by Esteban Tapella

Over the last fifteen years, public discourse on development policies and programmes has emphasised the need to reinforce the leading role of civil society in the interventions that implicate them. Increasingly, concepts such as ‘participation’, ‘accompaniment’ and ‘stakeholder perspective’ are heard.

This trend can also be detected in the field of evaluation, in approaches such as Democratic Evaluation, Systematisation of Experiences, Most Significant Change, Collaborative Approaches to Evaluation and -of particular interest to us- Participatory Evaluation, all of which seek to increase the involvement of a range of social actors. These approaches reflect an emerging sensibility in the field of evaluation that seeks to capture stakeholder perspectives when it comes to assessing outcomes and impacts and attributing them (or not) to a particular intervention.

We describe an evaluation as participatory when the parties involved in a programme or project define what will be evaluated, what the objectives will be, when the evaluation will be carried out, what data collection and analytical methods will be used and how the results will be communicated. Thus, a participatory evaluation aims to encourage an active and conscious incorporation of the so-called key stakeholders that are linked to the intervention being evaluated. But who are these key stakeholders? How are they related to each other and to the programme or project? In this post, I will attempt to respond to these questions and at the same time present the working document ‘Key Stakeholder Mapping’ (KSM) which introduces this tool, which I consider to be useful in evaluations that value social inclusion and participation.


KSM, also known as social mapping or sociograms, uses visual representations (maps) to illustrate the social realities in which we are currently immersed, to understand these relations as completely as possible and to establish strategies to change the circumstances that have been understood as a result of the exercise (Gutiérrez, 2007). KSM does not consist merely of compiling a list of possible stakeholders in an area, but identifying their actions, the reasons for their involvement and their perspectives on past or future interventions (Ceballos, 2004).

KSM is linked to social network theory. It is rooted in the assumption that social reality can be visualised through a portrayal of the relationships between a diverse set of social actors and institutions.

One of the key characteristics of the social network approach is the idea that society can be understood in terms of structures, which manifest in the different ways that stakeholders interrelate (whether they be a group, an organisation, an individual, or an institution). Clusters of social relationships or links form networks, and the position held by any given social actor in these networks defines their values, beliefs and behaviours.

KSM is a ‘structural’ methodological tool that, essentially, permits rapid access to the web of social relations existing in a given area and—in the context of evaluation—with respect to a specific intervention (Pozo Solís, 2007). It is a useful tool, which reveals the objective behaviours of different actors in the web of relationships established for a specific context.

Many of these actions and behaviours reflect positions that have been produced historically in the area in which the stakeholders operate. When it comes to understanding the positions and actions of the different actors implicated in an intervention, a simple list of people, groups and institutions is not enough. An awareness of their actions and how they are linked to, or form a part of, an intervention is important too.

Thus, by using this tool we try to identify the actions and the powers of the most important stakeholders, looking beyond a superficial overview of their different roles to ask: who exerts pressure and why? who is not listened to? who supports the intervention and who opposes it? which actors have the capacity to influence the actions of others? who are the most vulnerable? etc.

In summary, it can be said that KSM, also referred to by some authors as social network analysis or stakeholder analysis, is based on the following assumptions (Gutiérrez, 2007):

      • Society can be understood in terms of structures,
      • these social structures are expressed as relationships between social actors (individuals, groups, organisations etc.),
      • clusters of links or social relationships form networks,
      • the values, beliefs and behaviours of the different actors vary according to the position they occupy in these networks,
      • network analysis or mapping does not start with individuals or groups but with the relationships between them and the relational networks. Groups emerge from relational networks and intersect thanks to the involvement of their members in more than one network.

KSM can be a useful tool for evaluations and social research as it allows us to bring together information that has been gathered on social, spatial and temporal aspects within an overall vision of the field. These stakeholder maps may consist of stories, labels, symbols, photographs, illustrations, flowcharts, organigrams, territorial plans or a combination of the above.


To understand the concept of KSM, it is necessary also to understand what is meant by social actors or stakeholders (synonymous in this instance). Stakeholders can be people, groups or organisations that have an interest in a project or programme. Key stakeholders are those that can significantly influence an intervention (positively or negatively) or are critical to achieving a specific outcome.

A stakeholder is someone who has something to gain or lose from the results of any given intervention, or from the action of other social actors. Individuals, groups or institutions are usually considered to be stakeholders if they affect, or are affected by, the way certain activities are carried out, or if they have information, resources, experience or another form of power capable of influencing the actions of others.

It is important to underline that stakeholders are identified and defined according to a specific issue, such as an external intervention (project, law, a company that is active in an area etc.) or a specific problem (lack of water, eviction, etc.). In other words, stakeholders are not identified or defined separately from the context, but rather in relation to a specific situational aspect, topic or issue that they have a particular stake in. There are different ways to classify stakeholders in a KSM process that depend on the intention and scope of the study or intervention project. Indeed, even within a single project, stakeholders might be identified differently at different stages, according to their specific interests and actions.


KSM is a tool that enables the principal stakeholders linked to a project or programme to be identified along with their interests and the way each one might affect, or has affected, the viability of a project. It helps represent the social context in which an intervention will take, or has taken place, revealing the links that exist between stakeholders in relation to it, their alliances and conflicts, and the most representative ‘spokespeople’ from among the group.

