A Critical Analysis of the Social Work Intervention Process
The term ‘empowerment’ is one which is used to designate the idea of giving control to an individual: if someone feels empowered, it means that they feel as though they can do something. In social work, this is no different: the empowerment approach is one which attempts to take control of a particular situation whilst giving those involved the skills and tools with which to manage their lives. Put succinctly, the empowerment process is “the process by which individuals and groups gain power, access to resources and control over their own lives. In doing so, they gain the ability to achieve their highest personal and collective aspirations and goals” (Canada et al, 1998, p91). In short, the empowerment process is all about enabling individuals to manage themselves and their finances and potentially their dependants in such a way that their lives take on an air of success. It is used in social work to encourage people to strive to achieve a day when they no longer depend on the support of the authorities and are able to stand on their own two feet. This obviously has significant strengths and weaknesses attached to it: a major strength is that it removes people from depending on external support and enables them to manage on their own as an independent adult, whilst a weakness is that not all individuals can manage this and the approach can cause them to revert back to poorer behaviour as a consequence. In short, it is an approach which is designed to benefit many but is only workable with a few.
The empowerment approach to social work grew out of the social reform movement and the work of Jane Addams who was a philosopher living in the late 1800s and the early part of the Twentieth Century. Her thoughts revolved around the idea of social cohesion and cooperation and are built around a social philosophy “built on respect and understanding” (Hamington, 2010). Addams felt opposed to the ideas of derision and labelling and the empowerment theory builds on this to discourage individuals to conform to labelling theory (i.e. as ‘poor’ or ‘unintelligent’ or ‘disabled’) and to enable themselves to take control regardless. Many individuals go through life experiencing these labels and struggle with lifelong issues of discrimination, exploitation, powerlessness, acculturation, and stereotyping – the empowerment approach “promotes transcendence and may make the different between a person who simply works out a solution to a problem and one whose life is empowered by the process” (Lee, 2001). In short, it is a process which aims to change a person’s perspective of their own life to such an extent that they feel empowered to live their life according to their own definitions rather than through the implications of others who see them as other things. It is beneficial to social workers and their clients through the means that it directly addresses the reasons for why the individual requires social work assistance in the first place; it enables them to re-define themselves and develop a new ethos for their life – enhancing their position within society and allowing them to define themselves by their own terms, rather than being kept down by others. This is beneficial because, if done correctly, it can limit the need that person will have for future social work assistance.
The empowerment approach is used in a number of situations in which it is felt that, if given the time and the tools to do so, the client could become independent of requiring social work care. For instance, when assisting an individual with a learning disability, the empowerment approach works well when they have experienced a threat to their dignity: this first stage is referred to as ‘the era of entry’ and invariably takes a year to complete and it is during this time that the individual will experience a psychological shift because of an experience that happens on a daily basis which “includes a direct threat to a person’s well-being or dignity or that of the person’s family” (Gilbert & Todd, 1995, p123). It is during this time that the individual will begin to rebel against this ‘authoritarian force’ and begin to question its power over them. This, in itself, can be traumatising for an individual – the prolonged exposure to such an experience can either be empowering in as much as it causes you to defend yourself or it can just as easily cause you to plummet into depression and withdrawal in which the individual can just ‘accept’ everything that is said to them. This demonstrates the risk that the empowerment approach can mean. However, if successful, the process can mean the following things for the individual: a positive sense of self-worth and competence, the ability to influence the course of one’s life, the capacity to work with others to control aspects of public life, and an ability to access the mechanics of public decision making (Walsh, 2010, p24). It is designed to establish the thought process that the individual can improve their own life and develop a strong sense of their own abilities meaning that they are empowered to forge their own paths and make their own decisions in life.
In discussing the strengths of the empowerment approach, it is important to emphasise that when it does work, it enables the individual to live their life to its potential without the need for social hand-holding or further assistance. This is its core strength: that it builds people into stronger, self-sufficient and capable individuals who do not require constant help. So, from this point of view, the empowerment approach is one which greatly reduces expenditure: if the client no longer needs assistance, their social worker can move on to another client. Arguably, without the empowerment approach, that client may have required assistance for the greater part of their life which would have been a drain on finances, resources, time and effort whereas in this instance, the social worker is free to move on to their next client and better apply their time. The empowerment or, as it’s sometimes known, the strength approach, is something which can help to cause “exciting changes in the character of their [the social worker’s] work” (Saleebey, 2001, p1) and from the social worker’s perspective, their work takes on a whole new meaning as they can see genuinely positive results in their client’s progress. It is clear then that the empowerment process enables the client to focus on their strengths and abilities meaning that they are capable of living their life without the need for assistance or any dependency on other people. The empowerment approach is brilliant in that it eliminates the need for further contact with the client and, in the fullest view of social work and care, enabling the client to understand the world around them and function healthily within it is the ultimate goal.
