Network EngagementSenseMakingSocial System MappingSocial System Maps

The Iteration Challenge and the Ethics of Mapping


We intuit that maps have the power to shape reality. By creating shared vision, they create shared truth

Every map is an ontological assertion, staking a representational claim to some aspect of reality. Shared and agreed-to maps become authorities over the realities they claim to represent. Every map necessarily centers some things and excludes many things. This centering and exclusion shapes perception and constrains narratives.


Thus, maps are talismanic, holding and deploying the magic powers of our collective knowledge, beliefs and intentions. They contain the force of collective will. They protect and enhance our version of the truth.


The power that maps accrue makes them suspect

An ethical relationship to mapping starts with the realization that: a preponderance of maps have historically been intended and used for domination, exploitation, extraction: a preponderance of maps have historically justified and empowered all manner of horror and destruction.


The question becomes – who wields that power? What kind of power is it? Whose reality does it authorize? Who decided what to center and what to exclude? Essentially – how does this talisman impact me and my interests? How does THAT truth intersect with MY truth?


Of course, maps can also be beneficial. But their tendency toward abuse must be recognized and managed if we’re to align a map’s benefits with our values and purposes.


How do these facts and related questions live inside of us?

Maps enter our minds via our visual cortex, making us feel things. I see this in action with our client’s maps. Some members’ faces relax and light up when they see their Social System Map. For others, there’s visible discomfort and avoidance. At times even a sense of nausea or triggering resonates from people encountering their map for the first time. Noticing this kind of response ALWAYS gives me pause, causes a lot of self-reflection, and has taught me how deeply this mapped-power dynamic resides in us.


My own story

I had long observed this sort of gut-level rejection of maps, and had sensed or empathized my way into an understanding of what must be going on. I was a sensitive observer, but it wasn’t alive in me.


Then recently, presented with a map made within our community, of our community – in a matter of seconds, I was triggered. My pulse and blood pressure increased, my breath got shallow, my throat constricted, an acidic sensation poured from my throat into my belly and intensified there. My body wanted that thing gone – immediately.


I couldn’t immediately logic-out my strong visceral response. It wasn’t ‘rational’. My words couldn’t fit into the map-maker’s framing. I shared my reaction, but the maker and I couldn’t get to shared inquiry around my gut reaction. Next thing I knew, engagement with that map was being pushed within our community, which made things even worse. Tensions that had already begun developing unnoticed below the surface were suddenly clear and obvious. Things began to unravel.


Ultimately, that map was abandoned. I felt gas-lit, and like I’d beaten off an attack; the maker was thwarted and probably angry; our relationship was damaged; an interesting and possibly valuable experiment ended; and I began to doubt my ability to continue supporting this community. I seriously considered letting go of my commitment to it – the whole thing was THAT undermining, alienating and draining.


Once that map was closed down, I was able to clarify what I’d reacted to. Others in our community confirmed, without prompting, that they’d seen in that map the same extractive/usurping energy that I’d felt, as well as sensed the maker’s blind-spots relative to the whole impulse.


For ME, it ended well. But that’s less likely in other contexts

That was the right experience at the right time. It surfaced tensions I needed to handle differently than I had been and it deepened my insight into this phenomenon.


I had long been reflecting on power, representation, dominating paradigms, dominating micro-patterns, how visualization can help identify blind-spots, and the ethical hazards inherent in all of that. That prior reflection affirmed that I needed to remove that map quickly – and once the threat was removed, gave me insight and clarified what my triggering was about. The whole thing strengthened me and clarified a path forward.


But still – that map was fairly obvious. What triggered me wasn’t subtle or nuanced. Anyone sensitive to the power dynamics in maps and who understood our community could see it easily enough if they looked for it. Plus I’m the primary leader/generator/supporter of this community: I had the authority to exclude it from our field without having to convince anyone. I didn’t have to try to logic a resistant someone into understanding their own blind-spots. Which is really hard in any case, even harder when you’re triggered. It’s minimally impactful at best, and mostly a waste of time to attempt on your own.


In my case, I was able to remove that mis-aligned and mis-aligning assertion of reality and protect this community from starting down a path of becoming something I could not have tolerated, which would mean it’s destruction because there’s little ‘there’ there without me. I was able to exclude it even without being able to clearly say why it mattered. But how common is that?


What if I hadn’t been quite so map-wise and ripe for insight and articulation? What if the centering/excluding was more nuanced and subtle? And mostly, what if I hadn’t been in a position to just say ‘no’?


Imagine how that could have been if I was already somewhat marginal to the community, my worldview fell into a collective blind spot, I didn’t know how to articulate the problem (especially in the face of all that blindness), people were pressuring me to conform to their expectations around engaging with the map, and it never dawned on anyone to even wonder why I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect?


If that had happened and no-one understood, no-one intervened to try to unpack what was going on, no-one recognized the opportunity my triggering presented – that would be damaging. It would harm the trust of anyone who had that experience and anyone who was able to sense the dynamic w/o knowing how to help.


Compounding the challenge – it’s often not even a matter of the actual content

Just the fact of the map, the fact of gathering data about people, the fact of using some bewildering technology to influence something as important and intimate as a person’s relationships and sense of belonging can be suspect and feel manipulative (whether intended or not) to many people in any context. Validly so, given how those things have been used against people in many times and places. Especially when the proponents of the map represent obvious, significant and historically dominating differences. And I don’t think it’s ‘on them’ to ‘get over it.’


I tried to ‘get over it’ in my own recent experience, and that just made me angrier, more alienated, more triggered, wanting to blow up more than just that map.


These deep ethical issues are one aspect of the iteration challenge


If we approach mapping naively and aren’t adequately in inquiry with people’s resistance, we’re bound to have engagement and iteration challenges. Worse, if we ignore this ethical dimension of Social System Mapping we risk damaging trust and losing potential.


Tensions are Opportunities

I tend to focus a lot on tensions, but not for the sake of being contrary or disruptive. I focus on tensions because they are the places of most potential. We ignore tensions at our peril, but if we move into them wisely, magic happens. I thrive on that emergent dynamic around surfacing a tension, being in deep inquiry with it, working through the discomfort, and being present as something new and unexpected emerges. That’s a core life craving for me. And I do this kind of mapping because I believe it can provide unique opportunities for that dynamic, in addition to all the other more subtle and/or pragmatic benefits of Social System Mapping.


And it’s ‘on us’ as mappers to understand, have empathy for and curiosity about people’s suspicions regarding mapping. And it’s ‘on us’ to use our mapping process as an opportunity to build trust instead of undermining it. To convene dialogs about the tensions in the network that the map represents, to help people access the power of mapping for their own purposes, to explore what realities are represented and which are excluded, and to work together to use the mapping process to move us into the realities we most want to be part of.


What this doesn’t mean

I’m not saying that every map will contain these ethical tensions, that they will be immediately apparent, or that everyone should jump in and try to address them head-on. Everything depends on context, and power dynamics should be handled with care. I’m just saying – it’s wise to keep these dynamics in mind from the beginning and throughout a mapping process, and to always be on the alert for and in inquiry around indications of triggering and tensions that the map can surface.


I’m also not saying that any and all triggering or tension means the map is doing something I’d call ethically ‘wrong’. Sometimes the suspicion of mapping comes from those in power who rightly sense and fear that the map could undermine their power. There can be a subtle (or not so subtle) tension built into the design of a map when map sponsors want to paint a picture that doesn’t align with the members needs or truths; when they opt for less transparency; when they push back on content that could surface tensions they don’t want to address ‘publicly’. Often the need to satisfy funders exacerbates this tension, in ways that members sense and can feel exploited by.


A third thing I’m not saying is that the power potentially embedded in a map can or should be equal, nor am I saying that all imaginable truths should be represented. We all carry culture in our very presence. And not all cultures are generative (to put it mildly). We have a responsibility as network stewards and leaders to be discerning and to protect the more-generative culture we’re trying to live into. We can’t center everything and we shouldn’t try.


What I AM saying is that power and representation have ethical implications that can impact people’s desire to engage with the map. We have to be clear and honest with ourselves about the choices we’re making and why, intentional about the power we amplify and the power we dampen, we need to align the map’s power with the purpose of the overall network as much as possible, and we need to recognize that – whatever our design and content decisions are – they will impact who engages with the map and how they engage with it.


Surfacing tensions is one of the deep benefits of mapping

If what I’m saying about mapping sounds daunting, here’s the important thing to keep in mind: those tensions that a map surfaces; that business of centering and excluding – that is always going on whether we map it or not. In my own experience – that map itself didn’t generate those tensions. It just surfaced existing conflicting cultural beliefs and values. Those tensions were already subtly undermining our work together and would have continued to undermine us because we hadn’t yet realized what was happening and we liked each other too much to voluntarily veer into territory we sensed was hazardous. The map didn’t cause any of that, it simply helped us see it quicker and forced us to discover whether we were able to transform that tension into something new and magical, or whether the best we could do was to reduce the damage by moving further apart & working together less. It helped liberate us both to put our energies into work that had more potential and power – separately. It helped us see that the specific work the maker wanted to do belonged in a different niche of our broader ecosystem.


A map can help us to see the ethical challenges our collaborations inherently create and can give us a grounding upon which to explore and transform them. Ideally, we’d keep these ethical implications in mind and work with and through them from the start of a project. But that’s not always possible, and even when we DO start there, we won’t always get it right. So we have to be prepared for and open to the opportunities for surfacing and exploring power dynamics and ontological tensions as they arise. We can learn to use those tensions a map highlights as opportunities to learn how to, and to practice, increasing trust by handling the concerns sensitively, wisely, affirmatively, and by taking action in the map design and beyond – as opposed to piling on more dog-and-pony, rah-rah, peer-pressure.

So if and when triggering happens, rather than defend against it, or trying to talk people out of their feelings, or just continue to beat the map-engagement drum regardless, we need to see that as part of the purpose of the project – the map doing its job, illuminating blind spots, giving us a kind of scaffolding for surfacing and working with hidden tensions.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Gosh…..this makes me wonder if I’ll be able to see a map like that and recognize the power part. I’m kinda wishing I could see an example of what you saw! 🙂