The Problem with Empowerment

Many professionals work to increase people’s empowerment. Teachers, social workers, family workers, community development workers all strive to increase the empowerment of children, young people and families. Coaches and leadership consultants strive to increase the empowerment of adults.

Empowerment has therefore become a commonly used term whose meaning is perhaps taken for granted. The common use of the term leads to an unconscious acceptance that it can only be a good thing. But how true is that? What might be the problems with empowerment? I too support the empowerment of other people, but having critically analysed the concept, outline some issues below.

Nine Issues with Empowerment (Stuart, 2015).

No.1: It is poorly defined. People can mean different things when they say ’empowerment’, so it is important to ensure that you, the other people that you work with all have the same definition.

No.2: You cannot give empowerment. Professionals sometimes talk about empowerment as something that they do to others. But you cannot give someone power as you would a gift. It is only something that they can take for themselves.

No.3: The opposite of empowerment is disempowerment. This is caused by oppression, marginalisation and discrimination. These can be done to someone. So it would seem easier to disempower them than to empower them – hmmm.

No.4: Empowerment works in a relationship with oppression – the extent to which someone feels empowerment will be affected by the conditions of disempowerment. Some people still remain empowered in very disempowering situations, some people feel disempowered in the most empowering situations. Nothing is fixed, and the feeling of empowerment will shift moment to moment and situation to situation.

No.5: This subjective and dynamic nature means that it is very hard to measure in quantitative terms.

No.6: Can you be too empowered? What might that look like? Would someone with too much power become an oppressor? Is there a continuum, or even a cycle therefore, from disempowerment through empowerment to oppressor?

No.7: Do we need to consider the morality of the person that we empower? Hitler was no doubt a very empowered man. This raises a question about whether we only empower people that we think will use the power well. Is it a term open to ethics? But judging someone as immoral and therefore not deserving of empowerment is an oppressive act…..

No.8: There is a spectrum of practices associated with ’empowerment’, but they vary in the extent to which they offer opportunities for power to be taken by individuals, are there therefore all valid? Or are some ‘better’ than others?

No.9: Is there any point? Why are we empowering people for a world where there are limited ways to use that power? There are no jobs for young people, people have no power over policy making, political protests are quashed with ‘kettling’, etc., so what is the point?

The existence of these issues is not a reason to stop engaging in empowering practices, it is a call to think carefully and critically about what we do. Ensure you know what you are doing and why, check out the extent to which you may reinforce rather than reduce existing systemic oppression, be careful with your language, check your assumptions, and do all that you can to create the conditions for people to claim the power that is rightfully theirs. For me there is still a point.

Many people have been systematically individualised, industrialised, dehumanised and subjected to multiple oppressions. Alone we can do little, we feel responsible for our own condition, and able to do nothing for others. Collectively, however, people rediscover community, collectively people understand they are not alone, collectively they have voice and collective power can create change. Empowerment for me is still a central concept in creating social justice in families, communities, organisations, nations and the globe, but it is a concept that demands delicate and deliberate use.

The Problem with Empowerment