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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 organization.

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 are oblivious to the 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

Contextualizing the publication of my ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF STREET CULTURE

Despite its 2021 publication date, almost four months have passed since my Routledge Handbook of Street Culture was released. Thus now is probably as a good a time as any to reflect on the goals and process connected to this project.

What is Street Culture?

In you want a definition, street culture refers to “the beliefs, dispositions, ideologies, informal rules, practices, styles, symbols, and values associated with, adopted by, and engaged in by individuals and organizations that spend a disproportionate amount of time on the streets of large urban centers” (Ross, 2018, p. 8). The scholarly use of the term street culture was popularized in 1999 through Elijah Anderson’s well known book Code of the Street, and was also adopted around that time in a number of popular magazines like Juxtapoz and Hypebeast. The term included elements of popular and urban culture ranging from graffiti, street art, street crime, music, fashion (like street wear), language, etc., etc.

Why a Handbook on Street Culture Now?

Over the past decade, a proliferation of handbooks have been commissioned and published by many of the major scholarly publishers. They vary in subject matter, quality, and price.

A handbook is supposed to be foundational. It synthesizes and circumscribes the extant knowledge in a particular field. It should have the most expert people writing the chapters, and each of these contributions should review and assess all information in that narrow chunk of the field that the writer is writing about. Rarely do handbooks include chapters that are predominately empirical pieces, which are the mainstay of scholarly journals.

Handbooks are primarily released in hardcover format, and while the audience for these books, is typically other experts and graduate students, these resources are usually purchased by libraries and sold at a higher price than most other academic books. Occasionally handbooks are published as paperbacks at a cheaper price. Increasingly they are released as e-books at an even lower cost. Also many of the publishers are making individual chapters available for purchase.

So why did I edit this handbook? In short, not only did the handbook grow out personal experiences, but street culture is a dominant cross-cutting theme in most of my scholarship, including the last handbook I did, the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art.

I edited this book because I believed that I, with the assistance of carefully selected contributors, and the subjects that they wrote on, had something unique to say, that this subject matter was not easily accessible in the popular and scholarly literature, and that this information and perspectives should be shared with a wider audience and in this type of format.

What kinds of challenges did I experience organizing a handbook on Street Culture?

Some of the challenges of editing a handbook are inherent in doing an edited book, while others are specific to a handbook, and the last is with respect to the subject matter. One of the most important hurdles are identifying and working with experts who are willing to write the chapters, under strict deadlines.

Edited books, especially handbooks are a lot of work, not just for editors like myself, but for the contributors too. From the creation of the original idea, to subject and author selection, to editing of chapters, to publication.

It often takes a long time to identify appropriate authors, follow up with them, and then shape the content of their chapter. Scholars are usually very busy. Also important is having the right balance in terms of authors and approaches to the subject matter.

Wrapping up

I hope that the Routledge Handbook of Street Culture, is useful to people who are interested in the subject, and that it will inspire others to conduct additional scholarship in the field.

Gimme Shelter? Examining the temporary structures that restaurants have built for outdoor dining during COVID-19

COVID-19 has had numerous effects at home and abroad.

Lives and institutions have been seriously disrupted.

Many people have been infected, and over a half million people in the United States alone have died.

Most public schools are closed, many businesses have shuttered, and lots of people and organizations have had to innovate.

One of those small areas where change has taken place has been in the restaurant industry.

Sure many of them have pivoted and switched to take out and curbside delivery. Some have done this successfully, while others not so well.

Many restaurants and other dining establishments, some with the blessing of the municipality or county in which they are located, (e.g., including small grants and loans), have experimented by creating or expanding outdoor eating areas. In some cases all that was done was placing a few chairs and small tables on the narrow pedestrian sidewalks in front of or to the side of their establishments. Other restaurants have set up tables in back alleys and nearby parking lots, while some have pitched tents, assembled bubbles, or constructed makeshift structures, some resembling temporary shelters built out of plywood, corrugated plastic, and placed in spaces that were at one time used as street parking spaces.

These latter areas are often protected from vehicular traffic by orange cones, metal grates, or cement or plastic barriers typically used in road and highway construction. Some have encroached to spaces in front of neighboring retail businesses.

On the plus side, this means that the restaurant can stay in business, keep many of their workers employed, and the construction of these temporary structures has enabled a small army of local handymen to stay in business or supplement their income building, assembling, or erecting the structures. It has also led to a small boom in the industry that sells the necessary building materials or rents out items like canopies, grates, barriers, etc.

The kinds of materials, designs, and durability of these makeshift structures vary considerably. We can celebrate the ingenuity of the owners and the creativity imbued in these structures.

But we also need to keep in mind that this development in contemporary urban public space comes at a price, not only in terms of what it has cost the restaurant, but in externalities they have created. Let’s temporarily suspend the negative externalities that both cars and roads create for the taxpayer. But the usage of this space means that we have less parking available for cars and thus more competition for parking spaces and a loss of revenue for the municipality or county. All things being equal, the competition for parking spaces will put greater pressures on neighboring streets where there may be residences that may already feel the pinch of low availability of parking.

Meanwhile many of the restaurants, particularly those operating in the northern states, during the cold fall and winter months, have tried to enhance the comfort of their customers by using propane heaters. Besides the added expense, they are contributing to our carbon footprint, by eat up gas, and putting these fumes into the local atmosphere of our urban environments.

What is going to happen when COVID-19 no longer presents the same level of risk that it once did? Will the restaurants and the local government where they are located embrace the temporary structures as the way of the future? Or will the temporary structures come down? Will they be stored, ready to be reassembled if another pandemic occurs? Perhaps? If the eating establishment has space in their structure, or maybe despite the slim margins they make on food they buy and prepare, they can afford to keep it somewhere else (e.g., the owners’ residence or a storage facility). Will the materials be recycled, or are they simply going to haul off the wood, plastic and metal to the town dump after the fact?

In the end, has the experiment to erect these makeshift structures worth the price both the restaurants and the communities they serve worth it. They may have staved off a loss of tax revenue for the municipality, prevented the unemployment of their workers, and maybe have contributed to the street and urban culture of particular neighborhoods. On the other hand, I’m not sure that our municipal and county councils have thought this through, and made the cost benefit calculations that would be relevant with the erection of these structures.

Maybe many restaurants, with assistance of municipal and county governments, will keep the structures. This may eventually lead the way to less cars in our urban centers. Fewer cars on the streets, may mean an opportunity for more bikes, and alternative mobility solutions, and pedestrian traffic, like we have seen in recent years in a handful of larger cities like New York City and San Francisco.

Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim
Missing the Point