Be mindful of the “lived experience fallacy” and its cousin, “those who are closest to the problem are in the best position to change it”

Occasionally I hear and see the comment (also known as approach, axiom, principle, and statement), often in activist circles, that although somebody may be considered an expert on a subject (e.g., poverty, discrimination, criminal victimization, etc.), because they don’t have lived (or direct) experience of something (e.g., a problem, situation, series of events, persons, etc.), or they have not been significantly impacted, they are somehow unqualified to understand the problem, and their perceptions are suspect, not credible, or useless.

More damning, is the retort that the solutions and changes advocated by these “so-called experts,” should be not trusted and thus disregarded.

I believe that we are seeing an increase in this phenomenon (the dismissal of expert opinion that does not have the accompanied lived experience) in many academic domains such as criminal justice, disability studies, gender studies, racial and ethnic studies, social work, etc.

Enter the complementary principle of those who are closest to the problem, are in the best position to change it, as one of the frequent “solutions” to the failure to have people who have lived experience shaping the agendas of groups or constituencies that are negatively impacted.

This approach (i.e., those who are closest to the problem are in the best position to change it) is premised on the assumption that lived experience unequivocally imbues people with particular knowledge and insights and that they will be qualitatively better than the “so-called” experts to lead a relevant group, organization, social movement, etc.

Both of these axioms would be great, if only they were universally true.

Before continuing, both of these statements beg a number of questions including what is an expert, and who is doing the labelling, but this is a discussion best left for a different context.

Also, I’m not talking about cultural appropriation, nor am I referring to the situations such as the ones involving former George Washington University professor, Dr. Jessica Krug, nor former Spokane NAACP chapter president, Rachel Dolezal. In both of the latter cases these individuals, who were from white families, tried to pass themselves off as African-Americans.

Why are the two approaches summarized above suspect? There are many people who have lived experience, but were oblivious to the unique situations in which they were exposed, lack the ability to adequately analyze and communicate what they saw or experienced to a wider audience, or they don’t have any original insights. In other words, they do not have anything new to contribute to the debate (or our knowledge of a situation).

With respect to the last idea, this is why we are frequently exposed to the recycling or repackaging of so much information; the recounting of the same experiences, shared by others, with no new insights. How do we protect ourselves from this old wine in new bottles experience. That is where peer review research is supposed to sort all this out. (All the stuff that has been said already should be identified by qualified reviewers, communicated to the editors, and filtered back to the paper submitters, so that only new insights are evaluated and communicated).

With respect to the approach that those who are most affected are in the best position to solve the problem, one need not look further than the long history of numerous social movements both in the United States and elsewhere to see how many orgs stumbled and fell, and it was not because of outside leadership.

Often referred to as authenticity politics, many important social causes are grappling with issues of credibility and leadership. In some circles there has been a reification and romanticization of lived experience and this has led to group and movement conflict, paralysis and dissolution. In other words, organizations, big and small, are sometimes prevented from carrying out their mission because of this preoccupation. I encourage these groups to think more clearly about the choices they are making, and not fall prey to thinking in black and white terms.

I’m not suggesting that people with lived experience can’t assist our knowledge of a domain, or nagging social problem, nor am I arguing for a conservative or parochial approach to knowledge claims, policy and legal development, nor organizational leadership, but I am asking social justice groups to be careful about what are often simplistic approaches to deny the input of people who may in fact be experts without lived experience. Although difficult to balance, the perspectives of lived experience and the approach of those without it, can work synergistically to create stronger research, mentorship, and activism (including public policy).

Photo: “Group Meeting,” by Michael Frank Franz