Analysis of the meaning of Empowerment and the strategies for maximising users’ empowerment in social work practice.

By Dr Ignatius Gwanmesia.

As a result of the contextual meaning when using the concept of empowerment, “analysing the meaning of ‘empowerment’ is inherently problematic”, Adams, (1996, p. 10), not only because “it is a social construct” Moonie, (1997), but more so because “empowerment has yet to achieve maturity, either as a critically understood concept, or as a reflective practice.” Baistow, (1994). According to Campell, (1996) “the sphere of articulation in empowerment is to far-reaching to be defined from a single perspective” Some analyst even point out that “empowerment is not “even simply an elaboration of any single existing social work methods, nor derived exclusively from individually-based, person-centred or problem-focused, social or environmental approaches to social work” Faced with these polarisations, it is only through a critical analysis of the concept of ‘empowerment’ that related social work theories can be efficiently and appropriate integrated into reflective social work practice.

The Discourse The Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines empowerment as “authorise, license (a person to do) give power to; make able (a person to do). This definition implies the notion of ‘enabling’ and ‘giving power to’. According to Adams, (1996, p. 2), while empowerment literally means ‘becoming powerful’; in social work, ‘it means much more since it embraces both theory and methods’. Within this context, Thomas and Pierson, (1995, p. 134) define empowerment as concerned with how people can be enabled to “gain collective control over their lives, so as to achieve their interest as a group and a method by which social workers seek to enhance the

power of people who lack it.” Taking the plight of the socially excluded or disempowered ethnic minorities in Britain for example, rather than the conventional or direct approach, the analysis of the concept of empowerment could be given a more critical scrutiny by analysing its antonyms; ‘oppression’ and ‘discrimination’. Within this context, analysts are consensual about the centrality of the concept of ‘power’ in related relationships in empowerment. Adams, (1996, p. 2); Ashrif, (2001, p. 2); Thompson, (2007). The ambivalence about power in such analysis of empowerment is that it is simultaneously good and bad. If misused or abused as in institutional discrimination (racism) in the case of ethnic minorities in Britain, the resulting disempowerment or oppression is perceived as ‘bad’; denying them the respect, self-determination and rights to be proactive participants in matters affecting their lives. Conversely, the reverse is true where the concept empowerment is synonymous with “anti-discrimination, gender equality, intercultural and anti-racist practices. In relating empowerment to power within the context of oppression, in his ‘PCS model’ Thompson, (1998, p. 21) asserts that empowerment occurs at three interconnected levels – the Personal, the Cultural and the Structural levels. At the personal or psychological level, oppression reproduces itself as the beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of one individual towards another. Within this context, disempowerment is rather akin to;

that service user in the residential home who has to choose between eating marsh potatoes or marsh potatoes for lunch simply because the social worker prejudicially does not see the client as deserving of the right to choose.

Similarly, there is suggestion that the ‘one-package-fits-all’ approach to service delivery can amount to disempowerment since service users are denied their right to choice. Indeed, the seemingly democratic rhetoric of being allowed to “use any colour shopping bag, so long as it’s red” Crow, (2002) seem most applicable in most of UK’s welfare service deliveries.


