practice and Research Literature. Paper presented at the Second World Conference on POM and 15th Annual POM Conference, Cancun, Mexico.


  1. ^ Corbett, Jon 2009 Good Practices in Participatory Mapping: A Review Prepared for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
  2. ^ Benmayor, Rina 1991 Testimony, Action Research, and Empowerment: Puerto Rican Women and Popular Education. In Women’s Words. D. Patai and S. Berger Gluck, eds. Pp. 159-174. New York: Routledge.
  3. ^ Freire, Paulo 1972 Creating Alternative Research Methods: Learning to Do It by Doing It. In Creating Knowledge: A Monopoly? B. Hall, et al., eds. New Delhi: Society for Participatory Research in Asia.
  4. ^ Fals Borda, Orlando
    2001 Participatory (Action) Research in Social Theory: Origins and Challenges. In Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. P. Reasons and H. Bradbury, eds. Pp. 27-37. London: SAGE Publications.
  5. ^ Corbett, Jon 2009 Good Practices in Participatory Mapping: A Review Prepared for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
  6. ^ Luker, Kristin 2008 Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Info-Glut. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  7. ^ Green, L. W., and Kreuter, M. W 2005 Health program planning: an educational and ecological approach. (4th Edition) New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.
  8. ^ Chan, Isabella N.d. Una Conversación sobre Gestación y el Parto. Unpublished manuscript, The Center for Social Well Being, Cajamarquilla, Ancash, Peru.
  9. ^ Calisaya, Emilia 2004 Voces de Mujeres de Ancash: Género y Salud Reproductiva. Movimiento Manuela Ramos: Lima.
  10. ^ Crane, Kelli and Marianne Mooney
    2005 Essential tools: Community resource mapping. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.