Participatory Systems Mapping

Key information

Start date: 23 March 2020

Attendance dates:

March 2020: 23, 24, 25

Time commitment: 3 days


Stag Hill campus, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7XH

Contact details:


Many issues in the social world involve the interaction of multiple factors from different domains which may be difficult or impossible to quantify. Often knowledge about an issue will be distributed between different types of stakeholders, who may not communicate meaningfully. Successful interventions or management in these circumstances require collaboratively generated whole system understanding.

This module will introduce you to participatory systems mapping methodology, which allows researchers to bring together diverse knowledge and stakeholders in order to construct shared causal maps of an issue or system. You will find out about the theory behind, and analytical approaches to, systems maps, and will build a map of your own. Time will also be given to considering the wider value and use of participatory modelling approaches such as systems mapping.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module, you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of the ideas behind systems mapping (C and K)
  • Build a map on their own (C and P)
  • Facilitate a group to build a map (C, P and T)
  • Understand when a map might be used, and how it fits in with other methodologies (C and K)
  • Be able to critically engage with existing research using this and similar methods (C and T)
  • Be able to analyse and interpret maps (C, K and P)


Code Description
C Cognitive/analytical
K Subject knowledge
P Professional/practical skills
T Transferable skills

Course content

This module will give a thorough grounding in how and where to use systems mapping approaches, develop practical skills and encourage critical reflection.

Indicative content includes:

  • Theory
    • Background on fuzzy cognitive mapping, causal mapping, and dependency modelling approaches.
    • Analysis approaches (including simple dynamic modelling, network analysis, map interpretation for scenario exploration and intervention design combining quantitative analysis and stakeholder beliefs) and their strengths and weaknesses.
    • Broader consideration of the use and value of participatory modelling.
  • Model construction
    • Practical skills and tools to build, verify and refine a systems map alone or in a group.

Practical workshops will provide you with experience of:

  • Building, verifying and refining a map of an area of students’ interest, alone or in a group.
  • Reflection on the facilitation process.
  • Observation of, and reflection on, group dynamics during model construction.
  • Preliminary observation and discussion of map structure and potential implications.

Learning and teaching methods

  • Lectures
  • Practical workshops

Course leader

Pete Barbrook-Johnson

Pete's research and teaching interests lay at the intersection of sociology, complexity theory, and environmental policy. He has used a range of research methods in his teaching and applied research, including participatory systems mapping, agent-bas...

Course contributors

Alexandra (Alex) Penn

Alexandra Penn is a complexity scientist working on combining participatory methodologies and mathematical models to create tools for stakeholders to understand and “steer” their complex human ecosystems. As a research fellow at the University of Sur...

Reading list

Penn, A and Barbrook-Johnson, P. (2016) Fuzzy Cognitive Maps: a participatory workshop tool. ERIE Steerplex Note.

Penn, A. et al. (2018) Participatory systems mapping: exploring and negotiating complexity in evaluation with BEIS and Defra. Annual CECAN conference.

Entry requirements

There are no formal entry requirements for this module.

Fees and funding

Price per person:


Government and commercial sector applicants


Education and charitable sector applicants



How to apply


You can apply for this module through our online store.

Apply now

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