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 or not you want to—and lead to rich theory.

Compare what activist groups do versus a model of social research in which you have a central institute, running surveys and writing reports, making policy proposals. The latter leads to flat, superficial theorising if done without lived experience.

In activist groups with rich communication (e.g., chat groups and regular meetings) the “data 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 keeping in contact.

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, 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 holding onto all methodological advances whilst radically opening up research to citizen control. Sometimes getting a good estimate of the population prevalence and correlates of oppression are important to highlight how bad things are and likely causes. 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). But higher education is a hostile environment—you couldn’t design a better system to reward junk research and cause burnout if you tried.

Your various identities, privileges and oppression (due to race, gender, gender modality, wealth, relationship orientation, sexual orientation, how valued your labour skills are, property ownership, whether you are disabled, on social security, etc.) 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 and 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 helpful 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.