Participatory Systems Mapping: 18 - 20 March 2019


Participatory Systems Mapping

Participatory Systems Mapping (University of Surrey Sociology Short Course Series)

18th - 20th March 2019, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK



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 course will introduce participants to the innovative participatory systems mapping methodology being developed by researchers in the Centre for Research in Social Simulation and Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus, in the Department of Sociology, which allows researchers to bring together diverse knowledge and stakeholders in order to construct shared causal maps of an issue or system. The course will introduce participants to the theory behind, and analytical approaches to, systems maps, as well as giving participants significant time spent in hands-on practical workshops building a map of their own. Time will also be given to considering the wider value and use of participatory modelling approaches such as systems mapping.


The workshops will be focused on constructing and refining maps of participants’ areas of interest, with short lectures dotted throughout on background, approaches to analysis, and participatory modelling. The group construction of the map will also be interspersed with group reflection sessions considering the intersubjective process of participatory causal mapping. These will allow participants to develop the understanding and ability to construct, or facilitate the construction of, effective maps, and gain an understanding of group dynamics during participatory processes and how these might impact on models produced.


Course Overview:

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

Indicative content includes:


  • 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 nalysis 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 hands-on workshops will provide participants with experience of

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


Learning Outcomes:

On successful completion of this course, participants will be able to:

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

Key: C-Cognitive/Analytical; K-Subject Knowledge; T-Transferable Skills; P- Professional/ Practical skills


Course Leader:

Dr Pete Barbrook-Johnson’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-based modelling, and qualitative and quantitative social research methods. Pete has conducted research with, and for, a range of UK and international government and business organisations, always with an emphasis on bringing out the practical value of different methods for research users. Pete is currently a UKRI Innovation Fellow hosted by CECAN and the University of Surrey. 


Dr 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 Surrey she has developed participatory complexity science methodologies for decision makers to explore interdependencies between social, ecological, economic and political factors in “industrial ecosystems”; in particular, looking at the transition to bio-based economy in a region of heavy industry and fossil fuel energy generation in the Humber Estuary, UK. She is a principal member of CECAN, a collaboration between academics, policy professionals and the UK government to generate novel, cutting-edge methods for evaluating policy for complex systems. 

Pete and Alex are both on Twitter; @bapeterj and @DrAlexPenn


Level of Study:

Entry (no or almost no prior knowledge)



Varies according to status:

  • £595 - Government/commercial sector
  • £495 - Educational/charitable sector 
  • £395 - Students.


Preparatory Reading:

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

Penn, A., Barbrook-Johnson, P., et al (2018) Participatory systems mapping: exploring and negotiating complexity in evaluation with BEIS and Defra. Presentation given at 2018 annual CECAN conference. Slides available here.



Participants should ideally bring their personal laptop, with Google Chrome installed, and the software program Gephi installed, though this can be done on the day.

Participants on the course will include some students completing the MSc in Social Research Methods


How to book - Reserve your place by registering and paying via the University of Surrey Online Shop.


More information:

This event is currently open to all


Start date

End date