Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 431–448 | Cite as

Exploring Local Knowledge on Climate Variability in Bangladesh: a Cultural Psychological Inquiry

  • Madeleine Brørs MidtgaardEmail author
  • Ole Jacob Madsen


This article looks at the impact of climate variability on communities in northeast Bangladesh through narrative-based interviews with community actors. We investigate the construction of climate knowledge looking particularly at processes of knowing by applying a cultural psychological approach. The findings reveal that personal experiences with weather were the most common source of knowledge on climate variability. Existing knowledge systems, such as the seasonal calendar aided participants in reasoning and sense making about changes, and elders, media outlets, and science formed the most trusted sources of climate information. Lessons drawn from the study emphasize a need to include cultural and contextual factors when investigating how people construct and build climate knowledge in the future.


Climate knowledge Weather Personal epistemology Cultural psychology Bangladesh 


Events associated with climate change are increasingly disturbing human life. In the time to come, scientists predict “widespread and irreversible impacts” to the climate system (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014). In addition, climate change is expected to place human systems under pressure. Swim et al. (2011) define human systems as the “cultural, economic, political and social” systems humankind has created, which make up the human world.

To understand the different ways communities may be affected, and to create unique sets of adaptation strategies, incorporating the perception, views and knowledge of laypeople globally may be necessary. The way people acquire knowledge of changes in climate, also referred in this paper as processes of knowing (or personal epistemology), could be important processes to investigate for climate research. They may also teach us about collective and personal knowledge of climate change and how these connect to larger, global knowledge systems.

Within the scholarship of public knowledge of climate change, processes of knowing and how people are exposed to climate knowledge seem to be an underdeveloped area. We see this as a concrete gap in the research on climate change that this study helps to address.

Looking at how people “come to know” in a variety of cultural settings may contribute to more robust theoretical models of knowing, as it encapsulates a wider range of processes than those traditionally studied within personal epistemology. The theoretical models of personal epistemology in psychology have tended to be individualistic and may therefore present weaknesses in local (or illiterate) populations where knowledge tends to be defined communally, and transmitted by oral and social practices (Atran et al. 2005; Thomas 2001). Research from studies in cultural psychology suggests that culture is able to influence core processes of human cognition and that people of different cultures vary in the sources of information they draw from, how they conceptualize knowledge and whom they consider to be esteemed holders of knowledge (Henrich et al. 2010; Thomas 2001).

In addition, there exists a disparity between the areas producing science on mitigation and climate action, and areas most severely affected by climate change. Rural communities in developing nations face an uncertain future as effects on traditional subsistence strategies place food security under pressure (Bryan et al. 2009).

When looking at impacts, developing nations of the Global South are especially vulnerable, yet a majority of scientific studies have been aimed at the Western understanding of climate change (Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006; Swim et al. 2011; The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014; Weber and Stern 2011). When looking for sustainable solutions for the variety of ways climate change may impact different parts of the world, the investigation of vulnerable and underrepresented populations is essential.

One country especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change is Bangladesh. As a low-lying country, Bangladesh is especially threatened by rise in future sea-levels (Shameem et al. 2015). It is the world’s largest delta, situated between the ice deposits in the Himalayan mountain range and large river systems such as the Ganges and the Brahmaputra (Choudhury et al. 2006; Dewan 2015).

Objective and Hypothesis

This study aims to explore processes of knowing of climate variability in Bangladesh. It focuses on the different ways climate knowledge is constructed within a local and rural Bangladeshi sample. The study draws it material from interviews conducted with rural populations in Sylhet Division, Bangladesh. This study is an independent research study under the umbrella of the larger research project, Transforming Climate Knowledge with and for Society (TRACKS). The TRACKS project is a 3-year-long interdisciplinary research project with collaborators in Norway and Bangladesh. Its focus is “how communities in northeast Bangladesh can produce high quality knowledge in support of local climate change adaptation” (Transforming Climate Knowledge with and for Society 2015).

The overarching research question in this study is: How is knowledge on climate variability produced within a local Bangladeshi setting?

Theoretical Framework

As opposed to science, humans are not able to experience an average or range, as our experiences of weather generally revolve around our perceptions of weather from day-to-day or within a season. Jasanoff (2010) argues that to gain a picture of the vast amount of climate knowledge that extends beyond science, we must first shift from concepts of climate change to climate variability. Deviations from the typical weather can happen naturally, and is defined as climate variability (IPCC 2014). In contrast, climate change is the appearance of a long-term change in weather. For this reason, the TRACKS project focus on how Bangladeshi communities mobilize knowledge around climate variability.

When looking at communities in rural Bangladesh we employ the term “local” as it encapsulates a community as a space and place-bound concept, rather than purely geographical. Environments are comprised by different social, cultural and physical properties and interactions between these contribute to the construction of unique local place identities belonging to each community. In this sense, any place can be a locality, but a locality itself is bound together by a common history, ecology and context that situate the locality as different from other localities (Roncoli et al. 2002).

