Ecological maps, or eco-maps, are visual representations of an individual’s place in society, with a series of lines connecting him or her to other individuals in his or her life, and with arrows intended to depict the direction in which one individual or network influences another. Developed during the 1970s by Dr. Ann Hartman, they are used primarily to help social workers, nurses, caregivers, and patients understand the patient or dysfunctional family’s place in the world and how they are connected to others, whether through genetics, platonic or romantic relationships, professional relationships, organizational membership, and so on. Generally, the individual in question is represented at the center of the eco-map, with relationships varying in distance from the center according to strength of the bond or association.
Nurses and social workers routinely use eco-maps for the very reason they were developed: to help illustrate a patient or subject’s place in society and to establish linkages that might prove important in a patient’s recovery or in addressing a sociological aberration. Specific to nurses working in the community, eco-maps are constructed to illustrate genetic and behavioral relationships that might have a bearing on the spread of a particular disease or to help understand how an individual’s physical condition could have developed. From a more sociological perspective, eco-maps help illustrate the beneficial and harmful relationships in an individual or family’s life. By illuminating the relationships or networks connecting individuals and families, nurses and social workers are better able to track the genesis and spread of health problems and to pinpoint both strengths and weaknesses in networks. If weaknesses in an individual or in a family’s relationships or associations can be identified and eliminated, then the individual or family benefits through a higher concentration of “healthy” relationships.
While the construction of an eco-map can conceivably prove dangerous to a nurse or social worker interviewing strangers associated or connected in some way with the patient, assuming hostility between interview subject and patient, such hazards are minimal, and can be avoided altogether through prudent security measures.