Taking experiential knowledge seriously in today’s Myanmar

Here, motivated by her own sense of imbalance and inadequacy following the coup in Myanmar, Morgane Dussud, PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London, reflects on the necessity of taking experiential knowledge seriously.

Photo credit Myo Thaw

By Morgane Dussud

In their introductory essay, the team behind the Sensing Myanmar project encouraged us to reflect on the “sense of imbalance and inadequacy” that we felt, as academic researchers, helplessly watching the military coup unfold in Myanmar since February 2021. I recently reflected on my own struggle as I attempted to navigate issues of risks, ethics and access that come with conducting fieldwork in a rapidly changing (semi-)authoritarian environment.

As a human rights practitioner who recently dove deep into academic research (I am a third year PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London), “imbalance and inadequacy” have been familiar feelings. I have always valued the complementarity of my experience of human rights practice and my knowledge of human rights theories, yet they have also come with a set of specific questions: around my interlocutors’ expectations (are they talking with Morgane-the-researcher or Morgane-the-colleague?); my own biases; tensions arising from constantly switching between short term decisions I take in my work and long-term impact I study in my research; etc.

‘Action-based’ research, ‘evidence-based’ advocacy, participatory methodologies, and so on, have brought the two worlds of theory and practice closer for the wider development sector. In Myanmar, as a practitioner, I was involved in several projects with local and international NGOs where action-based and evidence-based programming were the chosen approach. They aimed to build programming from the ground up, with service users, beneficiaries or community representatives being involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of development projects. Rights holders’ needs and priorities were determining factors in the projects, and their voices would be heard. These approaches were both mainstreamed by L/INGOs and encouraged by international donors, in the spirit of the Grand Bargain[1] and the localization of international aid. At their core, was the recognition that the experience of local communities mattered, that they were knowledgeable.

With limited access to Myanmar for the foreseeable future, due both to the continuation of the COVID pandemic and the current political situation, it might be time for international scholars focusing on Myanmar to think of experiential knowledge – the knowledge gained by experience, in a more conscious and nuanced way. I would argue here that recognizing the diversity and complexity of what ‘knowledge’ is, in a constraining research environment such as 2021 Myanmar, would deepen and nuance our understanding of the events we, as international researchers, are witnessing from (mostly) afar, thereby responding to key challenges posed by conducting research in authoritarian environments, and eventually sharpening our joint analysis of the political situation.

This very preliminary argument (I hope to develop it further at a later stage) finds its roots in 1) the shock felt at the rapid crumbling of the political situation in Myanmar, and its consequences on research access and 2) echoes of soul-searching debates raging through the international aid sector and social sciences alike around issues of localization and the decolonisation of knowledge.

The literature on experiential knowledge is mainly to be found in the fields of anthropology, social work, psychology, sociology and education. When Borkman, a sociologist, introduced the term ‘experiential knowledge’ in 1976, as “truth learned from personal experience with a phenomenon rather than truth acquired by discursive reasoning, observation, or reflection on information provided by others” (1976:446), it applied to patients’ knowledge and their contribution to decision-making in healthcare contexts (her primary focus was on self-help groups). She recognized that patients’ experiential knowledge went beyond their values or preferences and rested on their specific knowledge of the problem. She understood experiential knowledge as a holistic knowledge (1976:449), i.e. neither solely ‘lay knowledge’ nor ‘professional knowledge’, and combined together with ‘professional knowledge’, i.e. experts’ knowledge, it would bring the best available outcome.

The purpose of this piece is to make the case for further research into, for example the relevance of experiential knowledge in constraining research environments (such as authoritarian Myanmar) and how to approach it. This shift could inspire both academic researchers and development actors or international aid agencies operating in such environments. One of my earliest post-coup feelings of “imbalance and inadequacy” as an international researcher led me to recalibrate my approach to ‘data’ that was coming out of a place I not only no longer had physical access to, but where the rapidly unfolding situation and high risk environment for activists and political commentators meant that emotional turmoil was high and lots was left unsaid or untraceable to reliable sources. As my research focuses on activism and civil society mobilisation strategies, I wondered how to treat this ‘data’, from an ethical, methodological, and theoretical point of view.

Blume (2017) has reflected on the transposition of experiential knowledge research to social sciences in a volume on the future of social sciences, recognizing similitudes between ‘self-help groups’ and ‘social and political activist groups’. Inspired by his conclusions for the future of health care research, and emboldened by Borkman’s statement that “beginning with the anti-authoritarian social movements of the 1960s, experience has gained salience as a source of political representation, often under the banners of ‘public’, ‘patient’ or ‘user’ involvement” (Noorani, Karlsson & Borkman, 2019:220), I see both opportunities and warnings for my own research, that might inspire reflection in others:

  1. Experiential knowledge has often been seen as non-scientific knowledge, as debated in the field of indigenous studies. Recognizing experiential knowledge, should go beyond the scientization and archiving of local knowledge, and it should encourage us to think deeper about 1), the human agency behind the production of knowledge and 2), the process by which the dissemination of knowledge occurs.
  2. As social scientists looking for patterns to explain certain phenomenon, the collection and juxtaposition of experiential knowledge can be helpful to our research. Frequently undervalued, experiential knowledge can be a resource for intervention (for policy makers) and for analysis (for scholars), as it reflects lived experiences that are otherwise difficult to capture.
  3. Yet, we need to be aware of our filtering mechanisms as scholars, regarding whose knowledge we take into account: communities traditionally kept at bay from the political scene, less connected (including logistically, with limited Internet and media access), or with less popular spokespersons, will still struggle to make their voices heard.
  4. As we later assemble this data, framing it scientifically, we need to remain aware of the distinction between one’s experience of political and social change’s symptoms, and the broader analysis of root causes of such change.

By recognizing the points of contact and interactions between experiential knowledge and professional, academic knowledge, we encourage a dynamic where the complementarity of local and international research is valued, both sides benefitting, nurturing and exchanging knowledge. This should go together with recognizing local professional (expert) knowledge, in order to support and amplify local action, defending the legitimacy of local actors in influencing the policies and systems that impact them directly.


Blume, S. (2017) In search of experiential knowledge, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 30:1, 91-103, DOI: 10.1080/13511610.2016.1210505

Borkman, T.J. (1976) Experiential Knowledge: A new concept for the analysis of self-help groups, Social Service Review, 50:445-456.

Keeton, M. T. (1982) Experiential Education, in: H. Mitzel (Ed) The Encyclopaedia of Educational Research, p. 619 (New York: Free Press)

Kidder, R. (2005) Moral Courage (New York: Harper)

Noorani, T.; Karlsoon, M. & Borkman, T (2019) Deep experiential knowledge: reflections from mutual aid groups for evidence-based practice, Evidence policy: a journal of research, debate and practice, 15(2): 217-234.

[1] Motivated by the ambition to make international humanitarian aid more efficient and impactful, international aid agencies and INGOs came together in 2016 at the World Humanitarian Summit to agree on the Grand Bargain, a set of initiatives to shift more resources and influence towards local and national actors.

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