Graphical Conflict Mapping Using PowerPoint, Prezi, and Websites

By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

Co-Directors, Beyond Intractability Project,
First written in 2013; updated in 2023
Individual Maps Copyrighted by the Authors

For us, conflict mapping is often a critical, first step in teaching our students how to effectively analyze and more constructively respond to a broad range of complex, large-scale, intractable conflicts. For years, our efforts to teach conflict mapping took the form of a conventional paper assignment based on Wehr's and Hockner and Wilmot's conflict mapping strategies. More recently, and, in large part, in response to the ideas presented in Peter Coleman's The Five Percent and Rob Ricigliano's Making Peace Last, we have been asking students to map conflicts graphically. Among the many advantages of this approach is that it does a better job of forcing students to consider all of a conflict's critical elements and not just ramble on with "CIA factbook-style" essays that tend to miss a lot of the conflict dynamics that our field recognizes as being so important.  Mapping also does a much better job of showing the relationships between elements that are missed in essay-style conflict analyses.

In asking students to do these maps, we have resisted the temptation to provide them with too much of a tightly constrained format. Our fear was that this would produce a "coloring book effect" in which students just "filled in the blanks," rather than really try to understand what was important to map and why. In general, we have been pleased with the creativity and thoughtfulness that our students have put into these maps (at both the senior undergraduate and graduate student levels).

Still, as we continued to work with the mapping assignment, we realized that it would be highly desirable to restructure the assignment so that it could include more information yet present that information in ways that there were less susceptible to becoming a bewildering, "spaghetti-diagram." This led us to the obvious conclusion that we ought to find a way to take advantage of more of the powerful and easy-to-use features embedded in today's presentation and website creation software. We thought that, through the creative use of these programs, students could construct more sophisticated conflict maps with advanced features such as:

  • The ability to portray a sequence of events as a series of slides that essentially put the conflict maps in motion,
  • Zoom capabilities that allow student map-makers to show macro-scale conflict features and then zoom into a more in-depth presentation of specific aspects of the conflict (including those that are the immediate focus of student's project or intervention planning effort),
  • Hyperlinked references that allow students to provide instant access to sources and additional, more detailed, information,
  • Sequenced map presentations (with optional audio tracks) that allow students to guide readers (and listeners) through a step-by-step explanation of a map and its significance,
  • Cross-linking capabilities that allow the readers to skip around a map in accordance with their own interests,
  • Embedded multimedia and pictures that bring the human dimension of a map to life, and
  • Text-heavy slides that essentially merge essay and graphical approaches to conflict mapping.

In the spring of 2013, Guy laid out the general goals of mapping to participants in his capstone Senior Seminar for Peace and Conflict Studies Program for which Ricigliano's Making Peace Last was the primary text. He then allowed students to use whatever technology they preferred to explain their conflict. All he gave them was a very bare-bones PowerPoint template that showed one possible way of constructing such a map. (Over the course of the semester, we also had lots of opportunities for students to ask questions and exchange ideas about how, exactly, to construct these maps.)

Adjusting for the fact that the undergraduate students in these classes were, inevitably, working from a somewhat more limited base of knowledge and experience, Guy was pleased with what they were able to produce. Some examples of the students' maps from this class are linked below.

Heidi also taught mapping to graduate-level classes in person at the University of Denver, and online at George Mason University.  Heidi stuck more closely with the Coleman/Ricigliano approach, in particular, insisting that maps have clear (and usually abundant) feedback loops. So she discouraged double-headed arrows (as they hide feedback loops) and simple lines that show two elements are connected, but don't show how.  Again, the results were impressive, even for the DU students who only had two weeks to produce their maps, while the George Mason students had about half a semester.  Believing that mapping is best done in teams because it always helps to have different ideas contributing to the map, Heidi strongly urged her students to work in teams of 3 or 4, to simulate the way mapping is usually done in an actual intervention. 

We think that the success of this experiment demonstrates this kind of conflict mapping is something that is accessible to the sizable fraction of students of conflict or those involved in difficult conflict situations. (There is, of course, still a lot that could be done to improve the way in which we teach people how to do this kind of mapping.)

In Guy's class, students were able to successfully employ three very different mapping technologies (which are listed below along with links to some of the better maps that students created).

Some examples of the maps Heidi's student's made (which were somewhat more "traditional" in the Coleman/Ricigliano sense) were

Heidi also received other non-traditional, but surprisingly effective maps.  One, for instance, was built with the Moscow subway system as a template. (When she learned that her students were pursuing that, her first inclination was to say "no," that will never work. But she decided to let them figure that out themselves — and instead, they came up with a very interesting and revealing graphic. It isn't consistent with Coleman's or Ricigliano's image of a conflict map, but it showed a lot of the same elements! (Unfortunately, that was a paper-based map that we no longer have access to.) We got another paper-based map around Halloween, shaped like a pumpkin—another one I would have been inclined to say "no way," but it worked. A third student built a rather convincing map about US/Mexico relations around a graphic of a wall. Bottom line, we think that giving students a basic idea of what mapping is, why it is done, and generally how it is done (with nodes and arrows showing relationships between nodes) is useful.  

Guy and Heidi both also stressed the distinction between "levels" and "layers."  Levels are amount of detail:  a macro map that is zoomed far out and only shows the most basic elements, a set of micro maps that zoom in to show details about certain elements and their relationships, and meso maps that are somewhere in between.  Layers, on the other hand are like layers on Google Zoom.  Instead of having traffic, and satellite, and restaurants, etc, we asked our students to do event maps, party maps, issue maps (interests, values, needs), power maps, and sometimes dynamics maps (although all the maps, if done well, will show dynamics at least to some extent).

We think that this approach is of great value for those who go through the exercise of actually building the maps. Heidi told her students (and also believes) that the process of building the map was often more educational than the end result. That's why she encouraged her students to work in groups.  The discussions of what elements to put in where and how they related to other elements is always eye-opening.

We also think that the maps can provide a very powerful mechanism for explaining the essential elements of a conflict to the various parties to a conflict and they can show what Peter Coleman calls "energy hubs" and what Heidi calls "ripe places for intervention."  (Heidi explains that elements that have lots of arrows going out from them, and few going in, are often "ripe places for intervention," because there are not that many elements that you need to control to change the "target element," but the results of such a change can reverberate widely through the system (since there are so many arrows going out.)  Conversely, elements that have many arrows coming in are going to be harder to change because you'd have to change so many inputs. And if they have fewer arrows going out, the change may not reverberate as much through the system.)  We believe that, by giving disputants a more sophisticated understanding of the problems they face, and potential "ripe places for intervention," they could be persuaded to support more constructive approaches to conflict transformation. Also, actively involving members of a conflicted community in the development, critical review, and refinement of such maps could yield substantial additional benefits, such as improved intergroup understanding and trust, and potentially collaboration on some transformative conflict responses.