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Peer Support:

What is Experiential Knowledge?

Heart thread

By Thomasina Borkman, Professor of Sociology Emerita, George Mason University

Experiential knowledge is “truth learned from personal experience with a phenomenon rather than truth acquired by discursive reasoning, observation, or reflection on information provided by others.” [1]  I coined the term in a 1976 article in Social Service Review to explain the kind of knowledge self-help groups used/developed and contrasted this with medical and other professionally-based knowledge that is associated with science, college training and degrees.[2]  I want to explain the concept of experiential knowledge and its significance by bringing you back to two of my own experiences, experiences that led me to name and define this important type of knowledge.

My first experience was when I started sociological observations of a new Caring Group for Stutterers (pseudonym) in the early 1970s intrigued by a group that others thought could not exist.  Most members of the Caring Group had had one or more kinds of speech therapy.  In the first few years in the group, members would recount similar stories that either the therapy worked in the therapist’s office but not in real life or the therapy gave them temporary fluency after which they reverted to their previous level of stuttering. They all blamed themselves for the therapy being temporary and unsatisfactory.

By the time the group was five years old in 1971, seasoned members of the group were confident enough of their own experiential knowledge to critically question the effectiveness of the various speech therapies. They no longer blamed themselves for the failures of speech therapy. They no longer assumed the speech therapists’ knew more than they did about their own condition—i.e.. stuttering.  The group had also learned that contrary to the advice they received from an early professional advisor, becoming friends and holding social events outside of meetings did not damage the group but strengthened it and the social events were very beneficial for members. The group, especially the seasoned members who had been there for years, had made big changes in their attitude toward the professional knowledge of speech therapists and of their own information and the wisdom gained from lived experience of being a person who stutters.

My second experience was when , in 1972 I began attending a self-help group—a weekly women’s consciousness-raising group that was part of the feminist movement. The group reacted negatively when I brought research studies with statistics and charts to the meetings. They kept saying, we want to hear your own personal experience, not statistics and theory. How have you been discriminated against in the workplace because you were female?  What experiences have you had with your work being discounted because you were female?  I think they were ready to kick me out of the group.

However, I identified as being like the other group members. Listening and observing them in the intimate weekly meetings gave me gut-level awareness of how similar we were. Following them, I learned to reinterpreted how I had been treated as female in all male workplaces (and other issues) in terms of feminist theory. Gradually I learned how to reflect on their stories, compare them with my experience, reframe my issue in feminist terms, and express them as stories or parts of stories.

Something clicked! I begin to understand that I was undergoing a similar learning process as an individual that the Caring Group was undergoing as an organization in coming to trust my lived experience as valid  knowledge. Language of the heart that was very different than statistics and facts, expressed as stories or parts of stories, as narratives, and learned from peers.

Putting these two experiences together: the changes the Caring Group of Stutterers made from initially accepting their speech therapist’s recommendations to challenging them because of reflecting upon their own experiences. and my personal learning process in the consciousness-raising group of comparing my experience with others, reflecting upon the similarities and differences and understanding the story of how I had been treated as a female within the feminist framework  led to the concept of experiential knowledge. Voila-the concept of experiential knowledge was born.

Experiential knowledge is always knowledge of someone’s something!  The knowledge is always about some phenomenon, situation, or journey over time. Of childbirth. Or climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Or of substance use recovery. But simply going through an experience does not result in knowledge as a self-reflective and meaning-making process with peers as described above is necessary to convert the experience into meaningful knowledge.[3]

Experiential knowledge is holistic and total rather than specialized; here and now, not theoretical; oriented toward problem solving practical problems, not constructing theoretical frameworks.[4] Self-help groups pool the experiences of their members which reveals the common elements of the shared problem while “highlighting the uniqueness of each individual’s situation.” [5]

In contrast with university-based professional knowledge of science, medicine, law or other professions that is written, quantified and codified, experiential knowledge is mostly oral, and in self-help groups transmitted within a community of people practicing the same things. It can become ossified if written and processed into secondhand or indirect knowledge. The concept has become more widely used as the peer support movement has flourished.[1] 

While most mental health professionals are trained in and use a more academic or “by the “book” approach to providing services, the experiential knowledge, of someone who has taken the time to reflect upon overcoming their challenges and making meaning of their life experiences offers a rich and complementary perspective that can offer hope and reassurance that things can get better based on the practical wisdom of someone who has been through similar challenges.

How would you describe the benefits of experiential knowledge to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept?


Borkman, T. (1999). Understanding self-help/mutual aid: Experiential learning in the commons. Rutgers University Press. p.33

Borkman, T. (1976). Experiential knowledge: A new concept for the analysis of self-help groups. Social service review50(3), 445-456.

[1] Borkman, 1976, p. 446

[2] Although many self-help groups use both experiential and professional knowledge, the professional knowledge is vetted by being tested with the criteria of their experiential knowledge. (Noorani, Karlsson & Borkman, 2019, p. 5.

[3] Borkman, 1999, p. 33

[4] Borkman, 1976.

[5] Borkman, 1976, p. 450)