Relief Maps, a methodological tool for research in social sciences with an intersectionality perspective

Relief Maps are a methodological tool for studying social inequalities from an intersectionality perspective, in three dimensions: social (positions and identities of gender, social class, ethnicity, age, etc.), geography (places in daily life) and psychology (effects on emotions). Intersectionality is a theory that states the experience of oppression cannot be understood by just one explanatory framework (whether it be gender, social class or ethnicity); rather, it is necessary to understand how these different axes relate to one another and how their intersection affects our experiences. This is the basis of the Relief Maps and the main goal in using them.


This methodology developed out of the doctoral research into feminist geographies by Maria Rodó de Zárate, specifically in relation to youth access to the public urban space in a medium-sized Catalan town, Manresa. The diversity of youth in relation to gender, sexual orientation, origin, social class and age required a tool to systematize the experiences described by young people themselves. Young women felt afraid in the public space because of their gender, but some of them, of Moroccan origin, for instance, did not go out at night and thus did not feel afraid. For other young women who were lesbians, their fear was of suffering homophobic aggression, which greatly affected their access to the public space. Generally, young men did not feel afraid, although gays shared the lesbians’ perception of vulnerability. The more central or suburban the neighbourhood where they lived was also an important factor. Thus, diversity among the young people was a key point, but so was the emotional factor, as restrictions to access were not physical or direct, as in the case of explicit prohibitions or fines, but conditioned by feelings of fear, control or exclusion. Furthermore, place was a fundamental factor. Gays and lesbians were often unable to show affection in public because the people at home did not know they were homosexual; at other times they could not show affection in public because they might be seen and they wanted to avoid telling people at work. Place, therefore, leads to variations in the effects of gender, origin and sexual and thus it needs to be understood in both relational terms and as constituting power dynamics.

The three dimensions of inequality

In this context, Relief Maps can be seen as a tool for systematic collection of data on experience based on different positions and according to place. Historically, emotions have been underestimated in the study of social inequalities, but there are many forms of discrimination that can be identified through this dimension: humiliation, fear and the feeling of exclusion are fundamental indicators of inequalities. Furthermore, with regard to places, the geographic perspective is not usually included in the debates on intersectionality, yet place acts as a motor for intersectional dynamics and helps in understanding them in a more fluid and changing way. The condition of being a young woman does not have the same implications in the family home as when returning home alone at night or out climbing with friends. And clearly different dynamics are involved depending on whether the young woman is white, migrant or trans. It is this dynamic relationship between positions, places and emotions that the Relief Maps are designed to collect and show in a simplified way.

Development on paper

Participants in the research drew up a table in which they had to think about how they felt in each place (places chosen as relevant in their daily life) according to each position (see Image 1). The next step was to classify the places into four categories and then finish by drawing up the map (see Image 2). Without going into detail, comparison between maps clearly shows the reliefs of privilege (see Image 3). The exercise involved profound reflection on participants’ own experiences, often leading to awareness of their personal situation and discrimination and also privilege (for a more detailed explanation, see Rodó de Zárate 2014, 2015, 2017 and ‘Related publications’).

Creating Relief Maps on paper is still useful in situations where there is sufficient time, samples are small and priority is given to the collective space for discussion and sharing. Using paper and coloured pencils is also a good tool with certain groups, and both the handwriting and the final drawing can provide highly valuable supplementary information.

Image 1: Table of places and positions of Carla, a white 17-year-old lesbian woman.
Image 2: Relief Map of Carla, a white 17-year-old lesbian woman.
Image 3: The Relief Map of Nil, a white, 21-year-old young heterosexual man.

Digital development

Although the tool, strongly rooted in intersectional feminist theories and debates on feminist geography, was very useful for qualitative research and teaching in social sciences, the fact that it used paper and involved drawing by hand was a major hurdle to its use with large samples. Viewing of the maps was also rather limited, as they frequently had to be redrawn because the originals were incomprehensible.

For this reason, thanks to support from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, we developed this website to facilitate the use of Relief Maps and thus provide new tools and new possibilities for studying inequalities.

See “How it works” for an explanation of how to use the website.

Diversity of uses

The Relief Maps arose from academic research, specifically from the study of social sciences with a feminist intersectionality perspective. However, the proposed model could be useful for many other fields, given that the issue of social inequalities, emotions and place is a transversal theme. Although its theoretical foundations are in gender studies, it can be used for issues such as homophobia, Islamophobia, classism, ageism, racism, xenophobia, ableism, nationality and more. A number of possible fields of applications are suggested below:

  • Social science research: studies researching experience of social inequalities in the right to the city, gender-based violence, work discrimination, bullying, fear in public spaces and institutional racism, among others.
  • Health sciences research: studies into the effects of certain diseases on emotions in different spaces or the health effects of suffering discrimination.
  • Teaching: using Relief Maps as a pedagogic tool for issues such as intersectionality, power relations, social and cultural geographies and relations between the different axes.
  • Consulting: producing diagnoses for public policies on gender issues, LGTBI (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals) and on interculturality, for government agencies and organizations.
  • Company or organization management: developing occupational health projects, internal plans and reflecting on dynamics of internal conflict management.
  • Social actions: developing projects for action aimed at specific groups or the general public. They could be used both for reflection on positioning within organizations working for social change and for awareness-raising campaigns.