Prior research on local knowledge on climate change suggests that local knowledge systems share some common properties. The reliance on observational (Ruddle 2000) and experience-based knowledge sustained by cultural transmission practices stand out as a characteristic (Akerlof et al. 2013). Perceptions and observations have been suggested as the basis for understanding climate change, and a large part of literature on local experience of climate change has as a result focused on perceptions of change (Becken et al. 2013; Boillat and Berkes 2013; Boissière et al. 2013). Vedwan and Rhoades (2001) found that among apple farmers in the Indian Himalayas, the majority of local changes detected were based on visual perception, in contrast to other senses. Though the literature highlights the role of perception, it also emphasizes that observations take place in the context of personal experiences with weather. Local populations often interact with the environment as a natural part of daily life or through their livelihoods (Berkes 2009). In the study by Vedwan and Rhoades (2001), the participants’ view of change was understood through the context of their lives as farmers, which formed the basis for their understanding and perception of climate irregularity. The proposed connection between rural occupations and local climate knowledge has been attributed to repeated interactions between humans and nature. The use of subsistence strategies in particular, embeds local knowledge into regular activities and practices, whereby it becomes a part of the local body of knowledge (Ruddle 2000). In this process of knowledge construction, personal experience is a central process of knowing, and therefore also central to the personal epistemology of local knowledge (Becken et al. 2013; Thomas 2001).

The body of research on local understanding of change (both perceptions and knowledge) suggests that, unlike the scientific tools used to measure climate change, people are not objective entities, but experience weather through preexisting conceptions and understandings about how they view reality. Local knowledge on climate may also be influenced by existing belief systems, and religious beliefs have been proposed as a way people make sense of climate events (Boillat and Berkes 2013; Boissière et al. 2013; Byg and Salick 2009; Moghariya and Smardon 2012). Though religiosity is founded on belief systems, therefore significantly different from perception and knowledge, studies indicate that belief systems may serve to navigate local understandings of climate in a similar manner as knowledge systems. One example is Bolivian Quechua farmers who interpreted changing weather patterns as evidence for existing beliefs of a cyclic nature and Christian doomsday prophecies (Boillat and Berkes 2013). In a similar manner, people of Eastern Tibet interpreted the onset of climate irregularities through traditional spiritual beliefs, claiming the changes to stem from unappeased weather deities (Byg and Salick 2009). According to these studies, local belief systems can be a framework people employ to understand the abstract concept of climate change within their already available and understandable framework.


The main source for data in the study is qualitative interviews with participants from the TRACKS project in rural NE Bangladesh. These narrative-based interviews demanded both open questioning, as well as providing interviewees with “hooks” to hang their anecdotes or narratives. This research design was based on the narrative strengths in eliciting stories that gave insight into how events are understood and socially produced (Murray 2000). This was a deliberate strategy that departed from asking questions to elicit an “answer” towards asking questions to elicit a “story” (TRACKS 2015).

Data Production and Analysis

The data materials used in the study are nine semi-structured interviews gathered by the TRACKS project in November 2014. Out of the nine participants, six were male and three were female. Four were farmers (three male, one female), two were boatmen (two males), two were teachers (two females) and one stated their occupation as both farmer and teacher (one male). Three of the participants were between ages 26 and 35, two were between ages 36 and 45, two were above 55, and for two of the participants their age was stated as N/A. In terms of religiosity, one identified as Hindu, one identified as Muslim, while the rest of the participants did not state a religion. Some internal methodological error due to lack of probing or investigating by the interviewers could be a possible explanation for the missing data as stated in other TRACKS reports (Bremer et al. 2017). Other possible explanations should not be excluded, such as the lower socio-economic status of Hindus possibly acting as a deterrence against listing their religion. Belief systems and spirituality that fuse Islam and natural beliefs has also known to exist in rural Sylhet (Gardner 1999).

The study draws from the stories and material that came forward in interviews gathered with local community members within the Barlekha Upazila in Maulvibazaar District, in the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh. Barlekha is mainly a rural area with a population of 257,620, with a literacy rate of approximately 52% (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2013). Agriculture forms the basis of the area’s economy, while fishing and day laboring is also prevalent. Situated within the sample area is the Hakaluki Haor, the largest Haor (wetland) in Bangladesh (Ahmed et al. 2008). The Hakaluki Haor is central to both fishing and agriculture in the area, providing sedimentation for crops, and supplies the area with fish during flood season. Most of the area’s rainfall happens during monsoon season, which lasts from the middle of June to the middle of August (Dewan 2015; Paul 1997).

An interdisciplinary group of TRACKS researchers consisting of climate scientists, meteorologists, and social scientists created the interview design during a 2-week workshop in Bergen. The interview was structured and formed based on the project’s objective to “describe, analyse and explore the relationships between local narratives of climate variability and its impacts in northeast Bangladesh” (TRACKS 2015). Four main research questions were formed as a result, oriented around how local Bangladeshis perceive, understand and experience weather within the context of their communities. The interview questions fall within three focus areas: perceptions of impacts, major weather events, sources of weather information and trust.

