Unsticking social research through lived experience and citizen control

Having lived experience and knowing people with lived experience are really effective way of researching social conditions – unavoidably, whether you want to or not – and lead to rich theory.

In activist groups with chat groups and regular meetings, the β€œdata collection” isn’t actually data collection, but inseparable from day-to-day conversations, support, and campaigning. The “research” is the shared understanding of what’s going on that is maintained by continuous contact.

Compare this to a model of social research where a professional-run central institute runs surveys and writes reports. This approach can lead to flat, superficial theorising if researchers don’t have lived experience of the problems being researched.

But traditional reports can still be important to get media and government attention: “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This?”, written by the English Collective of Prostitutes, a network of sex workers, is a great example of research drawing on lived experience to set priorities and ask the right questions combined with “traditional” research skills.

To unstick social research requires benefiting from methodological advances whilst radically opening up research to citizen control. Sometimes getting a good estimate of the population prevalence and causes of oppression are important to highlight how bad things are and suggest ways to improve things. Advances in techniques and software for qualitative analysis can be useful too and ensure best use is made of testimony.

Academics without lived experience running convenience sample qualitative studies with small numbers of people and pretentious methodology (pages of reflection on whether reality is real and complaining about positivism) are fundamentally limited in what they can discover. But the same sample informed by lived experience, focussing on issues that matter, is very different.

There are many professional researchers with lived experience. Max Weber (1864-1920) was one, with experience of psychiatric inpatient stay:

“Max Weber had made contact with psychiatric thinking as a result of personal experiences. After he had been made professor of economics in Heidelberg and following the death of his father in 1897, he suffered from a severe depressive episode lasting until 1902. After recovering, he became increasingly interested in contemporary philosophical and psychological literature and began to study act theory as a basis of economics.” (Frommer et al., 2000, pp. 346-347)

But higher education is a hostile environment – you couldn’t design a better system to reward junk research and cause burnout if you tried. Such environments are far from ideal for supporting people who have the lived experience needed to help improve the quality of research.

Your various identities, privileges and oppression (racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, poverty, etc., and intersections thereof) fundamentally constrain who will answer your calls for research participants, what social phenomena you can understand, who will listen to what you discover. They literally change what you see, hear, and feel, and what you can research.

Some researchers break free of these constraints thanks to contradictory locations; for instance, being articulate and well-connected can be used to resist a position of oppression. Though then you can end up being attacked for having privilege, even by “your own side”.

Academics with more secure positions can help, for instance:

  1. Support PhD students and colleagues who are discriminated against in various ways: grants, decent pay, and mentoring are helpful.
  2. Instead of “giving voice” to people through interview excerpts, give a platform.
  3. Cite blog posts and reports from activists with lived experience, not only peer reviewed journal articles.