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Most definitions of empowerment refer to the ways in which disadvantaged groups get access to political and social power. If power is conceived in distributive terms, that is, as something such as resources, capabilities, or elected positions that can be obtained and more or less fairly distributed, then empowerment refers to the process of transferring resources, capabilities, and positions of power to those groups or individuals who do not have it. Examples of such conceptions of empowerment include access to power structures, for example, political offices. Once power is achieved, then it becomes important to assess the effects of empowerment on the disadvantaged group and its behavior as well as the policies designed to benefit the disadvantaged group.
If power is conceived in relational terms, then empowerment refers to the transformation of social, economic, cultural, and political relations and to challenging the structures related to domination and oppression. This perception of empowerment embraces Michel Foucault’s concept of power as something that exists “only in action.” As argued by theorists such as Iris Marion Young and Amy Allen, empowerment necessitates the destruction of structures that impede self-determination and self-development. It is a process consisting of dialogic relations including relatively powerless persons who come to understand the sources of their powerlessness and who discover the possibilities of transforming the oppressive environment through collective action. According to this perspective, it is important to understand the ways by which powerless individuals can raise collective consciousness, transform social environments, and challenge the hierarchies that perpetuate inequalities.
Empowerment As Access To Power Structures
In the United States, literature exploring the access of disadvantaged groups to the political arena analyzes the impact of the civil rights movement on power structures and voter behavior. According to Michael Bonds (2007), “the assumption was that black registration and voting would produce candidates, especially blacks, who would be more responsive to the needs of black citizens.” Bonds argues that although there is no consensus on whether an increase in political power directly translates into benefits for the African American communities, there is evidence proving a positive relationship between political empowerment and favorable public policies.
Numerous works focus on specific strategies to ensure the access of disadvantaged groups to power structures. According to the minority empowerment thesis—which argues for electoral strategies to improve minority representation—such strategies increase minority political participation, foster positive attitudes toward the government, and increase identification with those who represent minorities in the government. For example, Jane Mansbridge has described the so-called communicative advantage. She argues that having a representative from the same ethnic or racial group or the same gender may help to break down communication barriers between constituents and their representatives.
Arend Lijphard and other political scientists have explored different electoral arrangements to increase ethnic representation in government. These strategies include the creation of special electoral districts, the use of proportional representation, and the division of the electorate along ethnic lines. The United States, Belgium, New Zealand, and Slovenia, among others, have created electoral arrangements to increase ethnic minority representation. Some theorists have pointed out that although electoral reforms may increase the number of minority politicians in power structures (descriptive representation), they may lead to a backlash from voters and politicians, thus resulting in fewer elected politicians’ supporting minority-friendly policies (substantive representation).
Obtaining access to power structures implies a vision of empowerment as a consciousness-raising initiative, focusing on the ways in which social movements help individuals and groups gain access to resources and capabilities. According to Phylis Johnson, mass media, such as radio stations, have a major role to play in raising civic consciousness and fostering political mobilization, resulting in political action to obtain power.
Empowerment As Transformation Of Relations
The conceptualization of empowerment as transformation of cultural, economic, and political relations is often embraced by critical theorists and feminist analysts. Empowerment is seen both as a process geared to bring about positive change and as an outcome. According to Jane Parpart et al. (2002), “empowerment must be understood as including both individual conscientization (power within) as well as the ability to work collectively, which can lead to politicized power with others, which provides power to bring change.”
According to feminist literature, the goals of women’s empowerment include challenging the subordination of women, transforming state institutions that have perpetuated gender discrimination and inequality, and identifying and recognizing institutions that support gender equality. This vision of empowerment is more radical than the first one outlined in this article. It implies that achieving empowerment brings about an ability to transform one’s environment and power structures instead of merely gaining access to the existing structures of power.
For example, a collection of essays edited by Peter H. Smith, Jennifer L. Troutner, and Christine Hünefeldt outlines some common strategies of empowerment that have been employed by women’s movements in Asia and Latin America. These strategies include large-scale political mobilization, increasing involvement in commercial (economic) activities, and use of governmental economic development policies.
Smith et al.’s volume and other works analyzing the empowerment of women offer an interesting insight. The construction of a women-friendly state apparatus that may include the creation of government positions dealing with women’s issues or quotas for women’s representation in government usually weakens grassroots feminist movements. Thus, it is not entirely clear whether engineered women’s representation in government helps improve the status of all women in a country, including those from lower socioeconomic classes.
Feminist perspectives exploring empowerment raise questions about the roles of international actors and social change. Well-wishing outsiders often believe that they can promote certain empowerment strategies, such as democratic elections, and thus give power to the powerless. However, case studies of women’s empowerment draw attention to the importance of local participatory efforts. These efforts, however, need to be supported by national governments and international organizations.
A survey of the important insights of the two perspectives on empowerment suggests that (understood as a process) empowerment may occur at many levels—individual (micro), community, or national (macro)—and that it can be analyzed as a phenomenon with several dimensions—political, social, cultural, and economic. In both cases, the term implies an outcome, not merely a strategy; however, it is very difficult to measure this outcome. Linking empowerment to national and global power structures and relevant institutions instead of trying to address several levels of analysis may be beneficial.
- Allen, Amy. “Power and the Politics of Difference: Oppression, Empowerment and Transnational Justice.” Hypatia 23, no. 3 (2008): 156–172.
- Banducci, Susan A.,Todd Donovan, and Jeffrey A. Karp. “Minority Representation, Empowerment and Participation.” Journal of Politics 66, no. 2 (2007): 534–556.
- Bonds, Michael. “Black Political Power Reassessed: Race, Politics, and Federal Funds.” Journal of African American Studies 11 (2007): 189–203.
- Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Essays 1972–1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
- Grofman, Bernard, and Arend Lijphart. Electoral Laws and Their Political Consequences. New York: Agathon, 1986.
- Johnson, Phylis. “Black Radio Politically Defined: Communicating Community and Political Empowerment through Stevie Wonder’s KJLH-FM, 1992–2002.” Political Communication 21 (2004): 353–367.
- Mansbridge, Jane. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent Yes.” Journal of Politics 61, no. 3 (1999): 628–657.
- Nelson,W. E., and P. J. Meranto. Electing Black Mayors. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1977.
- Overby, L. Marvin, Robert D. Brown, John M. Bruce, Charles E. Smith, and John W.Winkle.“Race, Political Empowerment and Minority Perceptions of Judicial Fairness.” Social Science Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2005): 444–462.
- Parpart, Jane L., Shirin M. Rai, and Kathleen Staudt, eds. Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and Development in a Global/Local World. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Smith, Peter H., Jennifer L.Troutner, and Christine Hünefeldt. Promises of Empowerment:Women in Asia and Latin America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.
- Young, Marion Iris. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.
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