Concept Maps: Theory, Methodology, Technology
Proc. of the First Int. Conference on Concept Mapping
Pamplona, Spain 2004
USING CONCEPT MAPS IN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
Barbara J. Daley, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.uwm.edu/~bdaley
Abstract. Despite the huge increase in the number of qualitative research studies conducted, using concept maps as a
methodological research strategy has received little attention in recent literature. This paper will discuss the connections
between qualitative research and concept maps. Additionally, four strategies for incorporating concept maps in qualitative
research will be presented along with sample maps for each strategy. Finally, advantages and disadvantages of using concept
maps in qualitative research will be discussed.
Qualitative research as a form of inquiry has grown tremendously in the last decade. The number and quality of
qualitative studies in almost every discipline has increased. In addition, sophisticated computerized software
programs have been developed to assist with the data analysis process in qualitative inquiry.
The focus of qualitative research tends to be on understanding the meaning imbedded in participant
experiences through an open-ended, unstructured and subjective approach (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The
research is most often conducted in a naturalistic setting with a purposive sample (Patton, 2002). The research
tends to be holistic, descriptive and focuses on the depth and details of experiences (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998).
Data collection methods include interviews, observations, field notes, and documents to name a few (Wolcott,
1994). Data tend to be analyzed through an inductive, ongoing and evolving process of identifying themes
within a particular context (Miles & Huberman, 1994). As Creswell (1998) indicates,
Qualitative research is an inquiry process of understanding based on distinct methodological
traditions of inquiry that explore a social or human problem. The researcher builds a complex,
holistic picture, analyzes words, reports detailed views of informants and conducts the study in a
natural setting (p15).
1.1 Challenges in Qualitative Research
Researchers engaged in qualitative inquiry find varying challenges in the process. Often these challenges have
to do with the data analysis process. In qualitative inquiry, researchers need to take voluminous amounts of text-
based data and reduce that data to a manageable form without loosing the embedded meaning. Additionally,
qualitative researchers are challenged to make the process they use in data analysis transparent. Often qualitative
studies describe the data analyses as a process of reading and re-reading transcripts until themes emerge. This
type of description makes it difficult for subsequent researchers to understand not only the analysis process, but
to understand where and how the findings have emerged from the data. If readers can not rely on the credibility
and trustworthiness (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) of the analysis process, then the findings from qualitative studies
tend to become suspect.
Concept maps can provide one strategy to deal with the methodologic challenges of qualitative research. A
concept map (Novak, 1998) can be used to frame a research project, reduce qualitative data, analyze themes and
interconnections in a study, and present findings. “A concept map is a schematic device for representing a set of
concept meanings embedded in a framework of propositions” (Novak and Gowin, 1984, p. 15). Concept maps
are created with the broader, more inclusive concepts at the top of the hierarchy, connecting through linking
words with other concepts than can be subsumed. Concept maps are an important strategy in qualitative inquiry
because they help the researcher focus on meaning. The maps allow the researcher to see participants’ meaning,
as well as, the connections that participants discuss across concepts or bodies of knowledge. Additionally, the
maps support researchers in their attempts to make sure that qualitative data is embedded in a particular context.
Since the maps focus on subsumption, progressive differentiation, and integrative reconciliation of concepts
(Novak & Gowin, 1984) the research context remain an integral part of the data analysis process. The remainder
of this paper will focus on examples of how concept maps can be used in qualitative studies.
2 Mapping and Methods
2.1 Framing Research Projects
Concept maps can be used to frame or plan research projects. For example, the first map shown in Figure 1 was
used to plan a research study investigating how the use of concept maps impacted the learning of adult students
in higher education over two semesters.
Figure 1: Applying the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Understanding Adult Students in Higher Education
Part of the purpose of this research was to link the study to the eight principles of the scholarship of teaching
and learning (SOTL). (http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/CASTL/highered/index.htm). So in planning the
study, these eight principles were presented (note blue concepts) on the concept map and the actual research
includes includes includes includes
identifies need to
such as such as
change over time
learning issues Critical
Adults use rote
end of each
students for a
project was linked to each of the eight principles (Daley, 2002). This map clearly depicted for other researchers
how the SOTL principles were incorporated through out the research project. In planning research projects the
maps serve the purpose of helping researchers to link the conceptual framework of the research to the actual
2.2 Reducing Data
One of the strengths of using concept maps in qualitative research is that it allows the researcher to reduce the
data in a meaningful way. By using maps it is possible to display an average 20 page interview transcript on a
single page. Using concept maps in the data reduction process, allows for the visual identification of themes and
patterns. It also allows the researcher to capture meaning of the participant interviews because the maps display
concepts in both a horizontal and vertical fashion. It is these linkages that facilitate the process of understanding
interconnections and meanings in the data. The vertical linkages display how the participant differentiated
concepts and the horizontal linkages display how the participant connected and related different areas of the
In addition, reducing qualitative data to a one page concept map can facilitate the process of cross-site or
cross-group analysis. Sorting the one page maps by groups or sites can facilitate the process of comparing for
similarities or highlighting differences. For example, in a study of how different professionals learn in their
practice, concept maps were created of each interview. This allowed researchers to compare how nurses, adult
educators, social workers, and lawyers learned (Daley, 2001).
