The ESRC Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), based in the Sociology Department, has been developing a technique called Participatory System Mapping (PSM). PSM involves the collaborative construction of a causal map of a policy domain by a group of stakeholders. The map consists of nodes, which represent the important variables in the system, and directional causal links between them. These nodes should be expressed as variables, that is, things in the system that can meaningfully increase or decrease.
During the group mapping process, links are drawn between nodes where a positive or negative causal relationship is believed to exist. All proposed links are discussed, clarified and agreed amongst the group. Workshop facilitators guide the process to ensure that stakeholders’ meaning is clarified and expressed and to guide the group process so that particular perspectives do not dominate over others. This is followed by a verification and sense checking process, drawing attention to internal inconsistencies and inviting specific and general feedback from all stakeholders.
The maps are analysed using a combination of causal tracing and network analysis. This identifies the implications of change or interventions on outcomes, and to discover potential vulnerabilities arising from the structure of the system.
PSM was developed by Dr Alex Penn, Dr Pete Barbrook-Johnson and other CECAN colleagues on the assumption that stakeholders would meet face to face at a series of workshops. This is no longer possible with COVID-19, so we are experimenting with creating participatory system maps online, using software that we have developed that enables all participants to generate and edit maps in real-time through a web browser. This software, the Participatory System Mapper, is open source and freely available and will be of interest to anyone wanting to develop network diagrams collaboratively.
Professor Nigel Gilbert, Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS), Department of Sociology.