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Empowerment refers to policies and measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in the lives of people and in communities in order to (re-)enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way, acting (again) on their own authority. Empowerment refers both to the process of self-empowerment and to professional support of people, which enables them to overcome their sense of powerlessness and lack of influence, and to recognise and eventually use their resources and chances.

The term empowerment is also used for an accomplished state of self-responsibility and self-determination.

The term empowerment originates from American community psychology and is associated with the social scientist Julian Rappaport (1981).

In social work, empowerment forms a practical approach of resource-oriented intervention. In the field of citizenship education and democratic education, empowerment is seen as a tool to increase the responsibility of the citizen. Empowerment is a key concept in the discourse on promoting civic engagement. Empowerment as a concept, which is characterized by a move away from a deficit-oriented towards a more strength-oriented perception, can increasingly be found in management concepts, as well as in the areas of continuing education and self-help.


Robert Adams points to the limitations of any single definition of 'empowerment', and the danger that academic or specialist definitions might take away the word and the connected practices from the very people they are supposed to belong to.[1] Still, he offers a minimal definition of the term: 'Empowerment: the capacity of individuals, groups and/or communities to take control of their circumstances, exercise power and achieve their own goals, and the process by which, individually and collectively, they are able to help themselves and others to maximize the quality of their lives.'[2]

One definition for the term is "an intentional, ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of resources gain greater access to and control over those resources" (Cornell Empowerment Group).[3]

Rappaport's (1984) definition includes: "Empowerment is viewed as a process: the mechanism by which people, organizations, and communities gain mastery over their lives."[4]

Sociological empowerment often addresses members of groups that social discrimination processes have excluded from decision-making processes through - for example - discrimination based on disability, race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. Empowerment as a methodology is also associated with feminism.


Empowerment is the process of obtaining basic opportunities for marginalized people, either directly by those people, or through the help of non-marginalized others who share their own access to these opportunities. It also includes actively thwarting attempts to deny those opportunities. Empowerment also includes encouraging, and developing the skills for, self-sufficiency, with a focus on eliminating the future need for charity or welfare in the individuals of the group. This process can be difficult to start and to implement effectively.


One empowerment strategy is to assist marginalized people to create their own nonprofit organization, using the rationale that only the marginalized people, themselves, can know what their own people need most, and that control of the organization by outsiders can actually help to further entrench marginalization. Charitable organizations lead from outside of the community, for example, can disempower the community by entrenching a dependence charity or welfare. A nonprofit organization can target strategies that cause structural changes, reducing the need for ongoing dependence. Red Cross, for example, can focus on improving the health of indigenous people, but does not have authority in its charter to install water-delivery and purification systems, even though the lack of such a system profoundly, directly and negatively impacts health. A nonprofit composed of the indigenous people, however, could ensure their own organization does have such authority and could set their own agendas, make their own plans, seek the needed resources, do as much of the work as they can, and take responsibility - and credit - for the success of their projects (or the consequences, should they fail).

The process of which enables individuals/groups to fully access personal or collective power, authority and influence, and to employ that strength when engaging with other people, institutions or society. In other words, "Empowerment is not giving people power, people already have plenty of power, in the wealth of their knowledge and motivation, to do their jobs magnificently. We define empowerment as letting this power out."[5] It encourages people to gain the skills and knowledge that will allow them to overcome obstacles in life or work environment and ultimately, help them develop within themselves or in the society.

To empower a female "...sounds as though we are dismissing or ignoring males, but the truth is, both genders desperately need to be equally empowered."[6] Empowerment occurs through improvement of conditions, standards, events, and a global perspective of life.


Paradoxically, before there can be the finding that a particular group requires empowerment and that therefore their self-esteem needs to be consolidated on the basis of awareness of their strengths, there needs to be a deficit diagnosis usually carried out by experts assessing the problems of this group. The fundamental asymmetry of the relationship between experts and clients is usually not questioned by empowerment processes. It also needs to be regarded critically, in how far the empowerment approach is really applicable to all patients/ clients. It is particularly questionable whether mentally ill people in acute crisis situations are in a position to make their own decisions. According to Albert Lenz, people behave primarily regressive in acute crisis situations and tend to leave the responsibility to professionals.[7] It must be assumed, therefore, that the implementation of the empowerment concept requires a minimum level of communication and reflectivity of the persons involved.

Empowerment in Social Work and community psychology[edit]

In social work, empowerment offers an approach that allows social workers to increase the capacity for self-help of their clients. For example, this allows clients not to be seen as passive, helpless 'victims' to be rescued but instead as a self-empowered person fighting abuse/ oppression; a fight, in which the social worker takes the position of a facilitator, instead of the position of a 'rescuer'.[8]

Marginalized people who lack self-sufficiency become, at a minimum, dependent on charity, or welfare. They lose their self-confidence because they cannot be fully self-supporting. The opportunities denied them also deprive them of the pride of accomplishment which others, who have those opportunities, can develop for themselves. This in turn can lead to psychological, social and even mental health problems. "Marginalized" here refers to the overt or covert trends within societies whereby those perceived as lacking desirable traits or deviating from the group norms tend to be excluded by wider society and ostracized as undesirables.

