The power of PLA and Mapping in Qualitative Research


Written By: Sif Lehmann

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My name is Sif Lehmann and I’m an anthropology student at the University of Copenhagen. I’m currently interning at BAMM and I’m here to learn how to use visuals more effectively in qualitative research.

BAMM uses still and moving images to illustrate people’s behaviour, needs and ways of thinking. In anthropology, visuals are not only effective at communicating findings; they are an intrinsic part of the interview process itself, often used to help respondents answer questions more effectively. Because of this, I’ve also been busy passing on some knowledge of my own.

One technique I’m keen to share from the world of anthropology is Participatory Learning and Action. Or PLA for short. The approach was developed by Professor Robert Chambers and is widely used by NGOs within small rural communities in developing countries to actively engage indigenous populations in the planning of rural areas. It combines a wide toolkit of visual methods to help participants engage more fully in the development process. Here are some examples within the field PLA:

Time Lines

Time line drawings are an effective way of recording change over time. They can be used to help participants to track events over a short period, e.g. a life in a day of a community. They can also be used to help frame a longer period of time, tracking major events across a number of years. The technique helps community members understand and draw out specific trends and habits that could be occurring, for example the loss of certain rituals or farming practices.

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Problem Trees

A ‘Problem Tree’ is a tool that has been used to help communities analyse the cause and effect of a specific problem and how it may relate to other problems they are facing. Constructed around a key problem, the causes of that problem are mapped out below and the effects mapped out above.

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Maps have been used to help small communities explain their immediate vicinity and the key components of every day life. It can help development teams understand the critical resources and facilities that are available in the local area. Mapping activities are often used to help get the ball rolling when a local community is introducing itself. They allow ‘outsiders’ to begin to see a community through the eyes of the local population.

I believe mapping exercises are a highly effective research tool that can be applied to a wide variety of projects. I have actually used this method in a course project looking into energy waste caused by behaviour in dormitory environments. I asked my respondents to draw their morning routine on a map of the ground floor of the dorm they were living in, showing their room, the kitchen and the bathroom. As they were drawing I asked them to describe what they were doing in order to capture detailed information about their routine. When they had finished drawing, I asked them where they thought they were wasting energy, and where they saw the potential to improve on energy wasting by changing their behaviour.


The mapping tool provided real insight into the mind-set of each respondent and their energy consumption habits.  It seemed to work the other way too. My respondents later explained how the exercise had been effective at encouraging them to rethink their morning routine in order to save energy. It provided a tangible framework for behaviour change.

I see the possibility of expanding this method within the commercial realities of consumer research. For example, it could be helpful when researching shopping habits or where the consumer interacts with a product in a specific space.  With this method the respondents starts to think differently about their routine. They may add details that might otherwise be forgotten about. It also provides a very clear visual that can be used in a more engaging and effective debrief.

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