Memorial Week in Evaluation: The overdue demise of “lived experience” by Michael Morris

My name is Michael Morris and I teach evaluation at the University of New Haven. For this Memorial Day series, I want to reflect on my lived experience of “lived experience.” The phrase “lived experience” has spread like kudzu in scholarly discourse in recent years.  The first time I encountered it in a journal article I furrowed my brow, scratched my head, and thought, “Huh?  Isn’t all experience, by definition, lived?  Don’t we apply modifiers to “experience” only when the experience is something other than lived (e.g., “vicarious experience”)?  A visit to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t provide much help.  Typing in “lived experience” generates the response, “Sorry, the word you’re looking for can’t be found.”  Uh-oh.

Of course, other sources yield a myriad of definitions, whose common denominator can be captured pretty well by the notion that lived experience is “the subjective perception of one’s experience” or “knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement in everyday events.”  Sounds reasonable.  These definitions seem to incorporate an element of reflection on experience.  However, let’s return to Merriam-Webster for one of their core definitions of “experience”: the “state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation.”

C’mon now.  Are the substantive differences between the above meanings sufficient to warrant the maintenance of separate conceptual and linguistic territories – lived experience vs. experience?  Probably not, in my view.  “Experience” has served the scholarly and research community well for a long time, and I believe it can accommodate quite easily the nuances and shadings suggested by its “lived” cousin.  “Lived experience” is one of those precious phrases that cause non-academics to make fun of academics.  (“I had an incredible experience last night!”  “I’m sure you did, Todd, but did you live it?”).  In some cases, esoteric terminology can involve conceptual stakes that are high enough to justify our jargon.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe “lived experience” is one of those cases.  We’ve taken two perfectly good words, accessible to all, and combined them in a way that unnecessarily clutters our discourse and makes us look silly to many intelligent, innocent bystanders.  Yes, the tangled roots of “lived experience” can indeed be traced back to Hegel, Dilthey, and German philosophy in the 19th century (I tip my hat to these deep thinkers), but I believe it’s time to retire this phrase and acknowledge that it adds little beyond empty calories to our writing.  I search in vain for a sentence that has been enhanced by adding the L word to “experience.”

Long live experience!

Rad Resource: Hoerger, J. (2016) Lived experience vs. experience   

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Memorial Week in Evaluation. The contributions this week are remembrances of evaluation concepts, terms, or approaches. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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