Empowerment in economics[edit]

According to Robert Adams, there is a long tradition in the UK and the USA respectively to advance forms of self-help that have developed and contributed to more recent concepts of empowerment. For example, the free enterprise economic theories of Milton Friedman embraced self-help as a respectable contributor to the economy. Both the Republicans in the US and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher built on these theories. 'At the same time, the mutual aid aspects of the concept of self-help retained some currency with socialists and democrats.'[9]

In economic development, the empowerment approach focuses on mobilizing the self-help efforts of the poor, rather than providing them with social welfare. Economic empowerment is also the empowering of previously disadvantaged sections of the population, for example, in many previously colonized African countries.[10]

Legal empowerment[edit]

Legal empowerment happens when marginalised people or groups use the legal mobilisation i.e., law, legal systems and justice mechanisms to improve or transform their social, political or economic situations. Legal empowerment approaches are interested in understanding how they can use the law to advance interests and priorities of the marginalised.[11]

According to 'Open society foundations' (an NGO) "Legal empowerment is about strengthening the capacity of all people to exercise their rights, either as individuals or as members of a community. Legal empowerment is about grass root justice, about ensuring that law is not confined to books or courtrooms, but rather is available and meaningful to ordinary people.[12]

Lorenzo Cotula in his book ' Legal Empowerment for Local Resource Control ' outlines the fact that legal tools for securing local resource rights are enshrined in legal system, does not necessarily mean that local resource users are in position to use them and benefit from them. The state legal system is constrained by a range of different factors - from lack of resources to cultural issues. Among these factors economic, geographic, linguistic and other constraints on access to courts, lack of legal awareness as well as legal assistance tend to be recurrent problems.[13]

In many context, marginalised groups do not trust the legal system owing to the widespread manipulation that it has historically been subjected to by the more powerful. 'To what extent one knows the law, and make it work for themselves with 'para legal tools', is legal empowerment; assisted utilizing innovative approaches like legal literacy and awareness training, broadcasting legal information, conducting participatory legal discourses, supporting local resource user in negotiating with other agencies and stake holders and to strategies combining use of legal processes with advocacy along with media engagement, and socio legal mobilisation.[13]

Sometimes groups are marginalized by society at large, with governments participating in the process of marginalization. Equal opportunity laws which actively oppose such marginalization, are supposed to allow empowerment to occur. These laws made it illegal to restrict access to schools and public places based on race. They can also be seen as a symptom of minorities' and women's empowerment through lobbying.

Gender empowerment[edit]

Gender empowerment conventionally refers to the empowerment of women, and has become a significant topic of discussion in regards to development and economics. It can also point to approaches regarding other marginalized genders in a particular political or social context. This approach to empowerment is partly informed by feminism and employed legal empowerment by building on international human rights. Empowerment is one of the main procedural concerns when addressing human rights and development. The Human Development and Capabilities Approach, The Millennium Development Goals, and other credible approaches/goals point to empowerment and participation as a necessary step if a country is to overcome the obstacles associated with poverty and development.[14]

Empowerment in workplace management[edit]

According to Thomas A Potterfield,[15] many organizational theorists and practitioners regard employee empowerment as one of the most important and popular management concepts of our time.

Ciulla discusses an inverse case: that of bogus empowerment.[16]

In management[edit]

In the sphere of management and organizational theory, "empowerment" often refers loosely to processes for giving subordinates (or workers generally) greater discretion and resources: distributing control in order to better serve both customers and the interests of employing organizations.

One account of the history of workplace empowerment in the United States recalls the clash of management styles in railroad construction in the American West in the mid-19th century, where "traditional" hierarchical East-Coast models of control encountered individualistic pioneer workers, strongly supplemented by methods of efficiency-oriented "worker responsibility" brought to the scene by Chinese laborers. In this case, empowerment at the level of work teams or brigades achieved a notable (but short-lived) demonstrated superiority. See the views of Robert L. Webb.

During the 1980s and 1990s, empowerment has become a point of interest in management concepts and business administration. In this context, empowerment involves approaches that promise greater participation and integration to the employee in order to cope with their tasks as independently as possible and responsibly can. A strength-based approach known as "empowerment circle" has become an instrument of organizational development. Multidisciplinary empowerment teams aim for the development of quality circles to improve the organizational culture, strengthening the motivation and the skills of employees. The target of subjective job satisfaction of employees is pursued through flat hierarchies, participation in decisions, opening of creative effort, a positive, appreciative team culture, self-evaluation, taking responsibility (for results), more self-determination and constant further learning. The optimal use of existing potential and abilities can supposedly be better reached by satisfied and active workers. Here, knowledge management contributes significantly to implement employee participation as a guiding principle, for example through the creation of communities of practice.[17]

