Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The problem with 'empowerment'

Ken McLaughlin has an interesting article on Spiked in which he argues that the ubiquitous concept of 'empowerment' has undergone a shift in meaning in recent decades:
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.
This seems spot on to me and you can also see this shift in the Liberal concept of 'community politics'. We have gone from urging people to take power to offering ourselves as hyperactive social workers who will solve all their problems for them.

McLaughlin goes on to illustrate my own theory that the way clients please public-sector professionals is by behaving as though they were public-sector professionals themselves:
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.
Most of us never attend a case conference or draw up a care plan in our lives, but if you work in public-sector profession then inviting clients to participate in such activities is a way of allowing them to demonstrate that they are just as normal as you are.

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