Explore and Experience the Urban Field
by Carolin Genz and Diana Lucas-Drogan 

Urban space is one of the central research fields of Anthropology which understands cities as social laboratories where social and cultural developments are initiated and condensed. Nevertheless, Urban Anthropology depends on the views of other disciplines like historical and social sciences, architecture, geography, city planning, urban design, and arts. To work with people from different disciplines is always enriching, it helps to find blind spots in one’s own research perspectives and to develop new modes of transdisciplinary discourse and research.

The main systematic research concept of Urban Anthropology is Ethnography and its holistic approach to research developed by anthropologists to understand people within their social, spatial and cultural urban contexts.

Ethnography can be seen as a toolbox of various qualitative methods, it is not just one method to follow and answer the questions of your research, it is a mixture of methods which interfere with one another. We want to focus on three main aspects of ethnographical methods in the field of urban anthropology: field notes, go-alongs and mappings.

Every Map Has its own Tale to Tell (- Dennis Wood)

Mapping can be understood as a research tool to make social and spatial practices, space and the interaction between spaces and practices visual. By mapping the urban practice and the social synergies of space, by looking at a map and by interpreting it, researchers can experience data that they were not even aware of that it could be visualized. Mapping, therefore, can be understood as a process during your fieldwork or research to discover and to structure the spaces and social interactions of your research and to find the blind spots of your qualitative data. The map is one piece of data to make the invisible or the obvious visible. With this kind of urban ethnographic data, you can return and reflect and enhance awareness of agreements, conflicts, negotiations, misunderstandings, power relations and accountability in your field of research.

Mapping can be understood as an act of creating and imagining space and is, therefore, a powerful tool for the production of space (Wood 1992, 2010). The very important question is how? Due to the fact that mappings reduce the world we see and simplify it there is an urgent need to broaden the techniques of mappings as a qualitative research method. What concept could be helpful to develop ethnographic urban data? Which forms and shapes, patterns and colors could be observed? What does it say about the urban fabric and the history and development of a city, a neighborhood, a borough, its inhabitants and social dimensions?

Mapping in the Intersection of Ethnography and Geography

One can observe a renaissance in critical geography and other cross-disciplines, rethinking the concepts of maps and cartography. One can witness broader critical discussions on the power-relations of maps (Romanillos 2013). Especially Dennis Wood (2012) offers an interesting perspective on these debates and reflects on the heritage of critical cartography. Wood refers to techniques for uncovering the subjective, ideological and powerful modes. He further offers a genealogy of “countermappings”, which refers to efforts of mapping “against dominant power structures”. As Wood points out, maps have “fingerprints” which are not visible in the first place. Maps are an accumulation of multi-layered stories, for example about one neighborhood, its social class, and cultural rituals. Maps tell stories of how we understand and define the places we call home (Wood, 2012).

Mental Maps

“Mental Maps” (cognitive maps) are graphic representations of ideas and spatial situations. This concept was developed by the architect and urban planner Kevin Lynch (1960). He used the maps as an access to the collection of cognitive representations and imaginations of urban space (Rinschede 2007; Softness 2008).

Mental Mapping: Homeless People Berlin (by Carolin Genz, in the context of the Summer School “Rethinking Berlin’s Housing Question” at Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies, 2016)


Mental Mapping: Homeless People Berlin (by Carolin Genz, in the context of the Summer School “Rethinking Berlin’s Housing Question” at Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies, 2016)











Mental maps show an individual or collective idea about certain spatial conditions. According to Lynch, mental maps are subjective spatial excerpts that illustrate how the environment of an actor is perceived. The method was developed by Roger M. Downs and David Stea (1982) and is particularly developed in the field of cultural geography and urban anthropology for the investigation of spatial perception. Thus, mental maps are so important because the subjective actions of humans are strongly influenced and structured by subjective perceptions, which are expressed in mental maps.

How these mappings (mental maps or countermappings) can be understood and how they can be used as an ethnographic urban research tool is one of the main questions of the Urban Ethnography Lab. Within the Urban Ethnography Lab, we want to enhance mapping methods in the intersection of ethnography, geography, art, and design.

Counter and Cognitive Mappings

During our upcoming Workshop “Ethnography in Urban Settings” in August in Toronto, we will learn more about Counter and Cognitive Mappings and its process of visualization and be analyzing for research purpose. We will present the outcome of the Workshop online. Stay tuned.

References and further readings:

Cosgrove, D. (2001), Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Dodge M., R. Kitchin & C. Perkins (2009), Rethinking Maps: New Frontiers in Cartographic Theory. London: Routledge. Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. Cambridge: M. I. T. Press. Obrist, Hans Ulrich, and McCarthy, Tom (Eds.) (2014): Mapping it out. An Alternativ Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies. Introduction. New York. Perkins, Christopher (2009): Performative and Embodied Mapping. In: International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Pages 126–132. Manchester, UK. Pickles, J. (2001), A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping, and the Geo-coded World. London: Routledge. Watson, Ruth (2009): Mapping and Contemporary Art. In: The Cartographic Journal Vol. 46 No. 4 pp. 293–307, Art & Cartography Special Issue. Wood, Dennis (2010): Rethinking the power of maps. The Guilford Press, New York, and London. Wood, D. (1993). The fine line between mapping and mapmaking. Cartographica, 30, 50–60. Wood, D. (1992), The Power of Maps. New York: The Guilford Press. Wood, D., & Fels, J. (2008). The natures of maps: Constructions of the natural world. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Wood, Dennis (1992): How maps work. In: Cartographica, 29 (3&4), Autumn/Winter 1992, pp. 66-74. Wood, Fels, J. (1986). Designs on signs/myth and meaning in maps. Cartographica, 23, 54–103.

Posted by:Carolin Genz

Carolin Genz holds a master degree in European Ethnology and Urban Cultures from Humboldt-University of Berlin (2009-2013) and is currently doing research at the Department for Cultural and Social Geography at the Humboldt-University since 2015. Her Ph.D. topic is: "Urban Resistance: Upheaval of Civil Society? Ethnographical perspectives on the transformation of urban everyday life“. Specifically, her research focuses on practices of production and appropriation of space, urban governance and digital tools of urban resistance and network practices. Furthermore, she is an academic consultant and member of the advisory board for Gender Mainstreaming and Diversity for the Senate Department of Housing and Urban Development in Berlin.

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