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Investigating places: quantitative and qualitative

Place representation.

How places may be represented in a variety of different forms such as advertising copy, tourist agency material, local art exhibitions in diverse media (e.g. film, photography, art, story, song etc.) that often give contrasting images to that presented formally or statistically such as cartography and census data.

Place representation is how a place is portrayed or seen in society. We have already examined the idea that place representation can be manipulated by placemaking agencies via regeneration, reimaging and rebranding. The wider media, that is all means of communication including television, film, photography, art, newspapers, books, songs etc. can all affect place perception.


We can represent places in a variety of different forms such as advertising copy, tourist agency material, local art exhibitions in diverse media (e.g. film, photography, art, story, song etc.). These forms are QUALITATIVE DATA - information that is non-numerical and used in a relatively unstructured and open-ended way. Qualitative data can be observed and recorded. It is descriptive information, which often comes from interviews, focus groups or artistic descriptions such as photographs or paintings. We can argue that this type of data is more SUBJECTIVE, based on or influenced by personal feelings, by our opinions and our tastes.

We can also use formal or statistical methods such as cartography and census data. These are QUANTITATIVE DATA- these are data about numeric variables, things that can be quantified and verified and statistically manipulated.  We can use these to provide contrasting images to that presented by media images. We can argue that this type of data is more OBJECTIVE, it is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions. We consider and represent places factually. 


The exam board would like you to explore a range of different types of both qualitative and quantitative data to explore your near and distant places. This is because both methods have strengths and limitations and influence our place understanding and sense of place in different ways.

It is also important that as well as research your places via these data sources you also visit and spend time in your places. Your distant place will be alien to you, can you develop a sense of place for it? Your local place will be all too familiar to you, can you look at it in a different more objective manner and try to find out new things about it. What factors make your local place the way it is?

Quantitative Data methods

Mapping or Cartography

Maps are simply representations of a place that display the located characteristics of it. Can carry bias such as distortions of area. You need to be analytical and critical when using maps as sources as they can misrepresent reality. The London Tube map is a classic example;

London Tube map Geographic reality


London Tube map TfL


As you can see, the Geographic reality of zone 1 of the London Tube does not match that of the Tube map we use to navigate our way around it. The official tube map is more useful to people, even though it is inaccurate. The problem is that this distorts our perception of place via the map!

The Mercator map projection of the Earth is another case. It has been around for over 500 years but because the linear scale of a Mercator map increases with latitude, it distorts the size of geographical objects far from the equator and conveys a distorted perception of the overall geometry of the planet. A more equal area projection of the world is the Galls Peter projection. Google Maps In a more modern sense, we need to be cautious of using maps on our smart phones.

Gall Peters projection

Gall Peters Projection

Mercator Projection

Mercator projection

Google maps is incredibly useful, but like any search engine filters our searches and points us towards their partner organizations of advertisers first. This distorts our view of place and might mean we are missing out on other places that would be worth visiting!

To examine places changing over time, you should consider using This brilliant website from the National Library of Scotland allows you to look at a modern satellite image and contrast it to old maps – thus being able to see how PLACES CHANGE. For example, the maps can show changes in a settlement such as new housing estates, giving you an idea of the scale of the change. You should also be able to identify changes in economic activity.

Museums may also have historic maps of places, opposite is a fantastic 3D model of the Heaton and Jesmond part of Newcastle upon Tyne in from the Discovery Museum. It shows large areas of this part of the city as of yet undeveloped and old industries such as coal mines. It is a 42 ft long model of Tyneside built for the 1929 North East Coast Exhibition, showing every bridge, dock, shipyard, factory, coalmine, railway, park, public building, etc.

Discovery Museum map

Finally, consider that maps in the past were often hand-drawn and therefore open to subjectivity. Ordnance Survey (OS) maps limit what is shown, it is not possible to always be able to tell land-use and there may be no indication of what buildings are used for. Finally, maps are not always updated that frequently.


The Census is a once-in-a-decade survey that gives us the most accurate estimate of all the people and households in England and Wales.1 It has taken place since 1801 and is the most complete record of population we have for the UK. The data for the census is collected by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) who produce statistics at different scales, from local ward level up to national statistics.

