Each day, we immerse ourselves in the same world. But this world presents itself differently to each one of us. In other words, my world is different from yours — as close as we are to our best friends and as well versed as we may be in the lives of our parents, we can never fathom someone else’s experience the same way that person can. Even if, theoretically, we were to spend our entire lives alongside another person, each of us engaging in the same experiences, these occurrences would still have different meanings, yield different emotions, conjure different reactions for each person.

Truly, experience shapes our reality. Instances of joy and sadness, triumph and travail, all contribute to our overall understanding of the world. Possibly more importantly, instances of discrimination, financial struggle, or recovery from disaster and sickness affect and shape us in ways that seem inexplicable to others. Entire groups and cultures must endure and share in these realities — we learn about racism in U.S. history, the impact of financial crises in the world, how wars and colonization ravaged families, and how epidemics devastated communities.

Recently, I began to question how one can earn ethos on a particular topic — does a person need to experience something in order to warrant authority over it? Can learning about history and another person’s reality be equated with experience? Are we warranted the same command over a topic in reading or studying about it, as one who has first-handedly experienced it? If so, what is the merit in learning about different people’s experiences? Living through specific experiences and studying provide two different approaches to a conversation on a phenomenon, each with its own merit — experience provides confirmed accounts of what has happened in the past, while learning about a topic secondhand from a textbook can raise awareness about an otherwise hidden reality. 

For instance, people that are victims of natural disasters, racism, or any other hardship can provide useful, insightful, and subjective accounts. They can attest to the reality that those sitting in a classroom may not personally experience. They are the most qualified on their specific experiences, for they bear an emotional connection that cannot be replicated in an article or study. For instance, within the heated debate on identity politics, we cannot negate the value of lived experience — at the core of identity politics is the recognition that demographic categories inherently shape one’s daily experiences and personal reality. Overall, the people that are within a certain demographic group have the most powerful, unbiased voices when they describe the effects of their belonging to that group.

Clearly, an outsider studying the effects of these hardships cannot provide the same fuel to a conversation as one who is immersed in the struggle. Nonetheless, this person may be in a position that would render him or her useful to a cause. For instance, he or she may have the resources to draw attention to an underrepresented issue, resources to which those struggling financially, for instance, may not have access.

Anthropologists, sociologists, and others who study cultural realities are able to tell stories that would otherwise go untold, provide their own input, and push a conversation forward to an oblivious audience. True, it could be argued that such scholars view the world from a different perspective than their subjects. But in citing stories, there is little one can do that would alter the fundamental facts of how subjects explain themselves. Though there is room for interpretation on the part of the scholar,  readers of this scholar’s work must recognize an interpretation of a story for what it is — a rendition. But more importantly, these scholars are able to catch trends and statistics between different families and cultures and extend these to form useful, broad generalizations on the common threads between different accounts.

However, in studying these different cases and finding noteworthy trends, we can bring more awareness to an issue in society that would else go unnoticed. In class, when we read about the current ramifications of disaster or war, we may become academic “experts” in the field, but the greater value in this is that we can begin to draw greater attention to this problem, mobilize others around us, and get involved in remedying issues ourselves. We can provide context and cultural awareness for those that have not yet learned about these realities so that they can then earn greater command over a topic and nurture innovative ways to approach an extensive problem.

Therefore, the merit of personal accounts is irreplaceable — the power of a unique voice speaking from personal experience cannot be forsaken. However, people who study these accounts or create statistics prove to be useful to the conversation because they can help unify and bridge the gaps between all of our realities. Though lives cannot simply be generalized, there are trends in tragedy that speak loudly enough for those detached from the tragedy to hear.

Sabrina Sequeira is a first-year from Springfield, N.J. She can be reached at sgs4@princeton.edu.

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