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Empowerment Practice

Abstract and Keywords

The concept of empowerment has deep roots in social work practice. Building upon the work of empowerment theorists of the 1980s and 1990s and applied broadly in the 2000s [Itzhaky and York (2000), Social Work Research, 24, 225–234; Travis and Deepak (2011), Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 20, 203–222], the concept of empowerment has evolved from a philosophical level to practice frameworks and methods. Substantial research confirms empowerment outcomes as personal, interpersonal, and sociopolitical. Practice interventions contain both personal and structural dimensions and are accomplished through multilevel interventions. Based on transformation ideology, empowerment is a counter to perceived and objective powerlessness. Social work relationships provide an opportunity for experiencing power and collaboration. Empowerment interventions are often useful with vulnerable populations, such as women and members of stigmatized groups.

Keywords: internalized powerlessness, interpersonal empowerment, learned helplessness, liberation, mastery, multilevel intervention, perceived powerlessness, personal empowerment, self-efficacy, social justice, stigmatized groups, sociopolitical empowerment

Vulnerable Populations

Social work has a long history of empowerment traditions (Simon, 1994) from such sources as social-reform movements, feminism, economic-security legislation, settlement-house work, civil rights work, and liberation theology through social work roles such as facilitators, mobilizers, and social reformers. Barbara Solomon's early work (1976) used an empowerment paradigm to explicate practice in oppressed communities. Solomon viewed empowerment as the process of a client's own endeavors to gain resources that will enhance the mastery of his or her affairs. During the 1980s and 1990s, a substantial body of research literature from both inside and outside social work was developed, which conceptualized empowerment as a three-dimensional construct, geared toward acquisition of power, both perceived and objective. Subsequently, a consensus emerged in social work regarding empowerment processes and outcomes in practice (for summary of this literature, see Cox & Parsons, 2000; Parsons, 2002). Empowerment is “a process through which people become strong enough to participate within, share in the control of, and influence events and institutions affecting their lives,” and that, in part, “empowerment necessitates that people gain particular skills, knowledge and sufficient power to influence their lives and the lives of those they care about” (Torre, 1985).

Empowerment outcomes include personal empowerment: self-efficacy and perception of the ability to resolve and influence one's own issues, interpersonal knowledge and skill acquisition attained through interactions with others that facilitate overcoming barriers, and sociopolitical actions influencing societal institutions that can facilitate or impede self-help and mutual aid efforts. These interacting concepts influence one another but act as parts of a whole dynamic of perceived competency and liberation. Frameworks based upon convergent thinking around empowerment processes and outcomes (Parsons, 1991) have been incorporated in both generalist and advanced practice interventions (Hardina, Middleton, Montana, & Simpson, 2007; Miley, O’Melia, & DuBois, 2011).

Theoretical Considerations

The theoretical foundation of empowerment is transformation from inside oneself, between oneself and others, and in political liberation. It rests upon the connection of the personal and the political, and from the notion of learned hopefulness. Empowerment is viewed as a counter to perceived and experienced powerlessness, which, when internalized, results in self-blame or surplus powerlessness (Lerner, 1986). This can create a perception of oneself as helpless to act on one's own behalf. Membership in stigmatized groups, negative experience in interactions with the environment, and blocks from larger environmental systems lead to learned helplessness, negative self-evaluation, and alienation (Parsons, 2002).


Studies on empowerment have validated associations between the components of empowerment. For example, research has confirmed the association between self-efficacy and self-worth attitudes and actions, both individual and group, taken to resolve problems (Kieffer, 1984; Parsons, East, & Boesen, 1994; Zimmerman & Rappaport, 1998). Action-taking was found to be a predictor of self-efficacy (Christens, Peterson, Speer, 2011; Zimmerman, Israel, Schult, & Checkoway, 1992). Empirical study suggests that an empowerment approach to the personal and social dysfunction of persons with mental illness is promising in terms of social functioning and quality of life outcomes (Manning & Suire, 1996; Paulson, 1991; Rappaport, Reishl, & Zimmerman, 1992; Segal, Silverman, & Temkin, 1993). Current research continues to find positive empowerment outcomes in mental health services (Boyd & Bentley, 2005; Stromwall, 2003), health services (Wiggins, 2011), and in work with women and youth (Travis & Deepak, 2011; Zimmerman, Stewart, Morrel-Samuels, Frazen, & Reischl, 2011). In organizational contexts, empowerment processes have been found to be related to worker retention (Lee, Weaver, & Hrostowski, 2011).

Best Practices

Best practices in empowerment include, at a minimum, both personal and structural dimensions, and the connection between them is increasingly implemented through multilevel empowerment approaches with multirelationships among clients and agency staff (Bartle, Couchonnal, Canda, & Staker 2002; East, 1999; McCammon, 2001). Other widely accepted principles of best practice include problems viewed through sociopolitical lenses; client experience of power in the helping relationship a focus on client strengths and self-efficacy, and education rather than pathology; creation and rejuvenation of informal social networks; and emphasis on collectivity wherein support, mutual aid and validation, and promotion of social justice are primary. In organizations and communities, best practices include horizontal decision-making structures, an atmosphere of “community of learners” in the organization, focus on client need, social justice, and focus on maximized client participation (Parsons, 2002). Lee (2001) suggests that if conscientization and praxis are the key elements of community work, residents and workers alike will experience self-empowerment.

As a counter to the conditions of powerlessness, empowerment-based practice has been widely used in work with vulnerable populations, such as women, nonwhites, and other diverse populations. Intended to counter the effects of oppression, it is also particularly beneficial to other disempowered people who are members of stigmatized groups in society, such as people with mental illnesses, the aged (Chapin & Cox, 2001), and people with disabilities. In international social development, empowerment is a framework of choice due to the political and socioeconomic conditions in developing countries (Leung, 2005; Yip, 2004).