However, the weaknesses which are attached to the empowerment process are equally as important. A central weakness is that for the majority of individuals, they see their social worker as someone to support them in empowering themselves rather than as someone who is actively involved in the empowerment process (Davies, 2000, p117) which can frequently mean that the client and the social worker have a conflict of interest as the client must be willing to work with the social worker in order for the process to be successful. Equally, many may argue that the empowerment approach offers up a type of paradox in as much as it is designed to encourage independence whilst still maintaining the client’s dependency on the social worker during the process – there is a vast difference between riding the bike with stabiliser wheels and riding the bike without them. Dubois et al. (2004) discuss empowerment has having two sources: “The first source of power is based on social status – for example power based on race, gender and class. The second is power achieved through learning new skills and securing new positions, which are key features of empowerment” (Dubois et al, 2004, p85) which essentially means that the relationship between political and social bodies and the individual is as important as the individual’s ability to relate to social and political bodies. This is a fundamental flaw in the empowerment process because it is overlooked in as much as the individual’s relationship with these bodies can be positive and strong but if the bodies do not look favourably upon the individual, then the entire process is disrupted and affected. The crux of the approach is that the individual must experience success to finally cement the foundations of their empowerment and if they don’t, for whatever reason, then they will invariably fall back to square one. The social worker must implement a strong sense of resilience in their client which will empower them further towards achieving their goals in life.
For the empowerment approach to really work, the social worker must feel enabled to help the client. This may seem like an obvious point but often, social workers enter into situations which could pose potential danger to them. If this is the case then the social worker may not feel as though they can truly help the client for fear of upsetting them and causing further potential problems. For example, in one instance, a social worker discusses one of their clients – a young woman named Keisha who had two young children. The social worker states how initially, she felt as though Keisha came across as being very tough but that they quickly clicked and that Keisha opened up to her. So, upon finding that she needed to find a new home for her and her young family, Keisha asked her social worker to help her in this task which involved the latter spending time in the Bronx – a particularly tough area of New York. The social worker states that “I was almost sorry I said I’d go. I’ve never been to the Bronx, and I was very anxious about my safety” and in this instance, that fear could have caused her ability to help the client to falter. However, the social worker took steps towards overcoming this fear – she asked her husband to drive up there with her beforehand so that she could familiarise herself with the area and acclimatise and she also took an older, African-American woman who lived in the Bronx along to the meeting (Lee, 2001, p191). In doing this, the social worker was empowering herself in order to empower her client and if she had been unable to do this, she may have caused the client to feel let down and she would have undoubtedly taken several steps backwards as a consequence.
However, not all examples end as comfortably as the previous example. For many social workers, they must deal with a strong stereotype which perpetrates them as being ‘the bad guy’ and that their presence in someone’s life means that the person has problems and is failing. In one example, a social work discusses meeting her new clients for the first time – Maria and Gerry. Initially, Maria seemed quite open and was happy to discuss her problems with the kids at school picking on her etc. However, her sister, Gerry, was less open and upon being introduced, she shouted: “WHAT KIND OF SOCIAL WORKER ARE YOU? ARE YOU THE KIND THAT THINKS THEY CAN FIX THINGS AT SCHOOL OR HOME, OR ARE YOU THE KIND THAT TRIES TO FIX US?” (Lee, 2001, p200). In short, Gerry was obviously extremely prejudiced towards the social worker based on the stereotypes that she may have heard about or experienced herself first hand. This type of stereotype – where the social worker is seen as being arrogant in their attempts to ‘fix’ people and their lives – is detrimental to the social workers cause as it invariably makes the client feel worthless as they require fixing – implying that they are broken: another downside to the empowerment approach is first causing the client to realise that they need help. Zastrow (2009) states that “Similar to a bunch of people standing around trying to figure out how to fix the front porch, everyone has an idea” (Zastrow, 2009, p331) implying that if the client does not accept their social worker’s authority then they cannot progress but equally, if they become too dependent on their authority then again, they won’t progress either. It’s a fine balance to strike.
It is clear then that the empowerment approach features a vast array of differing strengths and weaknesses which, when handled carefully, can help to enable an individual to feel more self-sufficient and capable to cope with life on their own terms. In working with a patient like this, it means that the social worker is less ‘tied down’ to a particular client whilst the client is also more capable of living their own life without the need for constant support – creating a healthy, functioning member of society rather than creating further dependencies. The empowerment process requires patience and carefully measured actions on the part of the social worker in order to ensure that they produce a client who is capable of resilience and independence rather than relying too heavily on hand-holding and support.
1. Canda, E.R. et al. (1998). Contemporary Human Behaviour Theory. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
2. Davies, M. (2000). The Blackwell encyclopaedia of social work. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
3. Dubois, B. et al. (2004). Generalist social work practice: an empowering approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
4. Gilbert, T. & Todd, M. (1995). Learning disabilities: practice issues in health settings. London: Routledge.
5. Hamington, M. (2010). Jane Addams. In The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (Summer Ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/addams-jane/
6. Lee, J.A.B. (2001). The empowerment approach to social work practice: building the beloved community. New York: Columbia University Press.
7. Napier, A. (n.d.) Empowerment Theory. Retrieved from http://www.malone.edu/media/1/7/71/Empowerment_Presentation_A_Napier.s06.pdf
8. Saleebey, D. (2001). The strengths perspective in social work practice 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
9. Walsh, J. (2010). Theories for direct social work practice. California: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
10. Zastrow, C. (2009). Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare: Empowering People. California: Brooks/Cole.