In this article, we suggest that social policy may be on the cusp of a large-scale adoption of the notion of lived experience. However, within social policy and allied disciplines, the growing use of the term ‘lived experience’ is unaccompanied by discussion of what it may mean or imply. We argue that now is a good time to consider what this term could mean for social policy analysis. The peculiarities of Anglo-centric usage of the broader term ‘experience’ are explored, before we identify and discuss several roots from which understandings of ‘lived experience’ as a concept and a research strategy have grown: namely, phenomenology, feminist writing and ethnography. Drawing on multiple historical and contemporary international literatures, we identify a set of dilemmas and propositions around: assumed authenticity, questioning taken-for-grantedness, intercorporeality, embodied subjectivity; political strategies of recognition, risks of essentialising, and immediacy of unique personal experiences versus inscription of discourse. We argue that lived experience can inform sharp critique and offer an innovative window on aspects of the ‘shared typical’. Our central intention is to encourage and frame debate over what lived experience could mean theoretically and methodologically within social policy contexts and what the implications may be for its continued use.