Expert by experience, or experienced beyond expertise?

Imagine a context in which it makes sense to call a horse an unwheeled automobile. Where to gain respect for the natural things in life, we have to describe them in technological or institutional terms. Where amateurs, commoners and citizens come to be known as experts by experience.

‘Expert by experience’ is a term of endearment and respect. But it’s a term with a lot of baggage that runs the risk of implying that expertise is the high watermark of human achievement.

Why is it necessary to label someone with lived experience as an ‘expert’? Why not just settle for amateur or enthusiast or, if you really want to flatter them: citizen?

I hazard a guess that it has something to do with how people generally value experts more favourably than people with tacit knowledge and real world know-how but who lack qualifications.

Yet clearly we all know parents are not clinical psychologists without clinical training. Nor are bird watchers ornithologists without accreditation.

Indeed, once you get over the qualification issue, there is great freedom and merit in being known and valued for what we contribute to the world beyond the realm of expertise and credentials. What Ivan Illich referred to as the ‘vernacular realm’.

To find words to honour this realm, we need to turn not to science or the professions, but to poetry. I assume that’s why Illich chose to call it the vernacular realm, since it clearly steps away from the institutional and technological, while at the same time conjuring up a distinct image in our mind’s eye.

Still, we’ve all heard people play down what they do in the vernacular realm: “I am only a …’volunteer’,/’resident’/ ‘amateur’/ ‘parent’”. These are expressions we hear often. Followed by the well intentioned reassuring refrain from others: ‘but you are of great value, you matter…you are an expert by experience’.

I was witness to such an exchange last week, and heard a ‘lay-person’ who was receiving the affirmation from a professional, respond:

‘What’s that, like a doctor without a stethoscope?’

It got me wondering whether some professionals aren’t trying to value lay-people by recasting them in their own image and likeness?

Why can’t we simply value parenting, amateur pursuits, associational life, commoning etc. for what they are: non-expert civic endeavours?

The beauty of such civil activities is that they are free, uncredentialed, uncurricularised, and largely unmanaged; the opposite of what defines the enterprise of the expert.

The enterprises of the lay enthusiast are relational endeavours unbound by formal contract, but deeply bound by the ties that bind, covenants of the heart, so to speak. And no less valuable than the endeavours of experts, just necessarily different.

To my mind, there can be no greater accolades than to be called a good citizen, parent, friend or partner.

Many experts I know have paid a very high price to get to where they are in their careers; their sacrifices in the service of others often (though I accept not always) exact a high toll on their civic and personal lives.

As one Community Development worker remarked to me recently: “I do this all day at work, I’m too exhausted by the time I get home to do it there as well. I have just enough energy left for my family.”

Restoring the commons demands a radical work / life balance, which involves turning down the expert part of us and turning up our bohemian instincts. In this regard, it is not simply a matter of being an expert by experience, any more than a horse is an unwheeled automobile.

I believe passionately that if professionals wish to honour lay people then instead of saying: ‘well done, you’re just like us, but without the qualifications’, they could consider acknowledging the unique and irreplaceable contributions that non-expert folks make everyday through tacit knowledge, unfettered care and real world know-how.

They could choose to stand back in awe and say ‘what you do is amazing; your efforts are acts of grace and inspiration for which there can be no institutional replacement. What you do goes beyond the limits of experts and into the realms of love and mystery, we honour you, and serve at your pleasure.’

The additional bonus in thinking this way is that our experts whom we must value deeply can also be encouraged and supported to cultivate the amateur within.

Such sentiments as well as honouring individual civic efforts, would serve to create a better balance between the expert and vernacular realms.

Perhaps then we could come to see that people are not experts by experience, but experienced beyond expertise. They are versed in the ways of the vernacular, they have street smarts, they have common-sense. And that is more than good enough.


Cormac Russell


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  • Dot Turton

    Big smile from me. I have commented frequently that we professionalise the very people we rely on to authentically connect with people we can’t as professionals.

    September 25, 2016 at 8:51 pm
    • Shaun Burnett

      Thanks Dot, you sum the key point up beautifully.

      Warm wishes,


      September 26, 2016 at 7:56 am
  • Good point very well made!

    September 26, 2016 at 5:48 pm
  • Susan Smith

    There’s also what I call “isolated passionate individual” syndrome from professionals in all sorts of realms who think one committed individual can do good stuff but they are the exception. In my experience too many people only want citizens to engage with them on their own terms and when this doesn’t work for citizens then it is the citizen who is blamed. Building community means exactly that – actively working with people to build community in its broadest, widest most glorious sense – not just wanting something from them to tick their own particular box of the moment,

    September 30, 2016 at 9:34 am
  • Spot on again Cormac Russell!

    November 28, 2020 at 9:23 am

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