The Sewell Report was wrong about lived experience – here’s why

Following the release of the Sewell Report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, our Director of Policy Manny Hothi reflects on the report findings and in particular how it was framed, highlighting how its attempt to discredit the validity of lived experience is damaging and unhelpful.

The release of the report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Dr. Tony Sewell, has caused significant controversy. Much of the evidence presented in the report has already been discredited by experts. Any good ideas it put forward have been lost by the deliberate framing of the report.

There is much to disagree with in this badly formulated report. But one thing that stood out to me was the attempt to discredit the validity of lived experience[1], by suggesting that it emphasises subjectivity over objective data. It was a point that was picked up by The Times over the weekend.

There is of course an irony here in how the report landed. The Commission’s use of data has been widely shown to have been selective in order to support their hypothesis that institutional racism is not as widespread as suggested. And in response to the backlash, the lived experience of the Commissioners was invoked as part of their defence.

Lived experience is a misunderstood concept

The truth is that the concept of lived experience is widely misunderstood. When we promote the importance of lived experience, we are trying to ensure that people who understand an issue by experiencing it are given the opportunity to work alongside other experts to develop the solutions.

And it is nothing new. The concept of lived experience is already baked into how most of us talk about politics and social affairs. On both left and right, the ability to invoke your own experience of an issue has always been used to try an enhance credibility when offering an opinion, often alongside the use of data.

There is a hierarchy of lived experience

The real issue is that there has always been a hierarchy of lived experience. Some forms of lived experience carry more weight than others. For example, if a Minister in the Department of Defence grew up in a military family, few people would question the benefits that might bring to their ability to the job. Or think about the journalist who invokes their childhood growing up in the countryside to support an opinion on rural affairs.

There is a hierarchy when it comes to the lived experience of poverty and disadvantage. People who grew up in poverty but have elevated themselves into a more affluent life are often showered with admiration from all sides of the political spectrum. For me, this is evident in the views of many of the Commissioners – they succeeded against the backdrop of racism and disadvantage, why can’t you?

The truth is that, if you are currently living in poverty, you are probably going to deemed much less qualified, too conflicted perhaps, to talk about the solutions than other experts. The same goes if you feel like structural racism has prevented you from flourishing.

Lived experience is about sharing power

By legitimising lived experience, we are trying to make sure that those people whose opinions often count the least are given a seat at the table alongside those whose opinions count the most. It is about power and how it can be shared.

If you are sceptical, look towards our Commission on Social Security Led by Experts by Experience for inspiration. The Commission is looking at ways of improving our social security system, and all the Commissioners are all current or recent social security claimants.

Whilst their experiences on benefits have informed their views, they are also being informed by the opinions and experiences of thousands of others who have submitted evidence to the Commission. The Commissioners’ personal experiences are the lens through which they filter other forms of expert opinion in order to make a decision.

Lived experience is not a left or right thing. It is not even a new thing.

It is a legitimate form of expertise that, when combined with professional and academic expertise, can be a powerful force for change.

Let’s embrace it, not discredit it.

8 April 2021

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[1] The main thrust of their disagreement is this paragraph on page 31 of the report:

“Well organised single-issue identity lobby groups also help to raise the volume. These organisations can do good work protecting the vulnerable, but they also tend to have a pessimism bias in their narratives to draw attention to their cause. And they tend to stress the ‘lived experience’ of the groups they seek to protect with less emphasis on objective data.”