We don’t want to be ‘empowered’, thanks

The fad for empowerment in social work and politics is really about making people comply with state diktat.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

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‘I want to empower people.’ This is a common reply when I ask prospective social-work students why they want to become social workers. The choice of terminology is revealing, in that it reflects changes within both social work and politics. In using this word ‘empowerment’, prospective students indicate that they have at least prepared for their interview; the term pervades social-work literature, with books, articles and various organisational statements routinely declaring that they are in the business of ‘empowerment’.

The value of empowering people has also become part of the political process in the UK. It was promoted by the former New Labour government and has also been embraced by the current Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, as ‘a natural part of a Conservative approach to government’.

Despite its current ubiquity, in historical terms the rise of the concept of ’empowerment’ is a relatively recent one, initially emerging in America before crossing the Atlantic to the UK. For example, the British Journal of Social Work has been published since 1971, but it was not until its sixteenth volume in 1986 that it mentioned the word empowerment. It would take three years for it to reappear in the journal. Since the 1990s, however, use of the term grew steadily: it appeared in more than 150 articles and book reviews in the journal between 1990 and 1999, and in over 250 articles between 2000 and 2009. This trend seems set to continue, as there were 90 citations of the word between 2010 and 2011.

In the most basic sense, empowerment usually refers to a process whereby people are given greater control over their lives and in their dealings with the National Health Service (NHS), social services and other organisations. Taken at face value, it is hard to disagree with such an aim. Individual autonomy and communities’ freedom to generate a civil society free from state diktat are goals that many spiked readers would surely endorse. However, on closer inspection, the notion of empowerment is deeply problematic, actually representing the debasement of real power.

This can be illustrated by the way that the concept of empowerment has undergone a conceptual shift, one very much influenced by wider political change. During the 1970s, when there was strong working-class affiliation in the UK, radical activists had a commitment to the ‘self-activity’ of the working class. In such a climate of collective action, the notion of social workers ‘empowering’ people did not hold much resonance. The belief was that the working class, which, as today, formed the majority of social services’ clientele, was capable of organising itself, of gaining power from below by virtue of its collective strength. It did not need power to be handed down from above by some philanthropic-minded social worker. In this respect, the rise of the concept of empowerment and its institutionalisation within contemporary social and political life is reflective of both the decline of working-class collective power and the changing conception of power; from something to be fought for and taken by force if necessary, to something to be handed down by the state and its proxies.

The contemporary notion of empowerment as a process that allows people to have more control over their lives can also prove illusory. In reality, it can be a mechanism for drawing people into participating in processes and decisions over which they have little meaningful control.

So, parents are said to be empowered by being invited to attend case conferences, proceedings in which compliance with professional opinion is often the only real option on the table. Psychiatric patients are said to be empowered by being involved in their care plans and subsequent community treatment, but the option to disengage with the professionals or to refuse to continue to take prescribed medication is often non-negotiable. Applicants for community-care services are said to be empowered by the fact that the assessing social worker is also the manager of a devolved budget – a budget set to meet criteria that have little to do with the needs of the applicant. In other words, the power that is given is bound within certain parameters that can lead to a lowering of expectations as well as being predicated on the client ultimately being submissive to those who, in reality, wield power.

In effect, far from being empowered, such individuals become complicit in their own surveillance, as they are drawn into measures of state intervention in individual, family and community life that are ultimately decided on by professionals and the police. In other words, empowerment can be a term through which the state and its proxy organisations – from housing associations to various charities and community groups – are able to micromanage this newly ’empowered’ population.

If the rise of the concept of empowerment was in part reflective of the decline of working-class political power, then it was also influenced by the rise of a political class whose lack of ideological coherence and political vision has increasingly led to a focus on the politics of behaviour, a process whereby politics has become something akin to social work. Also, while the ruling elites have often harboured a disdain for the masses, in the past this was tempered by a real fear of working-class collective power. Today, while they realise that there is little to fear from the working class in terms of an ideological or political challenge to the capitalist system, their disdain is still palpable. For all the rhetoric of empowerment, the government and many campaign groups view us all as needing to be saved from ourselves, so we are ’empowered’ to stop smoking, drinking, gambling, eating junk food, and so on.

These developments are encapsulated by Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, who sees her political role as giving power and authority to individuals and groups within society. As an example, she talks of how she got eight of her constituents who needed new cookers to buy those cookers collectively as this would reduce the price. Now, that may be a wise and commendable thing to do, but is it really the kind of thing an MP should do? Is it ’empowerment’?

And what would the empowering MP’s thoughts and actions be if she found out that her constituents chose to use the money she saved them to buy alcohol or cigarettes? No doubt the power she gave them would be seen as good, but their exercise of personal power and autonomy would be frowned upon. After all, Creasy’s other main concern is with health inequalities related to lifestyle.

Empowerment, in reality, is a term used to lower aspirations and to co-opt people into processes over which they have little real control. As one astute observer has pointed out, ‘too often, empowerment means reconciling people to being powerless’ (1).

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His latest book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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