For the nine interviews used in this study, Midtgaard joined as an observer along with two members of the Bangladeshi research team. One interviewer and note taker from the Bangladeshi research team conducted the interview, which were held in Bangla. The interview was recorded for later transcription and translation. The interviews were conducted in a setting that participants agreed to be comfortable, mostly in their homes or close to their homes.


The analysis explores participants’ experiences and sense-making of climate variability. In our study, we separate the processes of acquiring (often individual) and transmitting knowledge (often social). In reality, these are often fluid and interconnected. Shared knowledge guides psychological processes such as representations, and social settings are a place of both learning and distribution. We then used a cultural psychological approach to investigate how these processes are connected to culture (Schweder 1991).

Getting to Know and Making Sense of Climate Variability

Collectively, the participants exhibited a wide range of knowledge on climate variability. Though participants’ stories differed, most recorded disruption to perceived “normal” rainfall and temperature and told stories of an increasingly unstable weather pattern (climate variability). Some participants also referred to long-term changes in weather, such as a generally drier climate characterized by less rainfall in comparison to previous years. Personal experiences with weather were a central theme for all participants.

Personal Experiences with Weather

Most of the participants’ stories about changes in the weather were autobiographical. When questioned about weather events, all the participants could recall one or more significantly disruptive episode. They also talked about that changes in weather had effects on health, livelihood, and that it contributed to loss and damages to the community.

Livelihood as Framework

One theme in the interviews of the farmers and boatmen were stories about the impact of weather changes on their livelihood. These participants stated that they interacted with nature on a daily basis. The two farmers said they had seen changes in weather effect their livelihood. One farmer-come-boatman asserts: “I used to cultivate my fields, but river erosion has swallowed all of my fields. [Now] I [have to earn] my food by doing some small business and boating” (Boatman 1).

Another boatman also expressed how his livelihood had become affected. He came to see these impacts as a testimony to the occurrence of weather change:

We can use our boat from Jaisthta to Ashar- Shrabon [three months]. But [a] few years back it was six months. We get less fish and cannot use boats in the other nine months. Before, we could ride the boat for six months, but now that duration has reduced to three months (Boatman 2).

In these two accounts participants create meaning and talk about the changes in climate from their own experiences with weather. These findings match local perceptions of climate change previously found in rural areas of Bolivia, Nepal and India (Boillat and Berkes 2013; Moghariya and Smardon 2012; Vedwan and Rhoades 2001). Literature on small-scale societies suggests that living in close proximity supplies people with knowledge and skillsets on how to read natural signs (Henrich et al. 2010). This sensitivity to nature has been linked to the patterns of dependency that exist among populations whose survival largely depend on their ability to benefit from subsistence strategies that exists in the local area (Berkes 2009).

The knowledge the participants gathered from their personal experience with weather seemed to be a result of repeated observation of weather. Though this section highlighted the boatmen in particular, the farmers also exhibited a very similar tendency of “sensitivity” to the weather. They recorded changes to their crops, comparable to previous findings among Indian apple farmers (Vedwan and Rhoades 2001). This helps exemplify how peoples livelihoods creates a “situated cognition” that “contextualizes” the person by both physically placing them in particular environments, as well as exposing them to a particular reality found in the local environment. Such embedded experiences may be important to look at in personal epistemology, and is from a cultural psychological viewpoint, an essential part of understanding how people come to understand the world.

Experiences with Dramatic Weather Events

All participants reported having experienced at least one major weather event during their lifetime. Interviewees remembered large cyclones or floods that had happened within the last 15 years, such as Sidr in 2007. Despite the presence of such readily available memories (as they were often produced during questioning about weather events), experiences with weather on a day-to-day basis also helped participant frame stories of weather change.

When describing the occurrence of such experiences, the participants often conceptualized climate variability as weather that stood apart from “normal”. One farmer told the team about a time he experienced a heavy rainstorm that caused a flashflood: “Normally rainfall is limited here, but sudden rainfall within one hour caused a landslide that blocked, roads, disrupted normal life and three people died. [When it was happening] it seemed like someone poured water heavily from a pot” (Farmer and Teacher). They were not able to mobilize for the flash flood, causing the death of three people. This is an example of how participants conceptualized the dramatic nature of climate variability by separating it from “regular” weather.

Though significant weather events formed the majority of participant’s responses, some participants also conceptualized climate variability within the framework of more seemingly ordinary weather fluctuations. One teacher tells a story of how she experienced a rainstorm while leaving work:

In 2012, [a] heavy rainstorm occurred [when] I was returning from school. I had gotten news that the weather was getting rough. I started [to go to my house], from the school as I thought I could make it to my house. But suddenly [a] hailstorm attacked with [a] stormy wind and it almost blew me away (Female Teacher 1).

The story of the hailstorm illustrates how the experienced changes in weather also happen in the context of daily life. As Jasanoff (2010) theorize, climate variability is something one experiences and is lived through our environments.

These two participants’ interactions with weather show that participants also build knowledge based on a single encounter. Not all local and personal processes of knowing are a result of repeated interactions, or due to the connection between local peoples and ecology. As with the farmer and boatman who perceived the heavy hailstorm as especially “dramatic,” the teacher’s perception of the weather event is also seemingly of a “dramatic” nature, and therefore different from “normal” weather.

In this case, an ostensibly ordinary, but vivid weather event became a result of “climate variability.” Participants partake in the construction of the concept that takes them beyond the process of knowing, framing climate variability through their personal understanding of what climate variability represents. In these cases, perception was instrumental in framing their observations, making certain observations more readily available and therefore more commonly represented in participants’ knowledge on climate variability.

The Seasonal Calendar

Almost all participants mentioned that they had experienced disruption in the seasonal weather patterns: such as transformed rain patterns, storms, fog, fluctuations of temperature, and major weather events. Participants often made use of the seasonal calendar when referring to climate variability.

Many participants had noticed differences in temperature from the perceived normal temperatures. These formulations generally revolved around an expectancy of a particular pattern or temperature range. This was sometimes formulated as wrong intensity, i.e., “too” hot or cold as one of the teachers describes it: “Temperature remains too high in Vadro. Few years back the temperature was quite normal though. If there is cold it is too cold, and if hot, it is too hot” (Female Teacher 1). Compared to what she expects the temperature to be in Vadro, she perceives there to be a significant deviance.

Participants’ expectations of weather also revolved around the onset of seasons. These responses were sometimes formulated as wrong timing of weather patterns, which is seen as one of the main factors of weather disruptions for participants. One farmer noted what he perceived as a later onset of monsoon rains: “The first rainfall of the monsoon used to occur in Magh, but now it comes at the beginning of Chaitra” (Farmer and Teacher). His idea of the normal monsoon onset is rooted in his expectancy of when it is supposed to happen, based on when it has happened previously (“used to occur”). As he expects this to happen in Magh, the new onset of the monsoon does not fit with his understanding of the normative trajectory of the seasonal calendar.

The seasonal calendar was also a way for community members, such as farmers to organize their agricultural activities along a predictable framework. As one farmer pointed out in response to the seasonal calendar: “Jaisthta is a month of crop”, “Ashar is a month of rainfall”, “Vadro is month of Aush harvesting” (Farmer 2). This shows how the calendar also contributes to the establishment of local patterns of subsistence, illustrating that the months have particular meanings not only in terms of climate, but also in terms of local culture.

This exemplifies that knowledge on climate variability is constructed not only through personal experiences, but also by the aid of established frameworks. These frameworks help the participants identify areas the weather deviates from their expected weather on specific parameters, such as intensity and timing. These experienced changes (as the participants often looked at them as a collected set of changes) led to some participants forming the understanding of the whole climate being disrupted: “Changing of seasons are not distinct. Number of seasons has decreased to three from six” (Farmer and teacher). This emphasizes that even though weather is experienced on a day to day basis, and in specific events, their collected representations form the foundation of more sweeping judgments.

The common factor behind these statements is that they all use the calendar as a primary organizing principle to understand the irregularity of weather. Seasonal calendars are cultural constructions, defined around climate and geography, but produced and constructed in sociocultural contexts (Greider and Garkovich 1994). The seasonal calendar acts as both a source of knowing, as well as a construct that enables sense making around the changing weather and climate. For the participants, their previous knowledge of the typical weather patterns is a constant source of information as they try to make sense of the “new normal”. Knowledge of the seasonal calendar is in this sample and context therefore an essential part of the participants’ construction of the changing climate. These findings highlight the importance of looking at personal epistemologies in relation to the established local and cultural bodies of knowledge.

Local Knowledge

The specific local knowledge many participants possessed also played a role in their understanding of changes in weather. Local knowledge systems are characterized as: “adapted specifically to local conditions,” “detailed,” and “focuses on important resource types and species.” These knowledge systems tend to be observational, experience-based and travel through generations, accumulating over time. This cultural knowledge transmission is important to rural and small-scale societies as they provide communities with knowledge tailored to the particular conditions of the locality (Ruddle 2000).

As with the example of the seasonal calendar, existing knowledge on climate was an important resource when participants incorporated and conceptualized the meaning and effects of the changes in climate. These local and cultural bodies of knowledge therefore served as sources of knowledge in themselves, in addition to sense making processes.

One farmer explained what he understood as a delay in the onset of rainfall in the pre-monsoon season by its impact on local ecosystems:

Late rainfall [in Boishakh] delayed the reproduction of natural fish. If there is not enough rainfall at the beginning of the monsoon, the proper spawning of fish does not happen in time as the rain of the Boishakh and rainy season do not mix with each other, and that harms the breeding of the fish. As a result, the amount of fish in the haor1 has decreased at an alarming rate (Farmer and teacher).

The participant describes the impact of disruptions to rainfall on the surrounding ecosystems, connecting the effects of climate variability with its toll on the local fish population. It shares many similarities to what Ruddle (2000) coin as key features of local knowledge systems.

These local knowledge systems also allowed for complex analysis of the effects of climate change that may be difficult without possessing knowledge on the “typical” behavior of the nature and surrounding eco-systems. This knowledge presents itself as valuable as it specifically helped the participant in understanding the effects of climate variability. Though it did not always supply strategies for adaptation, they build a firm basis to create adaptation strategies.

Nature as Forecasting System

Local bodies of knowledge aided the participants in understanding perceived changes, and some mentioned environmental cues as a means of forecasting weather. The use of natural signs to predict weather change seemed to be prevalent in the community based on several participants stories. For instance, participants told of ways one could read the activity of the sky by looking for “stormy wind, lightning” (Hindu farmer) or “dark cloud[s]” (Female Poultry Farmer). Making use of nature for forecasting is also seen in a study by Roncoli et al. (2002) where rural agriculturalists in Burkina Faso made use of the activity of wildlife to forecast weather.

One farmer explained how he made use of environmental signs to predict Boishakh storms: “In Chaitra-Boishakh, if there is cloud in North-West side of the sky, that’s a sign of Kal-Boishakhi” (Hindu Farmer). Kal-Boishakhi is the local term for the yearly pre-monsoon storms that occur in the beginning of Boishakh, that though expected, due to their temperamental nature, can cause major destruction and death. This example implies that local people may be accustomed to predict the onset of regular weather events through use of observation. It also shows how weather phenomena become incorporated into the seasonal calendar (Kal-Boishakhi) which helps establish them as regular, predictable phenomena. In this way, natural phenomena become sociocultural phenomena (Greider and Garkovich 1994) and through observation and experience become a part of local knowledge systems.

Credibility of Nature Signs

Out of the environmental cues the participants mentioned, two weather signs recurred several times in the material. There were differences in how participants viewed legitimacy of natural signs. It is important to distinguish beliefs about climate from the knowledge on climate. One of the definitional characteristics of beliefs in comparisons to knowledge is that belief systems are negotiable, and therefore, an explicit awareness of the existence of differing beliefs often exists (Abelson 1979).

Two recurring weather signs, the passing of a snake and the appearance of a dragonfly, help shed some light on differences between belief and knowledge systems.

Several of the participants mentioned these two signs as ways to predict a flood or disaster. A female poultry farmer described that “if a snake passes through the yard of the house, it is considered a sign of flood.” Another rice farmer echoed the same sentiment. In Bangladesh, second to drowning, snake bites are the leading cause of death during major floods (Dewan 2015). As floods inundate the majority of the landscape during floods, people and wildlife are often forced into common areas of shelter, leading to interactions between people and wildlife.

Another omen of bad weather was the dragonfly. One farmer explained it as: “If [the] dragonfly flies low, near to the ground, then it is going to rain hard” (Farmer 3). In another interview a second participant also referred to the dragonfly: “when the dragonfly flies high it means it is a sign of drought” (Boatman 2). However, the participant continued by saying: “But we do not believe in such proverbs” (Boatman 2). Though the boatman acknowledges the existence of the belief that the activity of the dragonfly has the ability to predict floods and droughts, he explicitly positions it as a belief as a “proverb”. By defining it as a saying, he questions its legitimacy. The negotiable nature of this concept, even within the community itself, helps illustrate difficulty with separating local belief systems from knowledge systems, especially for those observing the culture from the outside.

Similar use of animal and nature signs to predict weather was found in the larger sample from the TRACKS study. Since this article draws from a small participant pool the diversity of different animal signs found in participant stories are limited. However, in the larger sample of the TRACKS project participants mentioned animal signs such as herons flying sporadically and ants traveling up walls supporting that the use of nature signs exists in the locality, not only as opinions or views (Bremer et al. 2017).

The Role of Religion

Within the Barlekha Upazila most people identify as religious, where the majority of these are Muslim (84%), with a minority of Hindus (15%) and Christians (1%) (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2013). It is uncertain in what degree religion may have played in conceptualizations of climate variability among the participants, but some participants used religion as a way to understand the new changes. One farmer in the sample said “I only believe in Allah” when asked about which source of climate information he thought of as the most trustworthy (Farmer 3). This farmer also did not actively seek out information about weather.

In the responses of other participant who included religion within their narratives about climate, the expression of religion manifested somewhat differently. Instead of limiting his sources of knowledge, a farmer who identified as Hindu admitted to using a variety of sources, including nature signs. He admitted to using TV, radio and other weather forecasts as well as the Panjika (Hindu year calendar), which he stated to “believe in 100%.” He used the Panjika alongside other sources of knowledge and his set of sources was the most diverse within the sample. His use of the Hindu calendar exemplifies how religion also contributes to the production of cultural products (Panjika) (Chiu and Hong 2006).