2.3 Analyzing Themes
Concept maps also can be used as a strategy to search out and analyze themes in qualitative research. To
identify these overarching themes requires that researcher identify interconnections between concepts. If the
researcher is searching for specific interconnections, a concept map can be created from the interview transcript
that demonstrates these connections. For example, in one study on how professionals learn the researcher was
looking for the connections participants made between what they learned in formal continuing education
programs and their professional practice. So concept maps were created of each interview the depicted what
participants said about their knowledge from continuing education, the context in which they worked and their
Figure 2 depicts the connections one participant, a social worker, in this study made. The map displayed
here is difficult to read because of the complexity, and yet the interconnections are clear. At the top of this map
are the concepts of knowledge, context and professional practice (in blue). The interconnections that the
interview participant discussed are displayed in pink. The social worker in this interview had been to a
continuing education program on long-term care issues. From the map, one can see that when returning to work
she did share the content of the workshop with her supervisor. Additionally, she clarified how she could use this
information in counseling clients.
Concept maps can also be used to help create a category or coding system in qualitative research. After the
maps are created from each interview or observation, the researcher can go through these maps looking for
levels of hierarchy, interconnections and repeated concepts. These items then may indicate emerging themes.
The category system created can then be used in conjunction with computerized qualitative data analysis
packages. Once the category system is created the actual data can be coded and concept maps can even be
linked or tagged to individual data samples. Again this linking and tagging helps to keep the participant meaning
and research context central in the data analysis process.
CPE in the
on in WI
P & P
do it in
what it was
the same type
taking o n
Figure 2: Concept Map of Social Worker Interview Depicting Connections between Knowledge, Context and Practice
2.4 Presenting Findings
Finally, concept maps can be used to present the findings of a qualitative research study. As a graphical display
the maps can help readers understand the findings by providing a vehicle whereby the actual data quotes can be
connected to larger parts of the study. For example, in a study analyzing the different learning processes of
novices and experts, researchers found that novice learning was often contingent on the novices need for
validation, insecurity and fear of mistakes. Novices were still forming concepts in their practice and then when
confronted by these feelings, they often described how they just wanted to be told what to learn. The map
displayed in Figure 3 succinctly displays these findings.
Figure 3: Learning Process of Novices
In contrast expert learning was found to be a more constructivist process based on an understanding of
client need and the practice setting. In Figure 4 it is clear that experts integrate newly learned concepts with their
experience through a process of dialogue and sharing (Daley, 1999).
affected by affected by affected by
leads to leads to leads to
Fear Mistakes Need for
Figure 4: Learning Process of Experts
By using the maps in Figures 3 and 4, researchers were able to help the reader compare and contrast the findings
of this study. The maps allowed for discussion of two clearly different learning processes and graphically
displayed the differences for the reader.
3 Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Concept Maps in Qualitative Research
Using concept maps in qualitative research has a number of advantages. First, the maps help researchers to
maintain the meaning of the interview within the data analysis. Often when looking at an interview transcript,
the richness of the participants meaning can be lost. Because of the interconnections displayed on a concept map
this meaning can be maintained. Transcripts tend to represent the spoken language in a linear fashion, where as
the maps represent the interview data in an interconnected and hierarchical fashion. This representation is more
analogous to the way we think and to the way we actually discuss concepts in an interview format. Concept
maps created from interview transcripts allows the researcher to probe the human cognitive structures and then
to represent these structures by linking concepts within a framework of propositions. Second, the maps are
advantageous in that they support the philosophical underpinnings of qualitative research and they help
operationalize this philosophy in the data analysis process. Third, concept maps also help reduce the volume of
grounded in grounded in
leads to leads to
leads to leads to leads to
Experience Dialogue and
the data, display linkages, and facilitate cross group or site comparisons. Additionally, the maps can be returned
to participants and participants can be asked to review the map and make sure the researcher is accurately
understanding and conveying the meaning of what the participant discussed in the interview. Finally, concept
maps are a qualitative data analysis strategy that can be used with other strategies in the same study. For
example, the maps can be used to support the creation of coding and categorization systems, as well as the
development of matrices.
The major disadvantage of using concept maps in qualitative work seems to be their complexity. The maps
can be difficult for participants unfamiliar with the format to read and the linkages may be harder to see as the
maps get more and more complex as demonstrated in Figure 2. Because of this complexity, it is most often
necessary to use other data analysis strategies in conjunction with the maps. Additionally, the complexity at
times makes it difficult for the reader to determine what concepts are of critical importance and what concepts
are of secondary importance.
Miles and Huberman (1994) indicate that the data analysis process in qualitative research contains the three sub-
processes of data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing. In this paper it is demonstrated how concept
maps can be involved in each of these sub-process, as well as, in thematic analysis and the framing of research
projects. One of the biggest advantages of using concept maps in qualitative research is that they can be applied
in multiple studies and with multiple kinds of data. Despite the disadvantage of complexity, concept maps can
serve as an important advance in qualitative research and data analysis.
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