Accessing the lived experience of others

Lived experience can be an excellent data source for scholarly research and career development. In particular, lived experiences can provide anecdotal evidence and inspiration for hypotheses that investigators may want to empirically test using different research techniques. It may also motivate and drive scholars’ passion to conduct research regarding a particular topic.

That being said, researchers frequently do not have access to relevant lived experience that will assist them to conduct their studies. How then do these investigators and others who don’t have appropriate lived experience, that wish to benefit from it, collect this data?

There are a range of research methods and data sources that investigators can use to better understand particular learned experiences.

These include, but are not limited to ethnographic research, observation, face-to-face interviews, and well-designed and administered surveys with individuals who have relevant lived experience. Alternatively we might consider using thoughtful and well-respected memoirs and autobiographies written by individuals who have lived experience.

In principle, if researchers have unlimited resources (e.g., money, time, expertise, access, etc.), it’s helpful for them to use as many of the previously mentioned strategies as possible in order to come closest to understanding the lived experience of the people and groups they are interested in understanding.

Then again there are advantages and disadvantages with each of these options. One need only consult a well-respected introductory social science research methods textbook to understand the situations where a particular technique works best and ones in which they are ill-advised.

Success or failure in this regard usually depends on the questions investigators want to ask (and be answered), and the subject population from whom they want information. For example, asking individuals who are long time methamphetamine users about what it’s like to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is probably not going to be that helpful. On the other hand, conducting a well-designed ethnography of graffiti writers, over a respectable period of time, may yield valuable insights into their experiences, motivations and constraints.

To top things off, just because researchers have lived experience (or access to data that will provide insights into lived experience), it does not necessarily mean that they and others can make appropriate generalizations.

Over time, however experienced and skilled researchers should be able to better determine which research method/s works best, with what population, and situation. That’s why it’s important for scholars to get into the field to observe, ask important questions of their subjects, and be self-reflective regarding the kinds of information they gather.

Photo Credit: Matthew
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