Although the usefulness of KSM is clear, especially at key moments of an evaluation, it is still important to recognise that it has certain limitations. Firstly, inasmuch as it is a tool used to provide an ‘overview’, KSM may produce a mere ‘snapshot’ of reality: an overview, while necessary, tends to generalise certain aspects while overlooking others that are also important. For this reason, KSM should be treated as another tool that can be used in evaluation, but not as the only one. Triangulation, the integration of other perspectives and a combination of different tools can shed light on these limitations.

Secondly, it is important to highlight that any given situation is prone to change and that the role and functions of a particular stakeholder may also vary, perhaps due to the addition of new actors, because of changes to the context, or simply as a result of changes experienced by the stakeholders themselves. In this sense, it is necessary to assume that a mapping exercise carried out at a given moment is specific to that moment and needs to be regularly updated to include the increasing number and diversity of perspectives.

Finally, grouping stakeholders together into clusters can lead us to conclude that every part of the cluster acts in a uniform way, which may not be the case. We should never assume that all stakeholders in a given category are homogenous in their perceptions. Perceptions result from many factors, which should be addressed in detail. Every situation should be considered within its context and analysed in depth, without jumping to conclusions about the positions different stakeholders are likely to have taken or might take. These limitations have to be recognised if KSM is to be used properly.


There are different ways of carrying out a KSM process. For the sake of brevity, I will only mention the possible steps involved. These steps, along with examples and ways of classifying the key stakeholders, are explained in more detail in the working document the post is based on.

The proposed methodology consists of six steps. It begins with an initial classification of the stakeholders who are present (physically or symbolically) in the area before going on to identify and recognise the relationships between and among the different stakeholders and to take note of existing social networks. The process pays special attention to the identification of the functions and roles of the different stakeholders for -and with- the intervention. Matrices and visual representations reveal who the different stakeholders are and how they relate to each other

In addition to the working document mentioned above, you can look at other cases and examples in my doctoral thesis, which explores and evaluates access to ecosystem services in the west of Córdoba province, Argentina (see chapters 5, 6 and 7). This was my introduction to working with KSM.


Different approaches and tools can be used to carry out a KSM process. In addition, the following methodological comments should be borne in mind:

1, It is very useful to implement KSM with the participation of different stakeholders involved in a range of group dynamics. The more heterogeneous the group, the richer the KSM process. Classification of the key stakeholders should be validated in a workshop involving representatives from the presumed stakeholder clusters, as this will improve insight into the distribution and institutional architecture of the area where the evaluation is taking place (Ceballos, 2004).

2, When initial contact is made with the community (through exploratory interviews, participant observation etc.), special care should be taken not to get too involved in one network. In other words, we must avoid polarising our approach on the basis of our initial assumptions or first contacts with stakeholders, as this runs the risk of leaving out other perspectives, thus building a very limited and homogenous network.

3, As Gutiérrez (2007) suggests, when it comes to analysing the relational aspects, it is important to take the following aspects into account:

      • the intensity of the relationships (the dominant links in each space—both horizontal and vertical—among peers and across different levels);
      • the density of relationships (areas with particularly dense numbers of links should receive special attention, both in terms of their individual characteristics and how they relate to each other);
      • the central elements (that serve as unifying elements in a densely related space);
      • the linking elements (that occupy a strategic position, due to their activity, reputation, circumstances etc.) capable of uniting several clusters or reorganising the network;
      • conflicts or breakdowns in the network (in terms of conflict between groups, or between groups and the social base, and the nature of such conflicts);
      • unlinked spaces (places that hypothetically should be linked, though there is in fact no contact between stakeholders);
      • indirect links (the ways indirectly linked stakeholders relate to each other); and
      • local bridges (the analysis of weak, but important, links: for example the way information is shared, in which the importance of these bridges is demonstrated along with the significant ways they link networks, both on a small scale—small groups, personal links—and on a larger one—larger social groups, links between collective stakeholders).

4, We should avoid the trap of the KSM ‘snapshot effect’. It is important to note that the reality constantly changes. For this reason, wherever possible, a KSM process should be created with inputs from different angles. We can, for example, examine three moments: the past, analysing the situation before the intervention (historical analysis); the situation at the start of, and during, the intervention; and, finally, the period during which the evaluation itself is being carried out. By attempting to capture this movement, or process, in the way the actors relate over time, it is important to understand the potential impact of the intervention itself on the changes observed.

5, Finally, as with other instruments, KSM should not be the only tool used in research into a process or its evaluation. On the contrary, KSM is simply another tool that should be used together with other qualitative and quantitative analyses.


  • Ceballos, M. M. (2004) “Manual para el desarrollo del mapeo de actores claves –MAC”, created within the framework of GITEC-SERCITEC technical consultancy.
  • Gutiérrez, P. M. (2007) “Mapas sociales: método y ejemplos prácticos”, working document as part of the programme for strengthening the regional capacity for the monitoring and evaluation of IFAD projects for rural poverty-alleviation projects in Latin America and the Caribbean (PREVAL)
  • Pozo Solís, A. (2007) “Mapeo de Actores Sociales”, PREVAL-IFAD working document.
  • Tapella, E. (2012) Heterogeneidad social y valoración diferencial de servicios ecosistémicos. Un abordaje multi-actoral en el Oeste de Córdoba (Argentina). PhD Thesis. National University of Córdoba, Argentina.

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