Social scientists have developed a number of methods and processes that might be useful in helping you to formulate a research project. I would include among these at least the following — brainstorming, brainwriting, nominal group techniques, focus groups, affinity mapping, Delphi techniques, facet theory, and qualitative text analysis. Here, I’ll show you a method that I have developed, called concept mapping, which is especially useful for research problem formulation.
Concept mapping is a general method that can be used to help any individual or group to describe their ideas about some topic in a pictorial form. There are several different types of methods that all currently go by names like “concept mapping”, “mental mapping” or “concept webbing.” All of them are similar in that they result in a picture of someone’s ideas. But the kind of concept mapping I want to describe here is different in a number of important ways. First, it is primarily a group process and so it is especially well-suited for situations where teams or groups of stakeholders have to work together. The other methods work primarily with individuals. Second, it uses a very structured facilitated approach. There are specific steps that are followed by a trained facilitator in helping a group to articulate its ideas and understand them more clearly. Third, the core of concept mapping consists of several state-of-the-art multivariate statistical methods that analyze the input from all of the individuals and yields an aggregate group product. And fourth, the method requires the use of specialized computer programs that can handle the data from this type of process and accomplish the correct analysis and mapping procedures.
So what is concept mapping? Essentially, concept mapping is a structured process, focused on a topic or construct of interest, involving input from one or more participants, that produces an interpretable pictorial view (concept map) of their ideas and concepts and how these are interrelated. Concept mapping helps people to think more effectively as a group without losing their individuality. It helps groups to manage the complexity of their ideas without trivializing them or losing detail.