Experiential Knowledge: from individual experience to collective evidence

With Peter Beresford OBE

Peter spoke about events in his childhood and early life that resulted in becoming a mental health service user, and how various systems helped him:

“I was so fortunate to have years of support helping me to rethink myself as an individual and deal with some of the problems I’d picked up in my life from childhood.”

This support came from his life-long partner, an NHS psychologist and service user led organisations. He spoke of these relationships as being examples of genuine co-production: people working together to generate understanding, in this instance of himself.

He went onto say:
“we have been socialised into a particular understanding of what really
counts as knowledge and evidence. This is to do with the notion of
science that has dominated our western society and culture since the
eighteenth century – the so-called enlightenment – and still has an
unhelpful stranglehold in psychiatry and in relation to our mental well-
being. And it is a very narrow model of knowledge drawn from a similarly
narrow understanding of science (the word science, lets remember, is
simply Latin for knowing) based on experiment, observation and notions
of objectivity, neutrality and distance. This model might as it is
interpreted fit some circumstances well , for example creating antidotes
to Covid and measuring the aetiology of some physical disorders. But it
fits badly with understanding human beings and our social contexts and
relations and our distress. Yet it has become the formal gold standard of
research, knowledge production and conventional western science. And
it has been used to devalue experiential knowledge and the knowledge
claims of some other cultures – for how can that claim to be objective – it
is subjective – we are not distanced but close to our own experience and
we can hardly claim to be neutral. But I would say that these are in fact
the strengths of such experiential knowledge.
Then there is another way in which traditional understandings of
knowledge devalue lived experience. They say it can amount to nothing

more than what one individual experiences and their interpretation of it.
All interpretations won’t be the same any more than all experiences are.
So, such knowledge is seen as apocryphal, anecdotal, at best individual
stories. Well not only would I dispute this, believing myself that indeed
what comes from the horse’s mouth is more likely to be reliable as the
saying has long gone than any other perspective. But also this ignores
the fact that just like traditional knowledge making, experiential
knowledge does not have to be isolated and individualised.

If there is one lesson we have learned from New Social Movements
(NSMs) is that they and their associated self organisations provide the
basis for developing collective experiential knowledge. They are the site
for us to relearn, reinterpret re-understand ourselves as women, Black
people, survivors, LGBTQ plus people, disabled people and challenge
traditional pejorative interpretations long imposed on us by powerful
majorities. They have highlighted issues that otherwise have been
ignored or denied, from child sexual abuse to physical and emotional
violence against women, rape and modern slavery

That is the great breakthrough of the second half of the twentieth century
and this new century. That through our collective action, our mutual aid
and self-empowerment we change our own and other people’s
understandings of ourselves, our experience and our oppression and it
can then be the basis for new kinds of inclusive solidarity and mutual
action among ourselves moving outward to make possible across the
many groups facing discrimination, being excluded and devalued. It is
the increasing opportunities for us to develop new more inclusive
understandings of solidarity between our movements as well as within
them that I believe offers the great hope and challenge for the future.

New determined campaigns in relation to trans people and trans issues,
in relation to challenging white privilege, decolonising society and
revaluing indigenous peoples, are all part of this great struggle offering
new insights and understanding. Hope that we all here today in all the
complexity, overlaps and diversity of our identities and experience,
hopes and difficulties can similarity, see ourselves as part of that same
united struggle – each of us contributing from our perspective part of the
great new picture that can emerge.”

In Q & A Peter directed us to some resources:

Mad Studies:

Jasna Russo writing:

The British Journal of Social Work,
Volume 53, Issue 3: Voice and

Influence of People with Lived


Peter’s Work:
The list is endless but he mentioned: