Although lived or practitioner experience may be helpful in understanding a field, it’s not an end in and of itself

A considerable amount of confusion exists surrounding the concepts and utility of lived and practitioner (or field) experience as methods to inform scholarly research.

Part of the reason may be because many people fail to consider how knowledge and expertise are acquired, and the relative contributions and limitations of lived and practitioner experience to inform scholarly research.

Knowledge and expertise about a field may be accumulated a variety of different ways.

In general, and in simplest terms, there are two principle methods.

The first approach, typically starts with earning a formal education, which includes progressing through different and harder stages (e.g., bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees). During this training, mentorship, and credentialization process you conduct research and subject it to peer review. This is long and sometimes painful process. But over time hopefully this work provides important insights to move the scholarly discipline forward.

The second method, is derived through lived or practitioner experience. In this case you work in particular field, like policing or social work, and over a considerable period of time, you are hopefully exposed to a number of different situations and challenges, and learn how to effectively with them. Alternatively, you are frequently part of the subject population that the practitioners focus on, or you work closely and regularly with these individuals. In the field of criminal justice, this role may encompass being a criminal/perpetuator, district attorney, judge, or a victim of a crime. And thus you learn about a variety of subtle dynamics rarely experienced by outsiders.

Why might lived or practitioner experience be helpful for academics?

It can help them understand a variety of subtleties concerning a person, organization or situation, that they may not be aware of and/or ignored.

It can also assist scholars to understand selected elements of a discipline, but their value is typically context specific.

The fact that an academic may have interned at a police department or in a court system at some point in time in their life or career, or they consult for a police department is not the same as being in the trenches as a practitioner for an extended period of time.

On the other hand, spending a considerable amount of time as a practitioner, say for example, a correctional officer, and rising up the ranks, over a significant time frame may expose that person to lots of different situations, but it does not mean that they understand the concerns of scholars who specialize in a relevant discipline. Likewise, a well-respected gang member, may know how to survive on the mean streets, but this does not mean they are well versed in criminological theory.

Thus, it’s important to critically analyze not only the merits of academic research, particularly its ability to represent the lived reality of people, places, and situations, but at the same time not assume that all lived or practitioner experience is the same or can equally assist us to understand our relative academic disciplines.

In short, although practical and lived experience can inform our scholarship, it is not sufficient to the research enterprise.