Belief systems contribute to the subjective understanding of reality and may therefore serve to guide local processes of knowing. The use of belief systems alone (Muslim Farmer), as well as a combination of belief and knowledge systems (Hindu Farmer), illustrates the diversity of employed personal epistemologies that can exist in local communities. It shows that even though localities are connected by common properties such as culture, history and ecology; local processes of knowing are not necessarily homogenous processes.

When attempting to understand the integration of such courses in the processes of knowing, cultural psychological theory provided frameworks to steer the attention towards the influence of cultural aspects (such as religion) which may not have been previously looked at within personal epistemology. As exemplified above, cultural diversity exists within the locality, both around which sources the individuals are the most influenced by, and understand as most credible.

Knowledge Distribution

Participants drew knowledge from personal experience and existing knowledge systems, also referred to as individual processes of knowing. However, in terms of responding to the changes, social sharing as well as information seeking can be viewed as important ways they built knowledge and informed themselves about changes in weather.

In contrast to the personal encounters with local weather change, when the participants were asked the question of where they went to receive weather information, many relied on media outlets and local community members to gain information about weather. Despite possessing a variety of knowledge on how the weather changes and ways of reading and foreseeing the weather themselves, participants were also generally dependent on external sources to give them information on weather. The TV, radio, Internet, or mobile phones were the most popular sources of weather information, but the participants also described the use of competence-based social sources to gain information within the community (community leaders, elders, government offices), and discussing it with close relations such as neighbors, colleagues, and family members (social sharing).

Social Proximity

In the interviews, the participants described the use of what can be considered as a varied set of social sources: family members, colleagues, and community members. A large part of the participant pool mentioned elders as a validated source of information. The most frequently mentioned social source was neighbors (four out of nine), family members and colleagues (three out of nine), one discussed with local government, and one man stated he did not discuss with anyone. Many talked about that they discuss climate variability in group-discussions. Some talked to seniors, one woman also mentioned that people talk to elders, and some said they just talked about it with their family.

As suggested by dynamic social impact theory, people are more likely to engage and share knowledge between individuals whom they share close proximity, such as neighbors or family members (Chiu and Hong 2006). Though the participants did not disclose on the frequency or commonality of social sharing of climate knowledge, all participants except one expressed social sharing as an important process of acquiring knowledge on climate variability.

Trust and Information Seeking

In addition to the use of existing knowledge, participants were also active in attaining new knowledge and information on weather and forecasting. That participants trusted the knowledge source was an important factor for them making use of it. This matches the findings of Atran et al. (2005), identifying trust and credibility as important aspects of the use of climate knowledge within their sample of indigenous groups across six localities.

As Weber (2010, p. 235) states: “People pay attention to information about climate phenomena, and incorporate it into their decisions and actions if it comes from a trusted source.” The definition of trust is debated, but is within the literature generally viewed as taking a “leap of faith” with an element of risk (Mayer et al. 1995). In order to reduce risk, we judge situations and people on their relative trustworthiness. Trustworthiness can be considered characteristics that diminish possible losses, and the more markers of trustworthiness we observe, the risk of betrayal seem smaller. Past experiences and previous knowledge of the person, known as knowledge-based trust, seem to be one of the most common determinants of future trust "(Lewicki, Tomlinson & Gillespie 2006). People also tend to more readily trust people that they share an affiliation with (identification- based trust) as well as people whose ability or competence is above oneself in a relevant matter (competence-based trust) (Shapiro, Sheppard and Cheraskin 1992; Lewicki & Bunker 1996).

In the sample, the participants explained that they used media because they perceived it as a trustworthy source of weather information. Some participants valued information they could personally bear witness to, like information presented on the TV. As one participant described it: “We believe the TV the most because we can observe it by our own eyes” (Hindu farmer). The Barlekha area has high levels of illiteracy, and many community members are dependent on images to be able to understand the context of newscasts.

Accuracy was another reason to trust media broadcasts according to participants. One of the boatmen argued that the radio was a trustworthy medium as he had experienced that forecasts had come true:

Once two men drowned in [the Hakaluki] haor but there was no previous sign. A sudden storm came and two men [were] lost. I did not get the news from radio before the storm but other people of the village heard it and I heard the news from them later. That has made me realize that predictions made by radio are true (Boatman 2).

The view that the TV and the radio were trustworthy sources because they often corresponded with the occurrence of weather events was a prominent belief between those who cited media outlets as their primary source of weather information. Like another participant expressed: “The news comes from the TV has become real several times, like Sidr, Aila and other disasters” (Female teacher 1).

These findings show that the participants drew knowledge on the trustworthiness of a source on the basis of past experiences, hitherto thought to be a key determinant of trustworthiness (Lewicki et al. 2006; Sutter and Kocher 2007).

