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by Kenneth Murray
08 February 2021
Comment: Is ‘lived experience’ a change-maker or ball and chain?

Comment: Is ‘lived experience’ a change-maker or ball and chain?

If you’ve been paying attention to the third sector, the media or the political landscape over the last ten years you may have become familiar with the term ‘lived experience’.

It’s a phrase which has been on the rise since the 1980s but is going through somewhat of a resurgence of late at the hands of policymakers and campaigners.

If you look at any research from charities, policy bodies or campaign groups, the term is used in abundance with a shifting definition, moulded to suit a particular cause or group in society. It’s used in reference to care experienced people, LGBT people, people who have experienced homelessness or poverty and those living with disabilities. By use, it’s an umbrella term to refer to the experience of those at disadvantage because of societal barriers, poverty and stigma.

Although well meaning, it’s quickly becoming a shortcut to explain that someone has had a less than desirable experience of growing up, of living or of working. As something to be poked and prodded and understood as something that happened to ‘them’, lived experience is quickly growing its own stigma.

When I first came across the term, I have to admit, I was stumped. Growing up in a housing scheme and in the care system, I’d never heard anyone refer to my life as a ‘lived experience’. It was just what we lived.

It was only when I reached middle-class circles that the phrase landed at my feet. It was being used as a catch-all and was basically about the reality of not being from a nuclear family with money.

In the last years, we’ve seen a marked move to define the type of lived experience that someone has; ‘lived experience of the care system’, ‘lived experience of the justice system’ and so on. 

I’ve yet to hear someone ask about the ‘lived experience of private school’ or ‘lived experience of going to Florida in the summer and the Alps in the winter’. It’s usually people with experience of the latter who have the power to set the terms of the conversation. Their experience becomes the stuff of professionals, while the other is for them to understand and find solutions to. A way of doing things that has been heralded as a powerhouse for driving change.

Just a few weeks ago, campaigners with ‘lived experience of poverty’ forced the UK Government to take action to provide school dinners for children. Yet, when you scratch beneath the surface, what we’re really saying is people with experience of going to bed hungry at night. Although the former is much more palatable and evokes less guilt.

If lived experience alone was the solution, what’s holding us back from a fair and equal society? I’d wager Marcus Rashford, a celebrity footballer with power, had more than a little to do with it.

We hear time and again how lived experience drives change. Yet, how many stories have we heard of discrimination, poverty and hardship? It’s all over our newspapers, TV and phone screens and in front of us, in the streets.

The real power lies in the hands of systems and structures, which I’m sad to say aren’t made up of too many people with ‘lived experience’ as we understand it. In the battle of the haves and have-nots, the haves ultimately wield the power of who gets heard and when.

In courts up and down the land, lawyers speak about their clients ‘troubled lives’ and compare them to fictional characters. With laudable intentions, we see lived experience packaged up and delivered by a voice deemed more credible to ensure support and punishment are given equal consideration.

On TV screens we watch compelling story after compelling story of people, subtitled for clarity, experiencing life without a home, without a warm meal and with little to no power. I’m not sure how comforting knowing they have ‘lived experience’ is to someone in that situation. The only person it brings comfort is the person with power who gets to feel like they’re listening.

The role of those in power is not simply to listen to and rearticulate the experiences of those on the sharp end – it is to change the unequal structures that have led to the consequences of oppression being called ‘lived experience’.

A few years ago, I’d have told you the reason I considered myself a success was that I had drive and ambition. As I struggled to articulate the circumstances that led to me getting a degree, I tacitly relegated those who I grew up alongside to simply being devoid of the drive and ambition necessary to make it.

When we live in a world where 65 per cent of Boris Johnson’s cabinet was privately educated and MSPs are five times more likely to be privately educated than the average Scot, I find it hard to fathom that ‘lived experience’ is truly the power we’re told it is.

It’s clear to me that, until people with so-called lived experience are able to cross the divide from the subject of policy discussion to the architects of it, we’re destined to lack the real power to remove the barriers and systems which have left us out to dry.

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