Pakikipagkapwa: approaching encounters with frontline communities in climate change research

Author: Cleovi Mosuela

„Außer der Reihe“ bildet neben den Projektbeiträgen eine weitere feste Reihe des „Denken ohne Geländer“-Blogs. Diese bietet Forscher/-innen am HAIT sowie Gastautor/-innen Raum für Beiträge zu aktuellen Themen, die eng mit den Forschungsschwerpunkten am Institut verbunden sind. Die Bandbreite möglicher Perspektiven und Schwerpunkte ist groß. Sie reicht von der Einordnung aktueller politischer und gesellschaftlicher Ereignisse in bestimmte historische, geographische oder kulturelle Kontexte über unkonventionelle, episodische Einblicke in den Forschungsalltag bis hin zur kritischen Auseinandersetzung mit theoretischen oder methodischen Entwicklungen in den Geistes-, Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften. Im folgenden Beitrag widmet sich Cleovi Mosuela den Herausforderungen des Umgangs mit der Klimawandelforschung durch direkt betroffene Communities.

Who are frontline communities?

Indigenous peoples would describe being on the frontlines of climate change as “bearing the brunt of both the impact and solutions to the most defining challenge of our time.” The frontlines are also “those locations, people experience failures of dominant infrastructure and the power of helping and sharing with one another”1. In the literature on climate change adaptation and mitigation research, the lived experiences of frontline communities are largely ignored by policy makers and scientists because of the bias towards a certain kind of academic and institutional knowledge2 ; frontline communities are relegated to victims due to the effects of extreme events, like wildfires and flooding; or being casted as dubious or skeptical about climate change. On the other hand, scholars, particularly urban and regional planners, are coming into an agreement in considering and expanding the scale and scope of grassroots and civil society-led local climate solutions given the immensity of action needed to address climate change.

Doing justice to frontline communities

I position my research in a way that it is not about a problem of integrating frontline communities in climate change policy and research, rather it is about doing justice to the ways in which ordinary people attribute meaning to the attempts to transform to a low carbon society. Specifically, my research project is concerned with people of color living in the United States. Some of them come from the lands most impacted by climate change, like the Philippines and Mexico. They are characterized by: high exposure to climate and environmental risks – because of the places they live being impacted by flooding or being in rural areas or having close proximity to oil refinery and thus exposed to toxics; fewer safety nets because of their immigration status and insecure jobs; less political power to respond to risks or low levels of influence over elected officials. Thus, I perceive frontline communities as active community organizers who, in the face of their vulnerable positionality, practice reflexivity and harness their agency and situated knowledges as approaches towards a low carbon society.

Pakikipagkapwa as method

As a migrant from the Philippines, a climate change hotspot in the global South with a long history of colonization, researching climate change (in the global North at the University of Hamburg) is not merely an object of study for me, but it is also a reflection of my own experience. Growing up in the south of Manila, I lived through calamities and ecological disturbances. Living as a Filipino migrant now, I have been maintaining care relations across distance and checks on family and friends every time a typhoon makes a landfall or a volcano is reported to show some activity in the Philippines.

I position myself in the tradition of women of color, postcolonial, and decolonial scholars who reflect on their own experience and subjectivities which influence the way of conducting scientific research. In designing and conducting research, I have aimed to acknowledge my own positionality and also power in relation to the research subjects, and also to recognize that of others. This approach draws attention to the complex intersecting vulnerabilities associated with the experience of climate change especially on the frontlines, but also recognizes and lifts up the unique, community-based knowledge and action that are often overlooked or ignored by other types of analyses.

As I conduct my current research, I build on the valuable discussions, insights, and experiences from a previous collaborative work with an environmental scientist on the activism of Filipino migrants addressing the demands at the onset of Typhoon Haiyan when it struck the Philippines in late 2013. We positioned ourselves as transnational activists who used our “rights to enhance the quality of political or civic life through collective action, with the aim of giving voices to marginalized sectors of the society.”3

Reflecting on the affective is one of the most critical aspects of fieldwork concerning frontline communities. It necessitated a sense of sensitivity and methodological adaptability and fluidity. To allow reflexivity and to acknowledge that I share some sense of the lived experiences with the people I speak with in my research project, I have approached our encounter through pakikipagkapwa, which evokes concepts of communal support and solidarity. The Filipino concept is not easily translatable to English because, according to philosopher Jeremiah Reyes, “it is embedded in an entirely different worldview and web of meanings unique to Philippine culture and history—namely, a Southeast Asian tribal and animist culture mixed with Spanish Catholicism.”4

It is usually in the literature on philosophy and Indigenous psychology that offers us insights into what pakikipagkapwa is. Virgilio Enriquez, the founder of the Sikolohiyang Pilipino or Filipino psychology, claims that pakikipagkapwa embodies the principles of sharing and respecting others as equals.5

According to a publication on the history of non-Western science, pakikipagkapwa reflects an orientation to the other. It is rooted in its concern for the other, to take another being into account, whether human or non-human.

Practicing pakikipagkapwa

According to Sylvia H. Guerrero, pakikipagkapwa is defined by “being one with another,” which “would mean acting out and deciding in ways that would be beneficial, not harmful to the dignity of another person.”6 It is an ethical practice in quotidian social interactions which I aim to employ as a guiding principle in conducting research. It means I recognize sensibilities to the everyday struggles of the individuals and organizations I have encountered, for instance, anti-Asian hate and protests against rights abuse at work. In so doing, I acknowledge the inhabited spaces I enter when conducting fieldwork in New York City and Los Angeles. Pakikipagkapwa engendered fluid approaches to empirical data, which are consistent with feminist ways of thinking. Rather than being concerned with discovering universal truth, feminist knowledge production utilizes various methods to recognize multiple truths that can coincide with each other. Going beyond the question of gender, feminist research commits itself to diversifying geographical ways of knowing, which is in line with my aim of recognizing the situated knowledges of frontline communities. Thus, in valuing the spaces the frontline communities created, I participated in in-person events and workshops they organized not only to observe and write field note observations but also to show up for them as an expression of affinity and solidarity.

For instance, for one public discussion, “Voices from the Frontlines of the Climate Emergency,” put together by a grassroots organization, I was encouraged by two of the members of the organizing committee days before the event took place to speak about my experience. I was quite hesitant at the beginning since I do not see myself representing those who are physically battling on the frontlines. With the distance that I have, I saw my privileges seemed to weigh more. But as one community member reminded me of, my speaking there would convey pakikipagkapwa to others who might be in similar circumstances. True enough, after speaking at a panel with climate activists from Latin America and Africa, some attendees approached me and said my story resonated with them. The practice of pakikipagkapwa cuts across borders, territories, and scales.

In addition to valuing frontline communities’ spaces, I recognize the time and work frontline communities put in, hence, I have conducted content analysis of preexisting written documents or visual materials they produced, such as published literature, reports, websites, posts on social networking sites, and blogs. My motivation for doing so was to recognize the effort and commitment to demand decision-makers to act and to raise public awareness. I see my role as a researcher to study these existing resources to gain a deeper understanding of the positionality and initiatives of frontline communities facing climate change impacts, without requiring community members to commit more of their limited resources to a demanding data collection method.

Pakikipagkapwa engendered openness between me and the research participants, which helped create spaces where our experiences and knowledges were validated. In my interviews, whether face-to-face or online, I used narrative method which enables adaptability and a more informal, relaxed encounter. It accommodated research participants’ suggestions, for instance, topics outside of those initially alluded to, the introduction of other materials into the conversation, and questions addressed to me, which helped build trust.

Pakikipagkapwa corresponds with the rigors of qualitative research

Conducting fieldwork through pakikipagkapwa complements well with what the fundamentals of qualitative research. I was able to build and maintain trust with the people I spoke with. I believe I was able to generate candid data, thereby facilitating the development of a thick description, which in turn strengthens the validity of research accounts and facilitates theoretical generalizations. In light of pakikipagkapwa, the people I spoke with offered quality data and valuable contact persons.

All in all, the discussion here opens up to developing pakikipagkapwa further in line with decolonizing climate change research. Sharing space and showing up for myself and others (i.e. at a public panel organized by community members) serve as a strong foundation for a meaningful co-production of knowledge between researcher and community members.

Zitiervorschlag: Cleovi Mosuela, „Pakikipagkapwa: approaching encounters with frontline communities in climate change research”. In: Denken ohne Geländer. Der Blog des Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung e.V. vom 22.11.2023:


Bild 1: Paiting by Cleovi Mosuela

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
haitblog (2023, 22. November). Pakikipagkapwa: approaching encounters with frontline communities in climate change research. Denken ohne Geländer. Abgerufen am 12. Juni 2024, von

  1. Dean Spade, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity during This Crisis (and the Next). London 2020, p. 146. []
  2. Jan Wilkens/Alvine R.C. Datchoua-Tirvaudey,Researching Climate Justice: A Decolonial Approach to Global Climate Governance. In: International Affairs 98 (2022) 1, p. 125–143. []
  3. Cleovi Mosuela/Denise Margaret Matias,The Role of A Priori Cross-Border Migration after Extreme Climate Events: The Case of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. In: Felicitas Hillmann/Marie Pahl/Birte Rafflenbeul/Harald Sterly (Ed.) Environmental Change, Adaptation and Migration. Bringing in the Region. London 2015, p. 98–116, here 103. []
  4. Jeremiah Reyes, Loób and Kapwa , An Introduction to a Filipino Virtue Ethics. In: Asian Philosophy 25 (2015) 2, p. 148–71, here 149. []
  5. Virgilio G. Enriquez, Filipino Psychology: Concepts and Methods. In: Henry S. R. Kao/Durganand Sinha (Ed.), Asian Perspectives on Psychology. Thousand Oaks 1997, p. 40–53. []
  6. Sylvia Guerrero, Filipino Notions of Responsibility: The Shared Identity of the Self and the Other. In: Edith Sizoo (Ed.), Responsibility and Cultures of the World: Dialogue around a Collective Challenge. Bruxelles 2010, p. 172. []

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