The census has numerous positives and negatives as a data source;

  • The census can become dated quite quickly, the data below on ethnicity comes from the census but is nearly 10 years old. This poses questions about how representative it is given that a lot of things can change in ten years.
  • The census is a reasonably reliable record though
  • Census data can be used to show a lot of different demographics and employment types, levels of education etc.
  • Statistics can be manipulated as can our perception of them. The graph below makes use of grey colour to draw attention to the ethnic minority groups for example.

Census graph

Many people don’t complete the census, so it is an incomplete record. The 2011 Census achieved its overall target response rate of 94 per cent of the usually resident population of England and Wales Local authority or council websites Another good source of statistical information for investigation economic change and social inequalities are your local council websites. As with the example below, they can provide a huge range of statistical information on a range of variables collected from many different data sources.

Know Newcastle

Don’t forget, statistics can give you a skewed idea, for example census data can suggest that everyone was living in poverty if you only look at a narrow range of results. Recall the phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics!

Qualitative data sources – paintings and photos

It is also possible to use different artistic sources to show changing characteristics of the place under study. Paintings can be used to show historical change for periods of time when we did not have photography. The painting below is of Keswick in the Lake District, many of the buildings remain including Moot Hall in the center. The image can be used to gain an ancient sense of place for the area. A former teacher has used this painting as an inspiration to research the people can characters in it, further developing her sense of place.2

Keswick main street

Keswick Main Street by Joseph Brown, at the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery 3

In modern times, paintings can be used as part of place making be it legal or illegal. Below you can see a modern painting in the Ouseburn, on an arch under a road bridge.

Ouseburn art

The message “An ancient place of lead and stone and steel and scrap. Sluice gates, water, tunnels, mud, artists, beast and birds. Where the future grows and shakes it wings” is a place message linking to the Ouseburn Valley’s industrial past but also a nod at the artistic and cultural future of this regenerated area. The image to the right has been MANIPULATED! I cropped out the cars and industrial units, and recoloured the image. What does that do to your perception of this place? It is also now possible to use before and after photos to show how characteristics of areas and places have changed due factors such as immigration or economic change. Indeed, photographs can give an accurate representation of change that we are able to visualize. We must also be cautious however, photos can easily by cropped, manipulated or “Photoshopped”, this editing of photographs via software on mobile of computer devices can manipulate the representation of place. Many artistic sources need a consideration of the intended audience and subsequent subjectivity. Postcards are a good example of this, they are intended to show people a place in its “best light”, so do not provide a best representation of a place.


Poetry has long been used to describe and develop a sense of place via the written word. E.g. “To the river Greta” develops a sense of place about Keswick in the Lake District, by William Wordsworth. In contrast, the more modern poem about “Ouseburn” evokes real emotions about this valley as a changing place.

Place poems

Music can also represent people’s lived experiences of change over time. There are many musical sources you can use to develop a sense of place for a location. The video below from the brilliant Cattle and Cane is a homage to my home town of Middlesbrough

Plaques and historical records could also be used and will provide excellent background detail for any place study. A collection of these can be seen below for both Newcastle upon Tyne and Keswick (click on the image to enlarge it);

Heaton mining disaster Liddell
Heaton High Pit
Lakes of the Lake District NP Wordsworth

Interviews can also generate detailed insights about a person’s sense of place or perception of place providing first hand experiences. It would be worth exploring the work of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, a Finnish artist who took photographs of people and areas of Byker in Newcastle upon Tyne.


1 – ONS (2018) What is the census? accessed on 19th May 2020 at

2 -Cumberland and Westmorland Herald (2013) Picture is providing glimpse into history of Keswick for former teacher. Accessed at

3 - Joseph Brown (1870) - Keswick Main Street. Keswick Museum and Art Gallery. Accessed 19th May at

4 - William Wordsworth (1770–1850), To the River Greta, near Keswick, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes. England: Vols. I–IV. 1876–79. Accessed at

5 – McMillan, Ian (2016), Ouseburn. Accessed from the Evening Chronicle 19th May 2020 at



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