In spite of the growth and development in this practice framework, however, there still remains a healthy skepticism regarding the reality of transformation as a professional activity (Pease, 2002), and of public policy sponsorship of agencies for rearrangements of power relationships (Jordan, 2004). It can be argued that if empowerment is indeed a process that one must do to oneself, undirected by an “expert other,” then it may take place more feasibly and appropriately outside of a professional relationship between a helping agency and the disempowered. On the other hand, it is quite possible that a fundamental reason for the small explosion of empowerment-based practice in the 1990s was that social work recognized the futility of some of its traditional methods in the face of the multilayers of powerlessness found in many social work clients, so that the necessity of facing the powerlessness issue in the practice of social work was and is quite glaring (Bransford, 2011). Despite this criticism, empowerment, particularly as an outcome, continues to be advanced in numerous fields of practice in addition to social work including political science, community psychology, international social development, public health, and education (Christens, 2012; Pandey, Lama, & Lee, 2011; Varkey, Kureshi, & Lesnick, 2010).

Another remaining challenge is the structure of financial remuneration for social services. Funding source structures, such as third-party reimbursement for a service unit, mitigate against long-term, multilevel multirelationships in social service agencies. Finally, in the age of evidence-based practice, empowerment practice faces multiple challenges. One is the aforementioned dual focus, on both the personal and the structural or political. Such multilevel interventions are quite difficult to isolate, unitize, and measure as input variables. Moreover, measurement of outcomes on multiple levels is a similarly formidable task and has been limited (Christens et al., 2011). While it is widely agreed that qualitative research evaluation methods may be wholly desirable for evaluating empowerment-based practice (Parsons, 1998), for some funding sources, more traditional quantitative methodologies are required. And, while Parsons (1999) and others have attempted to assess both program input variables and desired empowerment outcome variables, these multilevel concepts are often confounding for empirical research design. (See Cox & Parsons, 2000; Gutierrez, Parsons, & Cox, 1998; Parsons, 1999 for full discussion and literature).

As we continue to experience the exponential growth of interrelated social problems in our society, social workers will look toward new and alternative intervention approaches. Empowerment's potential for both prevention of social problems and enabling client groups to create their own solutions to problems will bode well for the continued creation and usage of empowerment intervention approaches, especially if it can be clearly delineated as a process (Cattaneo & Chapman, 2010) and empirically measured as an outcome.


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    Boyd, A. S., & Bentley, K. J. (2005). The relationship between the level of personal empowerment and quality of life among psychosocial clubhouse members and consumer-operated drop-in center participants. Social Work in Mental Health, 4(2), 67–93.Find this resource:

      Bransford, C. (2011). Reconciling paternalism and empowerment in clinical practice: An intersubjective perspective. Social Work, 56(1), 33–41.Find this resource:

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                                              Parsons, R. J. (1998). Evaluation of empowerment practice. In L. M. Gutierrez, R. J. Parsons, & E. O. Cox (Eds.), Empowerment in social work practice: A sourcebook. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.Find this resource:

                                                Parsons, R. J. (1999). Assessing helping processes and client outcomes in empowerment practice: Amplifying client voice and satisfying funding sources. In W. Shera & L. Wells (Eds.), Empowerment practice in social work: Developing richer conceptual foundations. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.Find this resource:

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                                                    Parsons, R. J., East, J. F., & Boesen, M. B. (1994). Empowerment: A case study with AFDC women. In L. Gutierrez, & P. Nurius (Eds.), Education and research for empowerment practice. Seattle: Center for Policy and Practice Research, University of Washington.Find this resource:

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                                                        Pease, B. (2002). Rethinking empowerment: A postmodern reappraisal for emancipatory practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 32(2), 135–147.Find this resource:

                                                          Rappaport, J., Reischl, T. M., & Zimmerman, M. A. (1992). Mutual help mechanisms in the empowerment of former mental patients. In D. Saleeby (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 87–97). New York: Longman.Find this resource:

                                                            Segal, S. P., Silverman, C., & Temkin, T. (1993). Empowerment and self-help agency practice for people with mental disabilities. Social Work, 38(6), 705–712.Find this resource:

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                                                                  Stromwall, L. K. (2003). Psychiatric rehabilitation: An empowerment based approach to mental health services. Health and Social Work, 28(3), 206–213.Find this resource:

                                                                    Torre, D. (1985). Empowerment: Structured conceptualization and instrument development. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Cornell University, New York.Find this resource:

                                                                      Travis, R. & Deepak, A. (2011). Empowerment in context: Lessons from hip-hop culture for social work practice. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 20, 203–222.Find this resource:

                                                                        Varkey, P., Kureshi, S. & Lesnick, T. (2010). Empowerment of women and its association with the health of the community. Journal of Women’s Health, 19(1), 71–76.Find this resource:

                                                                          Wiggins, N. (2011). Popular education for health promotion and community empowerment: A review of the literature. Health Promotion International, 27(3), 356–371.Find this resource:

                                                                            Yip, K. (2004). The empowerment model: A critical reflection of empowerment in Chinese culture. Social Work, 49(3), 479–487.Find this resource:

                                                                              Zimmerman, M. A., Israel, B. A., Schult, A., & Checkoway, B. (1992). Further explorations in empowerment theory: An empirical analysis of psychological empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 20(6), 707–727.Find this resource:

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                                                                                  Zimmerman, M., Stewart, S., Morrel-Samuels, S., Franzen, S., & Reischl, T. (2011). Youth empowerment solutions for peaceful communities: Combining theory and practice in a community-level violence prevention curriculum. Health Promotion Practice, 12(3), 425–439.Find this resource: