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rowlands, empowerment examined 1995

rowlands, empowerment examined 1995

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Power and empowerment
 The often uncritical use of the term`empowerment’ in development thinkingand practice disguises a problematicconcept. Many development practitionersand policy-makers will have come across the term in Caroline Moser’s work (1989) ongender analysis. However, development is not the only context in which it is used. We now hear about empowerment frommainstream politicians such as Bill Clintonand John Major. Its use in some disciplines Ð adult education, community work, andsocial work in particular Ð is relativelyadvanced, though here too there is room forgreater clarity about the concept and itsapplication.Some of the confusion arises because theroot-concept Ð power Ð is itself disputed,and so is understood and experienced indiffering ways by different people.Indeed, the person invoking `empowerment’ may not even be aware of the potential formisunderstanding. Power has been thesubject of much debate across the socialsciences.
Some definitions focus, withvarying degrees of subtlety, on theavailability of one person or group to getanother person or group to do somethingagainst their will. Such `power’ is located indecision-making processes, conflict, andforce, and could be described as `zero-sum’: the more power one person has, the less theother has. Other definitions differentiatebetween various kinds of power, which can then be understood as serving distinct purposes and having different effects in oron society. These include `a threat power’,`economic power’, and `integrative power’;or `the power to create such relationships aslove, respect, friendship, legitimacy and soon’.
Most frameworks for understanding power appear to be `neutral’: that is, theymake no mention of how power is
distributed within a society. There is noconsideration of the power dynamics of gender, or of race, class, or any other forceof oppression. This absence is tackled by a number of feminist theorists.
Convention-ally, power is defined in relation toobedience, or `power over’, since some people are seen to have control or influenceover others. A gender analysis shows that`power over’ is wielded predominantly bymen over other men, by men over women,and by dominant social, political, economic,101
0961-4524/95/020101-07 Oxfam UK and Ireland 1995
Empowerment examined
 Jo Rowlands
`Empowerment’ is a term often used in development work, but rarely defined. This articleexplores the meaning of empowerment, in the context of its root-concept: power. Different understandings of what constitutes power lead to a variety of interpretations of empowerment, and hence to a range of implications for development policy and practice.`Empowerment’ terminology makes it possible to analyse power, inequality, and oppression;but to be of value in illuminating development practice, the concept requires precise and deliberate definition and use.
or cultural groups over those who aremarginalised. It is thus an instrument of domination, whose use can be seen in people’s personal lives, their close rela- tionships, their communities, and beyond.Power of this kind can be subtlyexercised. Various feminist writers havedescribed the way in which people who aresystematically denied power and influencein the dominant society internalise themessages they receive about what they aresupposed to be like, and how they may come to believe the messages to be true.
 This`internalised oppression’ is adopted as asurvival mechanism, but becomes so wellingrained that the effects are mistaken forreality. Thus, for example, a woman who issubjected to violent abuse when sheexpresses her own opinions may start towithhold them, and eventually come tobelieve that she has no opinions of her own.When control becomes internalised in thisway, the overt use of `power over’ is nolonger necessary. The definition of power in terms of dom-ination and obedience contrasts with onewhich views it is generative terms: forinstance `the power some people have of stimulating activity in others and raising their morale’.
One aspect of this is the kindof leadership that comes from the wish tosee a group achieve what it is capable of,where there is no conflict of interests and thegroup sets its own collective agenda. Thismodel of power is not a zero-sum: anincrease in one person’s power does not nec-essarily diminish that of another. And, asLiz Kelly (1992) observes, `I suspect it isªpower toº that the term ªempowermentºrefers to, and it is achieved by increasingone’s ability to resist and challenge ªpoweroverº.’
What is empowerment?