Ideally, the empowered approach to social work service delivery should entail helping or working alongside people to enable them develop confidence, boost their selfesteem and enhanced their skills to render them proactively assertive and participatory in matters affecting their lives. For example, in contemporary society where through ageism, the elderly is made to feel devalued and even undeserving of their rightful entitlement to certain welfare benefits; and where people with disability may be pathologised into sub humans; the prevalent concept of empowerment as giving power to, seems rather simplistic or reductionist. For example, there is need to question the rationale behind giving power to incapacitated, oppressed and devalued service users who may lack the ability to exercise it effectively, efficiently and appropriately in helping themselves? In fact, Moonie, (1997, p. 132) cautions that in practice, “the mere fact that clients need social services or receive social care is because they are not able to make, or not confident in making their own decisions.” Within this context, empowerment should entail a partnership in which social workers work alongside clients to enable them either regenerate their resilience, or use advocacy to enable them access those privileges that are theirs by right. Here, social work practice based on ethics of the Kantian model will be most appropriate. At the cultural level, disempowerment is the result of being judgmental or prejudicial about “what is true, right and good or perceived as normal about others; leading to internalised oppression in which people take on board negative messages about themselves as a result of discrimination” Thompson, (2007). Empowerment at this level can include undermining such frameworks of meanings- like in challenging stereotypes, or for people using the Agency concept to make decisions for themselves as in community development programmes where the democratic approach to interaction provides for fairness or relative equality in relationships. The problem here is that even democracy can never be comprehensive. At the structural level as in institutional discrimination where the life chances or the opportunities available to members of ethnic minorities are determined by the network of social divisions; resulting in acute deprivations (social exclusion, poverty);

empowerment here refers “to raising the users awareness of how the problems they experienced often have much to do with wider social and political issues relating to the structure of society’ Thompson, (1998, p. 22). For example within the rather reductionist definition of empowerment as “giving power to” Thompson, (2007, p. 21),’ females in our essentially patriarchal society are supposed to be empowered by being given power to, in emancipatory politics. The inadequacy of this perspective is exposed by the reflective questions; how can power be given to already equallyrighted human beings? How could the term empowerment be implicitly applicable when the very oppressive structures that have hitherto disempower people (sexism, racism, ageism, etc.) are being institutionally protected and sustained? As such, structural empowerment entails, not only creating a society in which neither race, gender nor religious differences are reasons for discrimination, but “a cohesive society in which people, irrespective, are enabled to feel valued, enjoy equal opportunities to develop their respective talents and lead fulfilling lives.” Donald and Rattansi, (1992, p. 4). Where sexism and gender discrimination are the case, feminist activists stress that “empowerment is not replacing one form of empowerment with another but should lead to the liberation of men from false value systems and ideologies of oppression” Batliwala, (1994, p. 131). Holistically, even within Thompson’s PCS model, the process of empowerment can be argued to be a multifaceted and inter-connected phenomenon since “oppression or discrimination take place not in isolation but within the context of culturally assumed norms in a broader societal framework of structures and institutions.” Ashrif, (2001). As such, the remedial empowerment in oppressions will be defined by the intercultural models, “which challenges not only the personal and cultural levels of oppression, but also vitally the institutions which support those attitudes and behaviours.” Oxaal, and Baden, (1997). So far, preceding analysis have been articulated around the notion of empowerment as enabling, working alongside side clients, regenerating resilience in hitherto dormant potentials as opposed to the simplistic notion of given power to oppressed

or discriminated persons or groups.

However, the United Nations Human

Development Report 1995, stresses that empowerment is about participation in which actions and decisions “must be by people, not only for them; People must participate fully in the decisions and processes that shape their lives. (UN, 1995 b). Within this context, Thomas and Pierson, (1995, p. 134) define empowerment theory as concerned with how people can be enabled to “gain collective control over their lives, so as to achieve their interest as a group and a method by which social workers seek to enhance the power of people who lack it.” Opinions on empowerment. In his attempt to locate empowerment within an enabling perspective, Mcleod, (1987) points out that the concept of empowerment is derived from the Latin word ‘potere’meaning ‘to be able’. Nevertheless, Thompson, (2007, p. 22) argues that since empowerment embraces personal, cultural and structural perspectives, ‘it is clearly more than just enabling. In fact, while Banks, (2001, p. 131-133) defines empowerment in terms of; user involvement (consumerist approach), partnership, power-sharing or negotiation (citizenship approach); and advocacy (radical approach); other perspectives abound. For example; in consensus with Thompson’s PCS model, Williams, S. et al., (1994), Rodwell, (1996); asserts that, “empowerment is about challenging oppression and inequality; which compel people to play a part in society on terms which are inequitable or in ways which deny their human rights”. Similarly, Rowland, (1995, p. 104) in consensus with Oxaal and Baden, (1997, p. 6) defines empowerment as “a bottom-up process and cannot be bestowed from the top down.” Likewise, Thompson, (2007, p. 22) argues that empowerment is not something we can do to or for people, but that, which we can do only with them.” Essentially, empowerment in social work involves deconstructing the ‘power over’, concept at a;



