Creating a Concept Map

Acoording to Howard Lune and Bruce L. Berg to create a concept map, you should first read widely on your subject; in short, begin examining the literature and amassing relevant documents on the topic. As you read through these documents, you should also begin to keep a record of about 10 or 12 key concepts or ideas. Once you have identified these concepts, you may follow these several steps to create a concept map:

Step 1: List out the concepts on one page. I use my laptop for this, but some people are more tactile and prefer to use post-it notes or small pad pages, writing a separate concept on each pad sheet or post-it page. The medium isn’t important, but it is important to be able to look at and move all of the concepts at once. This step should yield a good-sized bunch of individual concepts.

Step 2: Rearrange the concepts on the page so you move from the most abstract ideas to the most specific ones.

Step 3: Now, move the concepts on the page under separate columns, or create separate piles of notes so that ideas go directly below other related ideas. This stage gives you a physical layout that represents your conceptual arrangement of the parts. At this juncture, you also want to add additional concepts or labels that help to explain, connect, or expand the columns or piles of ideas you are creating.

Step 4: At this point, you can move the columns into clusters of ideas located at some distance from each other, such that you can draw lines from the larger or broader concepts to the more specific and focused concepts and ideas. This allows you to view where your tight clusters of ideas separate from the looser, more distant interrelations.

Step 5: You are now ready to begin the process of making sense of the clustered ideas and connections you have created in the previous steps. In doing this, you should again review your literature and then begin to assign descriptive labels to the connections among the clusters of concepts or ideas. These terms and labels should explain or identify the relationships you see between these clusters of concepts or ideas.

Step 6: You may want to separately describe examples, or even illustrations (pictures, cartoons) of actions that belong with and may illuminate the concepts and concept clusters.

Step 7: Now, you should reorganize the concepts so that the relationships among them are visually apparent. You may want to create a flowchart using various shapes (circles, squares, rectangles, etc.) to depict the arrangement of the concept and/or idea  clusters and connective lines.

Step 8: The final step is really a refining stage. You may want to show your cognitive plan to others knowledgeable about the general subject area or others working on your research team. From their comments, you may make changes and/or additions to your overall concept map.

One of the great benefits of concept mapping is that it distinguishes between concepts that depend on one another and ones which are distinct but related. For example, if you were to work out a concept map for socioeconomic status (SES), you would certainly need to work in qualitative and quantitative factors that indicate social status and those that indicate economic status. Income is part of SES, so you would need some measure for that. But you wouldn’t say that income relates to SES, because they are part of the same concept. Many of my students, recognizing that racial categories relate to SES in the United States, also try to fit race into their conceptualization. But race is a separate variable, one which can only be compared to SES because the two are different things.

The final concept map, as suggested previously, may go through a series of further refinements as others review the draft or as you review additional pieces of literature. In addition to the overall design of the research, you will also need to consider other elements, including, for example, the nature of the research setting and the appropriateness of your subjects.

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