Cognitive Mapping of Boston


Students collect cognitive maps of safe and dangerous parts of Boston via street interviews and write research papers on their original findings. 

According to Matt Kaliner, the goal of this assignment is assess ideas from class via data they collected themselves, while also introducing them to semi-structured interviews, spatial analysis, and providing a new angle on the city they live in. The activity shows students that social science research can be a fresh, exciting, and original endeavor. 

As background for their research, the students read a series of articles on cognitive maps, of the spatial structure of urban fear, as well as some classic work on the neighborhood structure of Boston. After the class discussed these materials, they recieved their assignment. 

The students were given blank maps of Boston and markers, and instructed to leave Harvard Square to find at least 8 strangers to fill in the maps with their perceptions of what parts of Boston are safe and dangerous. To make the project more interesting, and varied, students were required to start at least one subway stop away from Harvard Square. Students were encouraged to make data collection more sophisticated by including more subjects, additional maps indicating familiarity or proximity, attention to important subpopulations, etc. All student asked subjects to explain their maps, and jotted down their notes. The exercise introduces the students to cold-call/street interviews, qualitative and geographic data analysis, and encourages them to think more about cognitive maps, the geography of Boston, and the sociology of fear.

Afterwards, the students wrote up 5-page research papers that analyzed their data/maps in light of the readings. They also turned in the maps and notes/transcripts, as well as any other supporting information. The data and maps were aggregated so that students could analyze a larger sample size for a final paper, if they chose.