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Empowerment

Definitions
Peterson & Zimmerman (2004: 129) give the following definition of empowerment: ‘Empowerment is an active, participatory process through which individuals, organizations, and communities gain greater control, efficacy, and social justice’.  They include the notions of active participation and social justice in their definition. Van Regenmortel (2002; 2008b) describes empowerment as ‘A process of reinforcement in which individuals, organisations and communities get grip on the own situation and their environment, via acquiring control, sharpening critical awareness and promoting participation’. She adds the notion of critical awareness.
 
At an individual level, the definition of Mechanic (1991 in Zimmerman, 2000: p. 43), very closely reflects a recovery process: ‘Empowerment may be seen as a process where individuals learn to see a closer correspondence between their goals and a sense of how to achieve them, and a relationship between their efforts and life outcomes’. So does a definition given by Solomon (1976: p. 6): ‘Empowerment refers to a process whereby persons who belong to a stigmatized social category throughout their lives can be assisted to develop and increase skills in the exercise of interpersonal influence and the performance of valued social roles’.
 
Themes
Zimmerman (1998) formulates three central themes in the concept of ‘mastery’ as expressed in the definition of Rappaport (1981; 1984): control, critical awareness, and participation. These themes are mutually intertwined. We recognize the themes in recovery and rehabilitation. Getting control over symptoms, becoming aware of the own situation, and re-participating in social life are essential aspects. There is a striking parallel with mechanisms of oppression and poverty. Control, but mainly the total lack of control of the own situation and feelings of powerlessness are common both for poverty and severe mental illness. 
 
Simon (1994) describes the promotion of critical awareness as an approach which ‘contextualises’ individual experiences and suffering, consequently decreasing self-reproach. At the same time the person gets more sight of the nature and the impact of own choices and may take responsibility for them. Critical awareness forms a bridge to action and participation.
 
Aspects of empowerment
 
Levels
In empowerment three levels are divided: the psychological or individual level, the organisational level and the community level (Vandenbempt, 2001). These levels are mutually related and interdependent.  Working on empowerment at one level contributes to empowerment at other levels. Psychological empowerment integrates perceptions of personal control, a pro-active approach of life and a critical understanding of the social environment. On this personal level one tries to get hold of the own life, in a (more) conscious and (more) critical way. It also involves attention for the own social networks and attribution of meaningfulness. Empowerment on an organisational level entails processes and structures which increase someone’s skills and develops the mutual support which is necessary to bring about change on an individual, group or community level. The notions of emancipation and participation are central at this level. At the level of the community empowerment refers to persons who work together in an organised way to improve and maintain their quality of life (collective empowerment).
 
Process and outcome
It is useful to divide empowering processes from empowered outcomes. The former refers to the way people, organisations and communities get empowered, while the latter refers to the results of these processes. Empowering processes are created by people themselves, but can be facilitated by others who are providing or creating opportunities. An empowering process can be conceived as a series of experiences by which individuals (re)discover their strengths and identity, and achieve a tighter connection between their goals and a feeling how to reach these. It can also include getting better access to and control over resources. In empowerment as process there is an emphasis on the cyclical and spiral-shaped character and on elements as co-operation between different persons, growing consciousness and the development of skills. It concerns all the elements which contribute to the process of control and getting influence on the own life: ‘Empowering processes are those where people create or are given opportunities to control their own destiny and influence the decisions that affect their lives’ (Zimmerman 1995: 583).
 
On an individual level results can be expressed in the degree in which persons have become stronger. It concerns the situation-specific perceived control and competences, the critical consciousness, and the interactions which result in individual or collective actions. 
 
Personal empowerment
Personal empowerment (also called psychological empowerment) consists of three elements: an intrapersonal component, an interpersonal component and a behavioural component (Zimmerman et al. 1992; Zimmerman, 1995).
The intrapersonal component is related to the way people are conceiving themselves: the belief in own abilities, the belief that one can influence the own life, the environment and also the will or motivation to do this. This is summarised in the psychological notions of perceived control, self-efficacy, motivation to control, and perceived competence and mastery.
The interpersonal component refers to the interactions between persons and their environment, which make it possible to influence successfully social and political systems. This component consists of critical awareness of possibilities, prevailing values and norms and needed means to realise goals, as well as the skills to use these possibilities and resources. Apart from awareness it needs the acquisition of skills, like decision making skills and problem solving skills. The interpersonal component bridges the component of self-perception (perceived control) and the third (behavioural) component: taking action to exert influence.
The behavioural component refers to specific actions which are aimed at influencing the social environment by means of participation, for example in self-help groups, associations, cultural or religious networks (capacity building).
 
The components are described in terms of outcomes, but they also refer to a process: developing self-confidence, skills, acquiring resources, working together with others and exerting influence (Zimmerman, 2000). One component does not necessarily lead to another, nor is there any hierarchical order.
 
Not every person will be able to attain (all) the abilities mentioned above, for example because of the nature of the disease or the disabilities. Still, from the analysis of the narratives it becomes clear that in a process of recovery elements of intrapersonal empowerment, for example in developing mastery over the personal niche, but also elements of the other components are realised, also by persons with severe disabilities. An important step in this process is that persons become agents of their own life. This always happens in a mutual interaction with others: empowerment is supported by empowering support.
 
This text is taken from Wilken J.P. (2010). Recovering Care. A contribution to a theory and practice of good care. Amsterdam: SWP Publishers, p. 196-199.
 
Useful links:
National Empowerment Centre (USA): www.power2u.org
 
last edited by Jean Pierre Wilken March 2013