The term empowerment was first used in the mid-17th century. Historically, it has been described as the process of giving power to, or empowering, others. In other words, empowerment may be understood as a way of assisting others to help themselves. In contemporary descriptions of empowerment, the term has become mainstream and well-known, and it is a frequently used term in society. Modern definitions are similar to historical definitions, but modern definitions are broader and include the process of enabling others to gain control and power. Empowerment involves the practice of increasing power—from individuals to large communities—so that individuals and collective groups can take action to improve their situations. This description explains empowerment as a way of enabling people to possess or to delegate power. Empowerment may derive from outside influences, but it is also something that can be generated within a person, which is called self-empowerment.
There are various settings in which empowerment may take place, including in vocational settings. In vocational settings, empowerment may be defined as the process of encouraging and allowing employees to take the initiative to improve the quality and conditions within their work environment. Empowerment also allows workers to improve the operation or the service of the organization with which they are employed. Several forms of empowerment exist, such as individual empowerment, social empowerment, and political empowerment. The commonly referenced examples of empowerment include the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and the women’s movement, which began in the mid-1800s, both of which sought after political empowerment for supporters. Some of the well-known leaders in political empowerment include Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Issues of empowerment are important with regard to multiculturalism, and in particular to oppressed groups and marginalized populations. Empowerment is related to cultural competence as both focus on how groups have experienced issues such as racism and discrimination. Empowerment contributes to change and improvement in the quality of people’s lives and also to the improvement of societies. From a social justice perspective, empowerment involves giving people the right to make their own decisions and choices and allowing people to act on those decisions and choices. Empowerment can be generated within individuals to address inequalities in their lives, or it can be generated across communities to help larger groups gain control over their life situations. Empowerment may bring about more choice and freedom for individuals and groups and may lead them to be more involved in organizations and advocacy efforts. Furthermore, empowerment can facilitate gained respect, strong relationships with others, and the sense of connection to a larger community.
Conceptualization of Empowerment
The process of becoming empowered involves more than just gaining access to power. Becoming empowered also involves a change in the way that people think, such that awareness and critical thought occur. Additionally, empowerment is not something that can be forced upon others. If an individual or group attempts to generate empowerment within others, the conditions should be created that facilitate its development; it should not be forced. Empowerment theory explains that empowerment involves the process of changing beliefs and attitudes within the self or among others, which subsequently leads to social change. Empowerment has been described as ecologically embedded and operating within intricate connections among individuals, groups, and community settings. Thus, empowerment is a concept that changes over time and takes on different forms depending on the individual.
An underlying aspect of empowerment theory discusses the development of critical consciousness within those who are attempting to create change in their thinking. Critical consciousness is the process of recognizing oppression and taking action against this recognized oppression. Theories of empowerment explain the development of critical consciousness as involving three psychological processes: group identification, group consciousness, and efficacy. These psychological processes usually occur one after the other, either independently or in conjunction with each other. The first process involves group identification procedures. Group identification is described as the identification of common experiences and concerns, a preference for one’s own group, and culture and norms. The second psychological process of critical consciousness involves what is called group consciousness. Group consciousness is the understanding of the discrepancy in status and power among different groups. The third process of critical consciousness is self-efficacy and/or collective efficacy, which refers to the belief in the ability to perform a given task or responsibility. For example, empowerment with regard to efficacy refers to people’s perceptions of their capability to generate social change. Critical consciousness is a significant contributor to the development of empowerment because groups and individuals believe in their abilities to create change and will be more likely to be empowered.
In counseling, empowerment is viewed as a way in which to concentrate on issues of lack of power, which is also referred to as powerlessness, and to mediate the role that lack of power plays in the formation and maintenance of social problems. Issues of empowerment are often present in counseling, with an emphasis on the clients’ beliefs about themselves. This emphasis can generate clients to contribute to change—both the change they want for themselves and the change they want to see in others. This contribution to change is often referred to as community and social change. The role of empowerment in counseling suggests a new way of viewing counseling, as empowerment may also lead to the development of programs and policies that create empowered environments.
In counseling, empowerment is most often conceptualized at the individual level. Individual empowerment may also be known and described as psychological empowerment. Empowerment in counseling settings involves working with clients to make changes that they want to make in their lives. Zimmerman describes three aspects of individual, or psychological, empowerment: intrapersonal, interactional, and behavioral. Intrapersonal is described as how people think about themselves and includes concepts such as self-efficacy and motivation. The interactional component refers to social environments and how people think about and relate to their social environment. The final component, behavioral, relates to the actions that people take to put into effect their influence on the social and political environment. This is accomplished through participation in community organizations and activities. Understanding of these three components is important in counseling relationships because strength in all three components is necessary for people to become empowered.
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- Gutierrez, L. M. (1995). Understanding the empowerment process: Does consciousness make a difference? Social Work Research, 19(4), 229-237.
- Peterson, N. A., Lowe, J. B., Aquilino, M. L., & Schneider, J. E. (2005). Linking social cohesion and gender to intrapersonal and interactional empowerment: Support and new implications for theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 33(2), 233-244.