Trust of Knowledge Sources

Power distance is a central aspect of social culture. Chiu and Hong (2006) maintain that “in every society, some categories of people enjoy higher status than other categories of people”. When climate knowledge is in high demand, these power differences may become more distinct and those without sufficient knowledge become dependent on those who obtain it.

In this sample, many of the participants were rural poor whom often stated their own knowledge was not as valuable as that of scientists. In such cases, participants were eager in highlighting their approval of scientific knowledge: “Foreign nature scientists should be given full freedom to work and the information they collect that would be something I want to know” (Farmer and teacher). By showing approval of scientists, participants thereby also partook in the positioning scientific knowledge as a valuable and credible source. As one farmer replied when he was asked why he trusted TV the most: “The news comes directly from the weather forecasting department” (Hindu farmer). Here, it is not only the source (TV), but the forecasting department the farmer perceives as trustworthy. Such statements correspond with literature on competence-based trust, which allows us to trust a source if we perceive it to be competent in a relevant issue. The farmer continued to explain his choice for trusting the weather forecasting department: “We cannot guess the situation, so we believe them” (Hindu farmer). These reflections on the reason to trust sheds light on both the real and perceived limitations (believing your knowledge is less valuable) for laypeople. Since laypeople have little ability to determine the trustworthiness of expert judgments, it may lead them to have “blind trust” in authorities and scientists (Li 2012).


The main purpose of this study was to explore how climate knowledge is produced within the setting of a rural Bangladeshi context. To be able to investigate these pathways of construction, the cultural properties of the local setting are vital for the study’s results and relevance. As a study interested in the role of culture, particular attention was paid to what Patterson (2014, p.8) refers to culture in its most essential form: “shared meanings of the world”. It is worth noting, that these aspects of culture are not only a result of the material itself, but also a result of the research focus, and the role of the researcher. In addition, the available cultural information in the material represents only fragments of the whole body of knowledge and culture that exists within the locality.

Subjective Culture

Subjective culture involves the “widely held beliefs, cultural values and shared behavioural scripts” which guides peoples understanding of their own reality (Chiu and Hong 2006, p.11). In this study, aspects of subjective culture that emerged from the material were the participant’s use of the seasonal calendar, local knowledge and religion as a framework to situate the knowledge on climate they come to learn and possess. These aspects of subjective culture emphasize the role of culture as both in and outside the mind, forming structures of mutual constitution, that both provide people with conceptual understandings and frameworks for action, as well as being shared and used practically between people, constantly evolving as a result of human intentionality (Schweder 1991).

The Role of the Wise

The structure and organization of social relations is categorized as social culture (Chiu and Hong 2006). Though participants on a whole made use of a variety of knowledge sources, and therefore also process of knowing, use of sources was closely connected to the existing social culture. Social systems such as hierarchy can be instrumental in the way it also structures the organization of knowledge within a community. Not only does it structure the social relationships and therefore contribute to the way different types of knowledge are validated on the basis of hierarchy, but it may also determine how people come to attain knowledge (Berkes et al. 2000).

As Thomas (2001) posits, cultures may differ in their understanding of what qualifies as valuable knowledge, and who possess this knowledge. When participants found themselves in doubt or without knowledge, they made use of competence-based resources available in the community. In search of information, some participants highlighted the importance of “expert knowledge” and the role of elders, scientist, and media as credible transmitters of such information.

Material Culture

In the sample, people’s livelihoods were a part of contextualizing their reality, as it exposed people to specific versions of the world through the lens of their occupations. Participants who were not farmers themselves also emphasized the importance of crop production and agriculture. This helps exemplify the availability and application of knowledge on agricultural practices and their consequent position within the community. This is a part of their “lifeworld” or “habitus” and is therefore an important part of how they both see the world and their own context in it. As a community that is largely depending farming, this affects the community and contributes to the creating of place identity, or the shared understanding of what it means to be living in that particular community. Though role of cultural influences, such as material culture (subsistence culture in this study) has not been extensively studied within personal epistemology, many of the participants understood climate variability in terms of agriculture and were sensitive to the changes brought to crop production. This was a part of their body of climate knowledge, and therefore a relevant aspect of their personal epistemology of climate knowledge.

The Limitations of Local Knowledge

One problem associated with local knowledge systems is that they are usually created on the background of somewhat stable weather patterns and climate, and therefore may be incompatible with the unpredictability of an increasingly unstable weather pattern as a result of climate change. Some of the participants expressed distress and helplessness in the face of climate variability, illustrating that local knowledge systems may not be sufficient in themselves to provide rural communities with strategies for climate mitigation. In essence, laypeople’s knowledge of weather does not have the same predictive ability as technological forecasting systems. Despite many of the participants’ detailed knowledge of the local seasons and weather, the participants called for more and better technology to be able to foresee those changes that did not follow their perception of “normal weather patterns,”

This illustrates that even though local communities may have many ways of constructing and understanding knowledge on climate variability, these processes face major challenges.

