Is it ever okay to override someone’s lived experience in your research? (This post discusses sexual assault)

Yes, absolutely, all the time, 100%, this is what you are here for, you must be prepared to do this and you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t. Don’t pretend that you do not, and that you do not secretly think you know better than the people you are speaking for, nor that you are not selecting by definition from a vast galaxy of lived experiences and picking out some and not others.

There is a vogue for recounting lived experience as if it is the final word on everything, a sacred pure essence which can remain uncontaminated. Lived experience is used to mean people’s self-recounted experiences. I’ll skip over the obvious problems – we change our perspectives on our lives all the time, some entities are independent of lived experience but matter to it, some people are better placed to articulate themselves, we mistake smooth narratives for social reality, you are always selecting according to some criteria and cannot present ‘raw’ data without choosing.

I tackle this one because of how good many researchers are at getting to the experiences of people normally ignored or silenced, and the range of creative methods they have developed to do it. And we do that because it matters, and because it is not raw data. I am arguing that you cannot centre lived experience as the overriding explanatory account that you give. Placing lived experience at the absolute centre is contradictory. It is useless to pretend that society does not quash some experiences and over amplify others. It is then strange to think that the fact of that happening does not affect how people account for and understand their own experiences.

Case: If you poll women and ask each respondent if she has ever experienced rape you used to get a relatively low-ish number saying yes. For years researchers reported that rape was uncommon. Turns out, if you ask women ‘has someone ever made you have sex when you didn’t want to’ or an equivalent characterisation of forced/unwanted sex that does not use the word ‘rape’ (Koss, 1985), a much higher proportion say yes. I would only be asking the second question if I thought that the answer they were agreeing to described rape even if they did not think that, and even if the law did not acknowledge it as such either, as was the case for a long time for rape within marriage. I am putting my interpretation in place of their lived experience and the socially normative definition.

I am saying that there is an essence to that category which encompasses experiences that those involved do not necessarily acknowledge in the same way. I am placing my ontology well ahead of their lived experience. Well maybe that is a bad example, because why should people agree on what goes into all categories and taxonomies. As Koss (2011) notes though, pushback against her research recognising unacknowledged rape took the form of prioritising lived experience, and critics argued that those like her who reported this data were inflating the issue and making women look like perma-victims. What about their lived experience, eh? The critics sometimes made another point, that including many more cases into the category of rape tended to deflate it, so they were also appealing to an idea that there was a true, valid category of rape that existed before this research was done. There is no getting away from it. Many vital questions would be impossible without it: why do you feel that way, why do you select from this experience and not what one, what’s the relationship between your self concept and your life context, and what if anything do we need to do about it. These all matter to our lives and we cannot be prevented from asking them.

Koss, Mary P. 1985. ‘The Hidden Rape Victim: Personality, Attitudinal, and Situational Characteristics’. Psychology of Women Quarterly 9(2):193–212. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1985.tb00872.x.

Koss, Mary P. 2011. ‘Hidden, Unacknowledged, Acquaintance, and Date Rape: Looking Back, Looking Forward’. Psychology of Women Quarterly 35(2):348–54. doi: 10.1177/0361684311403856.


Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email Tweet @angusbancroft

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