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Family Diagrammatic Assessment


The ecomap, also called a sociogram, is a visual assessment tool depicting the relationships between a family and its social network. As the name signifies, therapist and client together map out connections between the family and its ecological environment. Identifying these connections clarifies and organizes data on a family's environment; highlights energy that flows into and out of the family; and raises issues such as network size and stability, reciprocity of relationships, and access to or deprivation of available resources.

The ecomap diagram consists of circles, lines, and arrows (see Figure 1). Standard symbols are used to express energy that flows from a person or family to other important people and institutions. For example, a solid line may indicate a strong and healthy relationship, while a diffused line represents a weaker tie. Arrows indicated direction of energy flow and conflicted or broken relationships may be represented by interrupted lines. Using the ecomap, the therapist and family can identify the external relationships that are nourishing, as well as those that are wounded. This empowers families to know where to begin making changes.

The social worker Ann Hartman first introduced the ecomap in 1978 in her article "Diagrammatic Assessment of Family Relations." Hartman's work evolves from the school of family theories known as family systems theory, which grew out of the general systems theory applied to sciences such as physics, biology, and anthropology. The concept quickly became popular with family therapists in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Since its creation, the ecomap has been used in a variety of practice settings. Other social workers who have joined Hartman in refining the ecomap include Joan Laird and Mark Mattaini. Although originating in social work, the use of this tool spans disciplinary boundaries; literature on nursing, psychology, law, and other disciplines salutes the usefulness of family diagrammatic tools. In recent years, new computer software allows professional helpers to develop computer-generated diagrammatic assessments such as ecomaps and genograms. Two such resources are "Ecotivity" by Wonderware and Mattaini's software companion to "Visual Ecoscan for Clinical Practice."

Helping professionals from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand have written about the value of utilizing family diagrammatic tools with families. However, virtually no literature exists on the usefulness of the ecomap with non-Western cultures. The ecomap may be an effective cross-cultural tool, especially in situations when language differences may impede therapeutic process. The graphic may be shared with and interpreted for others in the family who may not speak the language of the therapist. In addition, the ecomap promotes the value of communal relationships, highly valued in non-Western cultures, and highlights the strength of a family's ability to connect with those around them. However, practitioners must carefully consider the cultural context before using the ecomap and be FIGURE 1
Source: Redrawn from Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman. (2001).
prepared to adapt its use. For example, when gathering information from a Middle Eastern or Asian family, clients are not likely to be sitting in the helping professional's office answering pointed questions. It will be the responsibility of the helping professional to listen closely to the family's stories, however they are revealed, and then be willing to piece together the information in a diagrammatic format for further use.


Hartman, A. (1995). "Diagrammatic Assessment of Family Relationships." Families in Society 76(2):111–122.

Hartman, A., and Laird, J. (1983). Family-Centered Social Work Practice. New York: Free Press.

Mattaini, M. A. (1993). Visual EcoScan for Clinical Practice. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Mattaini, M. A. (1993). More than a Thousand Words: Graphics for Clinical Practice. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Zastrow, C. and Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2001). Understanding Human Behavior and the Social Environment, 5th edition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Other Resource

Wonderware. "Ecotivity." Available from http://www.clark.net/pub/wware/wware.html.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesFamily Diagrammatic Assessment - Ecomap, Genogram