AIM: This paper explores the use of ecomaps as a research tool for capturing data, using the example of the dynamic nature of social networks from which informal carers of people living with motor neurone disease draw their support. BACKGROUND: The need for social support in relation to health maintenance and disease management has been identified in the literature but little has been published about ways to investigate support networks. Existing discussion in the literature about the use of ecomaps as a clinical tool in social work creates a valuable framework for data collection which can be readily adapted by nurse researchers. METHOD: We used ecomaps as part of a repertoire of research tools to gather data about the social networks of carers of people living with motor neurone disease. Primary carers participated in three interviews and collaborated in ecomap construction over a period of 10 months during 2003. Analytical correlations were made between ecomaps and interview data.
Findings. Ecomaps provided a visual means of facilitating discussions around the structure and strength of networks. Being able to represent the social networks visually through ecomapping enabled people to identify each member of the network, examine the strength of each relationship and ascertain the sources of nurture and tension over time. Limitations to this type of data collection arise when participants try to quantify relationships that have been visually produced.
Conclusion. Ecomapping is a valuable research tool because it provides visual representation of supportive care networks, capturing strategic data through symbols expressing relationships that may be inadequately portrayed in words. The ecomap incorporates the use of consistent symbols that standardize recipient responses, enabling data comparisons to be made.