 The meaning of `empowerment’ can now beseen to relate to the user’s interpretation of  power. In the context of the conventionaldefinition, empowerment must be aboutbringing people who are outside thedecision-making process into it. This puts astrong emphasis on access to politicalstructures and formal decision-making and,in the economic sphere, on access to marketsand incomes that enable people to participate in economic decision-making. Itis about individuals being able to maximise the opportunities available to them withoutor despite constraints of structure and State.Within the generative interpretation of  power, empowerment also includes access tointangible decision-making processes. It isconcerned with the processes by which people become aware of their own interestsand how those relate to those of others, inorder both to participate from a position of greater strength in decision-making andactually to influence such decisions. Feminist interpretations of power lead to astill broader understanding of empower-ment, since they go beyond formal andinstitutional definitions of power, andincorporate the idea of `the personal as political’.
 From a feminist perspective,interpreting `power over’ entails under-standing the dynamics of oppression andinternalised oppression. Since these affect the ability of less powerful groups to participate in formal and informal decision-making, and to exert influence, they alsoaffect the way that individuals or groups perceive themselves and their ability to actand influence the world around them.Empowerment is thus more than simplyopening up access to decision-making; itmust also include the processes that lead people to perceive themselves as able andentitled to occupy that decision-makingspace, and so overlaps with the other categ-ories of `power to’ and `power from within’. These interpretations of empowermentinvolve giving full scope to the full range of  human abilities and potential. As feministand other social theorists have shown, theabilities ascribed to a particular set of peopleare to a large degree socially constructed.Empowerment must involve undoing
 Jo Rowlands
Development in Practice, Volume 5, Number 2, May 1995
 negative social constructions, so that the people affected come to see themselves as having the capacity and the right to act and have influence. This wider picture of empowerment canbe seen to have three dimensions:·
where empowerment is aboutdeveloping a sense of self and individualconfidence and capacity, and undoing theeffects of internalised oppression.·
Close relationships:
where empowermentis about developing the ability to negotiateand influence the nature of the relationshipand decisions made within it.·
where individuals work together to achieve a more extensive impact than each could have had alone. Thisincludes involvement in political structures,but might also cover collective action basedon cooperation rather than competition.Collective action may be locally focused Ðfor example, at village or neighbourhoodlevel Ð or institutional, such as national networks or the United Nations. The profound Ð but often unrecognised Ðdifferences in the ways in which power isunderstood perhaps explain how it is that people and organisations as far apart politically as feminists, Western politicians,and the World Bank have embraced theconcept with such enthusiasm.
Empowerment in practice
 The idea of empowerment is increasinglyused as a tool for understanding what is needed to change the situation of poor andmarginalised people. In this context, there isbroad agreement that empowerment is a process; that it involves some degree of  personal development, but that this is notsufficient; and that it involves moving frominsight to action.In a counselling context, McWhirter(1991) defines empowerment as:
by which people, organisationsor groups who are powerless (a) becomeaware of the power dynamics at work intheir life context, (b) develop the skills and capacity for gaining some reasonablecontrol over their lives, (c) exercise thiscontrol without infringing upon the rights of others and (d) support the empowerment of others in the community.
(my emphasis)She makes a useful distinction between `thesituation of empowerment’, where all fourof these conditions are met; and `anempowering situation’, where one or moreof the conditions is in place or beingdeveloped, but where the full requirementsare not present. Through all these definitions runs the theme of understanding: if you understandyour situation, you are more likely to act todo something about it. There is also the theme of acting collectively. McWhirter’sdefinition makes clear that taking action is not about gaining the power to dominateothers. Writers on social group work alsoinsist that empowerment must be used in thecontext of oppression, since empowerment isabout working to remove the existence andeffects of unjust inequalities (Ward andMullender, 1991). Empowerment can take place on a small scale, linking people withothers in similar situations through self-help,education, support, or social action groupsand network building; or on a larger scale, through community organisation, campaign-ing, legislative lobbying, social planning, and policy development (Parsons, 1991). The definitions of empowerment used ineducation, counselling, and social work,although developed through work inindustrialised countries, are broadly similar to Freire’s concept of 
,which centres on individuals becoming`subjects’ in their own lives and developinga `critical consciousness’ Ð that is, anunderstanding of their circumstances and thesocial environment that leads to action.In practice, much empowerment workinvolves forms of group work. The role of the
Empowerment examined 
Development in Practice, Volume 5, Number 2, May 1995

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