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. I wonder how ideas like sampling, generalisability, and validity can be used to make sense of how this works.

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

In activist groups with rich communication (Facebook groups, WhatsApp chat groups, regular meetings) the “data collection” is continuous and inseparable from day-to-day individual support and activism. But traditional reports can still be important to get media and government attention.

To unstick social research requires holding onto all methodological advances (sometimes getting a good estimate of the population prevalence and correlates of some form of oppression are useful for instance) whilst radically opening up research to citizen control.

Academics without lived experience running convenience sample qualitative studies with small numbers of people and pretentious methodology are fundamentally limited in what they can discover. The same sample from lived experience and lived theory is very different.

There are of course many professional researchers with lived experience, but higher education is a hostile environment now—you couldn’t design a better system to reward junk research and cause burnout if you tried.

Your various identities, privileges and oppressions (“race”, man/woman/non-binary, cis/trans, wealth, monogamous/poly, how valued your labour skills are, property ownership, disabled, etc.) fundamentally constrains who will answer your calls for research participants, what social phenomena you can understand, who will listen to what you discover.

Some research breaks free of the constraints thanks to contradictory locations; for instance, being articulate and well connected is one way to fight against a position of oppression. Though then you can end up being attacked by “your own side” for having helpful privilege.

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