Experiencing life: looking at ‘lived experience’

As part of its commitment to navigate a new course of integration and partnership, NHS England’s recent paper outlining a local-led approach to healthcare recommends “co-production with people with lived experience”. However, the value of understanding another person’s perspective and adjusting a service or strategy to incorporate this can be undermined if a simplistic, box-ticking approach is enlisted.

The complexity of individual experience has been explored through phenomenology (or the study of experience), which shows just how difficult it is for a researcher to gain an understanding of someone else’s perspective without their own preconceptions shadowing the findings. On the one hand a transcendental approach to phenomenology expects researchers to “bracket off” their previous knowledge and assumptions (in theory to the extreme of setting aside the world and the entirety of its content), while on the other a hermeneutic approach accepts that individuals have an understanding of their “lifeworld” which is inescapable and must instead be understood through the layers of their social, cultural and political contexts.

Many charities have incredible networks from which to draw insights about people’s experiences of services, and through this they can campaign about how these should improve. When utilising this expertise through surveys and interviews, research teams must be wary of pre-empting conclusions of conversations to align with planned or current campaigns. Difficult though it may be, phenomenology teaches us to set aside our hypotheses, preconceptions and inclinations to equate an individual’s experience to that of an entire group; instead, a more critical examination of how we understand lived experience may offer a richer picture, forcing us to really listen and respond to people rather than using their words to justify decisions and policies already fully formed.