Climate variability upsets the predictability of experience-based local knowledge and questions its applicability as rural communities face climate adversities. To hail local knowledge as the end-all solution to contemporary climate challenges may be counter-productive as it fails to acknowledge that the persistence of local knowledge structures may in part also remain because of differences in social and economic development, which preserves the need for local knowledge in lieu of available technology and forecasting systems. However, this should not serve to discredit the relevance, need and value of local knowledge systems in addressing place-bound and local weather changes and impacts.

The Limitations of the Study

With only nine informants one should of course be vary of whether these results are generalizable, and we reasonably can claim to have uncovered common patterns in how laypeople perceive climate changes and form knowledge about them. With any type of qualitative interview, the nature of the research situation means that a source of error might be informants trying to provide the interviewer with what they perceive as the “right” answer in the situation. This is obviously also a potential source of error in our particular study, drawing on local Bangladeshi farmers with little or no education and setting them up in an unfamiliar interview situation where they are met with foreign researchers, and representatives of the same expert knowledge that are part of the subject to the talk. These limitations taken into considerations, means that the present study must be viewed as presenting hypothesis on knowledge on climate variability in part of Bangladesh, where as always, more research is needed to follow-up on our limited results and conclusions.


This study aimed at answering the question: How is knowledge on climate variability produced within a local Bangladeshi setting? In short, the participants drew from a variety of sources, thereby using both personal and social processes of knowing, where personal experience was the most important process of coming to know about the weather. In this sense, the participants experience and sense making were embedded in the local context, oriented towards the local changes and effects. Existing cultural frameworks, such as the seasonal calendar seemed to function as a helpful tool for sense making and reasoning about weather change.

Participants also expressed the need for more and better information. This statement suggests there are limitations to local knowledge. We would however argue that these limitations should not only be viewed as the possible lack of practical applicability of local knowledge systems, but that the limitations of local knowledge systems also have to do with how people themselves view the value of their own knowledge. Within personal epistemology beliefs about knowledge also influence knowledge processes (Hofer and Pintrich 1997). This study did not focus on what beliefs people had about knowledge; however, it may still be of relevance to future explorations within climate research.

Even though the participants possessed a variety of knowledge on climate variability, they did not provide suggestions as how to use that knowledge; or more specifically, how that knowledge could perhaps be a resource in the creation of adaptation strategies of the community. Instead, the participants brought forward the value of scientific knowledge, and the need for better and more forecasting systems. Their suggestions seemed to be focused on scientific notions of climate change. This narrative suggests that participants may play a part in the devaluing of their own knowledge compared to scientific knowledge. Positioning of one’s knowledge as “lesser may influence perceived adaptability, as it could lead to people believing that their knowledge is not valuable or applicable. Adaptation should not only be looked at as an issue of the lack or presence of socioeconomic resources, but also perceived resources, and thereby perceived adaptability (Grothmann and Patt 2005) Considering adaptability, both development and empowerment may be important factors, to strengthen socio-economic resilience, as well as building psychological resilience to fight hopelessness and defeatism towards climate change.

There are important lessons for cultural psychology from this study. One lesson is the need to look at the symbolic value of nature as a cultural construct. Traditionally, cultural psychology has focused on the interface between the social and the cultural, emphasizing how our existence as social beings take part in constructing culture, and that culture in turn guides our experience of reality. What was missing here however, which the study of human side of climate change illustrates, is that cultural framework such as the seasonal calendar is based on human understanding of nature. This study looks to emphasize that nature can also be a form of culture, in the way that it becomes embedded into our sociocultural context and therefore also become sociocultural phenomena (Greider and Garkovich 1994).

For climate research it has the opposite lesson: it places culture and arguably personal epistemology within the context of nature and climate research. By exploring processes of knowing in a cultural setting, this study has been interested in the construction of climate knowledge as inherently connected to the local and cultural context people experience weather within, and thereby the cultural framework they use to attach meaning to weather. The combined insights from the fields of personal epistemology, cultural psychology, and climate research, has led us to believe that future climate change research should not only be about climate, but should also incorporate human systems, as the responsibility of solving climate change ultimately, begins and ends with us.



Firstly, we would like to thank the participants for sharing their stories and time with us. The authors would also like to thank the TRACKS project, especially Scott Bremer who contributed greatly to the paper with his guidance and feedback. Furthermore we would like to thank BCAS and the Bangladeshi research teams for organizing the data collection during fieldwork in Bangladesh. This study was made possible by the TRACKS project which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council through the KLIMAFORSK program.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

This study makes use of the data material belonging to the 646 TRACKS project, which received ethics approval from The Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD) on 647 the 1st of December 2014.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Madeleine Brørs Midtgaard
    • 1
    Email author
  • Ole Jacob Madsen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

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