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Notions of climate-induced (im)mobility decision-making and wellbeing in an urban informal settlement in Bangladesh

People with umbrellas on a crowded small boat on a river. Picture to illustrate that mental health is important for Trapped Populations.
On the concept of Trapped population, its development and the article’s well being perspective on it. Credit: A. Flores-Corral


Immobility in the context of climate change is not as widespread of an idea as mobility, but it is an emerging area of research interest. The concept of ‘Trapped Populations’ has mainly referred to people ‘trapped’ in environmentally high-risk rural areas due to economic constraints. This article attempts to widen our understanding of the concept by investigating climate-induced immobility and its link to Internally Displaced People’s (IDPs) wellbeing in a slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh. People migrated to the slum due to environmental changes on Bhola Island, in the delta of the Meghna River as it enters the Bay of Bengal, and named the settlement Bhola Slum after their home. Many found themselves ‘immobile’ after having been mobile—unable to move back home, and unable to move to other parts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, or beyond.

If we are to better understand the apparent inability of people to move away from places that involve risky situations, we need to analyse the deeply contextual psychosocial aspects that affect a person’s state of mind, wellbeing, and thereby their (im)mobility decision-making. These include feelings of belonging, identity, attitudes to risk, and emotional or mental wellbeing. This study provides a better understanding of why individuals with similar socio-cultural, economic and legal status can exhibit different (im)mobility and wellbeing outcomes.

*Download the full article from the right hand column. The key messages from the report are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

Applying Q-methodology and Discourse Analysis to understand urban (im)mobility and wellbeing

The study explores how (im)mobility decision-making is highly complex through a Q-based Discourse Analysis. The Q-based Discourse Analysis examines urban (im)mobility decisions and wellbeing through people’s subjective attitudes and perceptions. The interdisciplinary and innovative empirical mixed-method was carried out over 3 years. The study applied respondent-driven sampling (or snowball sampling) to select the participants. The 62 participants were not randomly selected, but efforts were made to ensure that they reflected the socio-economic and religious groups, as well as the distinction of age, gender, and livelihood backgrounds in Bhola Slum.

Q-methodology captures people’s subjective attitudes through a sorting exercise of Q-statements. The Q-sorting exercise was accompanied by a post-sorting interview around the statement extremes, and a survey questionnaire to gain background information of the 62 Qparticipants. The recorded Q-sorts were factor analysed to identify different discourse (or factor) groups.

A common problem in many Q-studies is that the post-sorting interview does not result in enough details. The analysis then often fails to explain why the participants sorted, or felt, the way they did around the Q-statement(s). In an attempt to improve this, and ensure more detailed insights in people’s discursive reasoning, the Q-sorting activity in this study was combined with the survey questionnaire and a Discourse Analysis (DA), used to analyse vocal, written, sign language or any semiotic (meaning-making) event.

The advantage of using Q in this analysis is that it supports the identification of subjectivities in the study site. The way that Q systemises and quantifies the grouping of people’s experiences or viewpoints is useful. However, some of the nuances and complex links to contexts beyond the Q-statements, that DA of language captures, are often lost in Q-studies. This study therefore combines the two.

Knowledge can maintain people in a discourse by disciplining their actions, and power by socially punishing those who step outside the discursive norm. The power and knowledge concepts can yield important insights into climate–human relations. This is because it is power and knowledge that lock people into social discourses who simply respond to their feelings and emotions. In this article the concepts serve as analytical tools to understand subjective climate-induced (im)mobility, or why people sometimes do not manage to escape environmentally and socially risky situations (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Discursive decision-making model. The figure illustrates a conceptual idea of how the decision-making process links to discursive and social-norms through the interaction of power (through punishment), knowledge (through discipline), feelings, emotions and wellbeing (Ayeb-Karlsson, 2018, p. 24), from p.3 of the publicaiton.

Five discourse groups were identified through the factor analysis. Each factor (or discourse) group represents a different perspective on (im)mobility and wellbeing in the settlement. After the Q-sorting exercise, the participants were asked to explain why, or how they felt and thought when they ranked the Q-statement extremes. The heading of each discourse group represents a summary of the analysis and indicates the Q-statement(s) ranked as most important for the overall group e.g. distinguishing Q-statements and ranking extremes.

  • The Landless (Discourse A): I want to return, but the erosion took my land.
  • The Displaced (Discourse B): This is not where I belong, I want to go home.
  • The Sacrificed (Discourse C): Lost health and honour for economic gain.
  • The Returners (Discourse D): I came here to save up money, after that I will return home.
  • The Dreamers (Discourse E): Urban dreams of betterment.

See the full text to read the analysis of the statements.

Key messages


The findings surfaced many climate induced non-economic losses and damages that people faced through the rural-urban move from the island, and through the displacement in the slum. These included the loss of identity, honour, sense of belonging, physical and mental health or wellbeing. It is important to acknowledge that people faced these losses although many of them ‘decided’ to migrate. These are crucial findings for the upcoming UNFCCC climate policy discussions that are to shape the conceptual development of Loss and Damage, and advise on how to best support vulnerable people facing such losses.

The lack of wellbeing often related to new urban (and gendered) risks such as the work conditions in the garment factories, or the living conditions in the slum. The study clearly illustrated how people’s, and in particularly women’s, immobility go far beyond economic constraints. More political and financial efforts must be made to ensure that climate-induced migrants, displaced and immobile populations have immediate access to psychological support upon their arrival.

The root causes of people’s interrupted wellbeing can be traced back to deeper structural, political and societal disfunction, such as poverty, unhealthy living conditions, labour and human rights violations. Whenever mobility is framed as an adaptive policy solution for ‘trapped’ populations, one must question whom the solution is for, and by whom it is raised. The study highlighted that researchers need to refrain from searching for ‘permanently immobile rural populations’ and open up to wider scenarios where mobility can lead to immobility, and where climate induced immobility can be in an urban context and short-term or temporary rather than permanent.


The findings demonstrate the need to widen our understanding of immobility and ‘trapped’ populations from simply being financial, practical and functional towards a more complex subjective and psychosocial process. We urgently need more research into the mental health impacts of migration, but also of the urban immobility state. We need more in-depth people-centred studies from different geographical, cultural and social research settings to reveal the similarities and differences in states of immobility.

This study provides some valuable and replicable research tools. The research method will likely prove useful and effective for further studies in similar research areas. The study illustrates that the process of decision making around migration and particularly immobility can also be thought of as a function of a complex and delicate network of elements (as the proposed model outlines). Subjective and psychosocial feelings and emotions boosting or reducing people’s wellbeing status, for example, often relate to whether an intention, desire or aspiration to migrate, leads to migrating.

Suggested citation

Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Kniveton, D. & Cannon, T. Trapped in the prison of the mind: Notions of climate-induced (im)mobility decision-making and wellbeing from an urban informal settlement in Bangladesh. Palgrave Commun 6, 62 (2020).

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