Concept maps — a guide to capturing relationships

Rasmus Ursem
6 min readApr 7, 2023

A concept map is a powerful tool for organizing and visualizing complex information in an associative map. Please read my motivational article if you are unfamiliar with concept maps and why I believe they are essential in building your personal knowledge management (PKM) system. You may also be interested in my article on how concept maps can act as an organization layer on top of other well-known notetaking systems such as the slip-box method.

This article is more hands-on and focus on the typical relationships you may use to connect concepts in your map. In the simplest form, a concept map consists of nodes (the concepts) and edges representing some form of relationship between the concepts. To get started, we may view a concept map as a number of noun-verb-noun relationships.

However, this is a bit too simplistic for building rich concept maps. “Real” maps require a more structured and elaborate view on relationships between the concepts. Generally speaking, the following edge types can capture most, if not all, relationships between concepts.

  • Specialization — Y and Z are a variant or X has variants Y and Z.
  • Part-whole — Y and Z are parts of X or X consists of Y and Z.
  • Association — Y is connected to X by the relationship Z, e.g., ownership or uses.
  • Temporal — a step in a process. First X, then Y or Y follows X.
  • Causal — a possibility that X causes or leads to Y.
  • Navigational — zoom in, zoom out, or open an associated map.

The first three are well-known modeling relationships in object-oriented programming. The temporal and causal are also often used when modeling processes. Finally, the navigational relationship is mainly for connecting maps in case you need to link to multiple related maps. As your knowledge grows, you will need navigational relationships.

As you may know, I am a data scientist and most of my visual examples below are thus from this field. I’ll use concepts related to cars as textual examples.

Specialization relationships

In my maps, this is probably the most common relationship. It covers relationships where a parent concept X has several special variants. In relation to the concept of a “car”, the “car” may be a parent concept with “family car”, “sports car”, and “pickup truck” as…

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Rasmus Ursem

Computer & data scientist, writer, thinker, photographer, and generally curious about life and the wet matter between our ears — in short, I’m a poly-geek :-)