What is ‘lived experience’?

Article by Patrick J Casey: “Everywhere you turn, there is talk of lived experience. But there is little consensus about what the phrase ‘lived experience’ means, where it came from, and whether it has any value. Although long used by academics, it has become ubiquitous, leaping out of the ivory tower and showing up in activism, government, consulting, as well as popular culture. The Lived Experience Leaders Movement explains that those who have lived experiences have ‘[d]irect, first-hand experience, past or present, of a social issue(s) and/or injustice(s)’. A recent brief from the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests that those who have lived experience have ‘valuable and unique expertise’ that should be consulted in policy work, since engaging those with ‘knowledge based on [their] perspective, personal identities, and history’ can ‘help break down power dynamics’ and advance equity. A search of Twitter reveals a constant stream of use, from assertions like ‘Your research doesn’t override my lived experience,’ to ‘I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to question someone’s lived experience.’

A recurring theme is a connection between lived experience and identity. A recent nominee for the US Secretary of Labor, Julie Su, is lauded as someone who will ‘bring her lived experience as a daughter of immigrants, a woman of color, and an Asian American to the role’. The Human Rights Campaign asserts that ‘[l]aws and legislation must reflect the lived experiences of LGBTQ people’. An editorial in Nature Mental Health notes that incorporation of ‘people with lived experience’ has ‘taken on the status of a movement’ in the field.

Carried a step further, the notion of lived experience is bound up with what is often called identity politics, as when one claims to be speaking from the standpoint of an identity group – ‘in my lived experience as a…’ or, simply, ‘speaking as a…’ Here, lived experience is often invoked to establish authority and prompt deference from others since, purportedly, only members of a shared identity know what it’s like to have certain kinds of experience or to be a member of that group. Outsiders sense that they shouldn’t criticise what is said because, grounded in lived experience, ‘people’s spoken truths are, in and of themselves, truths.’ Criticism of lived experience might be taken to invalidate or dehumanise others or make them feel unsafe.

So, what is lived experience? Where did it come from? And what does it have to do with identity politics?…(More)”.