However, it is important to ensure that the individual employee has the skills to meet their allocated responsibilities and that the company's structure sets up the right incentives for employees to reward their taking responsibilities. Otherwise there is a danger of being overwhelmed or even becoming lethargic.[18]

Implications for company culture[edit]

Empowerment of employees requires a culture of trust in the organization and an appropriate information and communication system. The aim of these activities is to save control costs, that become redundant when employees act independently and in a self-motivated fashion. In the book Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute, the authors illustrate three keys that organizations can use to open the knowledge, experience, and motivation power that people already have.[5] The three keys that managers must use to empower their employees are:

  1. Share information with everyone
  2. Create autonomy through boundaries
  3. Replace the old hierarchy with self-managed teams

According to author Stewart, in her book Empowering People she describes that in order to guarantee a successful work environment, managers need to exercise the "right kind of authority" (p. 6). To summarize, "empowerment is simply the effective use of a manager’s authority", and subsequently, it is a productive way to maximize all-around work efficiency.

These keys are hard to put into place and it is a journey to achieve empowerment in a workplace. It is important to train employees and make sure they have trust in what empowerment will bring to a company.[5]

The implementation of the concept of empowerment in management has also been criticised for failing to live up to its claims.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adams, Robert. Empowerment, participation and social work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.6.
  2. ^ Adams, Robert. Empowerment, participation and social work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.xvi
  3. ^ Zimmerman, M.A. (2000). Empowerment Theory: Psychological, Organizational and Community Levels of Analysis. "Handbook of Community Psychology," 43–63.
  4. ^ Rappaport, J. (1984). Studies in empowerment: Introduction to the issue. "Prevention in Human Services," 3, 1–7.
  5. ^ a b c "Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute" by Ken Blanchard, John P. Carlos, and Alan Randolph
  6. ^ (Dr. Asa Don Brown)
  7. ^ Vgl. Albert Lenz: Empowerment und Ressourcenaktivierung – Perspektiven für die psychosoziale Praxis.
  8. ^ Adams, Robert. Empowerment, participation and social work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.12ff.
  9. ^ Adams, Robert. Empowerment, participation and social work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.7-9
  10. ^ "Welcome to MicroEmpowering!". Microempowering.org. Retrieved 2012-08-24. 
  11. ^ odi.org. "The politics of legal empowerment: legal mobilisation strategies and implications for development". odi.org. publications/8485-legal-empowerment-mobilisation. Retrieved 24 November 2014. 
  12. ^ "What Is Legal Empowerment?". Retrieved 29 December 2014. 
  13. ^ a b Cotula, Lorenzo (1 Jan 2007). Legal Empowerment for Local Resource Control: Securing Local Resource Rights Within Foreign Investment Projects in Africa. IIED, 2007. p. 48. ISBN 9781843696674. Retrieved 24 November 2014. 
  14. ^ U.N. General Assembly, 55th Session. “United Nations Millennium Declaration.” (A/55/L.2). 8 September 2000. (Online) Available: www.un.org/millennium/declaration/ares552e.pdf (accessed January 2, 2008)
  15. ^ Potterfield, Thomas. "The Business of Employee Empowerment: Democracy and Ideaology in the Workplace." Quorum Books, 1999, p. 6
  16. ^ Ciulla, Joanne B. (2004), "Leadership and the Problem of Bogus Empowerment", in Ciulla, Joanne B., Ethics, the heart of leadership (2 ed.), Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 978-0-275-98248-5, [...] in many organizations, promises of empowerment are bogus. 
  17. ^ "Empowering Your Employees to Empower Themselves". hbr.org. Retrieved 2015-09-17. 
  18. ^ "Empowerment: The Emperor’s New Clothes". hbr.org. Retrieved 2015-09-17. 
  19. ^ "6 Myths About Empowering Employees". hbr.org. Retrieved 2015-09-17. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Robert. Empowerment, participation and social work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Blanchard, Kenneth H., John P. Carlos, and Alan Randolph. Empowerment Takes More than a Minute. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1996.
  • Humphries, Beth. Critical Perspectives on Empowerment. Birmingham: Venture, 1996.
  • Rappaport, Julian. In praise of paradox. A social policy of empowerment over prevention, in: American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 9 (1), 1981, 1-25 (13)
  • Rappaport, Julian, Carolyn F. Swift, and Robert Hess. Studies in Empowerment: Steps toward Understanding and Action. New York: Haworth, 1984.
  • Stewart, Aileen Mitchell. Empowering People (Institute of Management). Pitman. London: Financial Times Management, 1994.
  • Thomas, K. W. and Velthouse, B. A. (1990) "Cognitive Elements of Empowerment: An 'Interpretive' Model of Intrinsic Task Motivation". Academy of Management Review, Vol 15, No. 4, 666-681.
  • Wilkinson, A. 1998. Empowerment: theory and practice. Personnel Review. [online]. Vol. 27, No. 1, 40-56. Accessed February 16, 2004.