structural level where, despite all the talk of user involvement or citizenship, “old people are rarely involved in managing and running residential homes or day centres” Beresford and Croft, (1986);


personal level where, individuals are devalued or denigrated, thereby depriving them of a voice in decisions on matters affecting their lives.


cultural level, where “through internalisation certain groups like the disable take on board negative messages about themselves as a result of discrimination” Clarks, (2000, p. 57) .

Social work empowerment in these contexts involves, the practitioner “locating and coordinating the appropriate resources and working alongside or enabling these vulnerable and disempowered clients to regenerate their inert potentials and resilience to take control of their lives and circumstances.” Thompson, (2007, p. 2124).

Strategies for maximising the empowerment of service users Where Banks (2001, p.1) has pin-pointed the traditional values and ethics of the social work profession as; “self-determination, acceptance, non-judgementalism, and confidentiality” one of my primary strategies to maximise client’s empowerment will be to ensure that these seemingly altruistic ethical values are made implicit rather than just guiding practice as through code of social work practices. Within the context where D’Onofrio, (1992) posits education as “a very significant transport for empowering clients”; and where Gibson, (1991) defines empowerment as “the

individual’s recognition, promotion and improvement of his ability to achieve his own requirements, solve his own problems and mobilise resources to control his own live”; I will adopt a client-centred approach and implicit user involvement in maximising client empowerment through awareness practice. For example where service users have hitherto been disempowered to make choices through the lack of information, the availability of relevant information in forms and formats readily accessible to client will be absolute in my repertoires of strategies for maximising client’s empowerment. Similarly, with effective communication consensually perceived not only as the most empowering tool in social work intervention, but central to social work practice, Adams, (1996); Moonie, (1997, p. 134); an implicit repertoire in my empowering strategies would be to ensure effective communication in all interactions with clients; not only will clients be listened to and their questions answered with respect, the ethics of confidentiality will be stringently implemented. As such, “simplicity in the use of language, objectivity in ensuring that context and space enhance communication” Moonie, (1999); Adams, (1996); will be implicit in my practice. Equally, emphasis will be put on understanding both the service users’ physical as well as psychological needs; with every effort made to understand their cultural background in view to showing respect for their beliefs and identity. All these will be achieved first through self-reflecting on my practice approach to iron-out my personal biases and prejudice that may inadvertently lead to oppressive or discriminatory practice.

Conclusion The preceding analysis of the meaning of empowerment is not only confirmative of the chronic polarisation that shrouds its definition at the personal, cultural and structural levels, but more so that the specifics of its myriad of applications are context-based. Despite these, there is an almost universal consensus of the virtuous or humanitarian antecedents to empowering service users. The realisation that; rather than being without power, the supposedly vulnerable service users either

harbour dormant, repressed power or resilience at a personal, cultural and structural level; the logical approach in maximising their empowerment is to adopt approaches that enable the social worker, policy makers and organisation to work alongside rather than for the clients to help or enable them regenerate their potentials. Within this context, efficient, effective and appropriate strategy for empowerment will only be achieved if the client-practitioner relationship is based on the altruistic ethics of mutual trust, respect, non-judgementalism, self-determination and confidentiality; underpinned by empathetic approach to service delivery from the practitioner. Nevertheless, in our society that is institutionally segregationist by reason of its capitalist governance that rather upholds and sustain inequality, the extent of maximising my client’s empowerment will always be a factor of my own empowerment to empower others.


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