The Empowerment Approach to Social Work

Empowerment is the processes by which groups or communities can act to prevent problems, gain or regain the capacity to interact with the social environment, and increase the resources available satisfy their needs (Gutierrez, 1991). As a process therefore, empowerment engages individuals actively in decisions about their well being, potential, life satisfaction, and the outcome or realizing to the extent possible, control over their lives. In addition, empowerment promotes social and economic justice when communities and groups are able to secure resources that have a positive influence over their lives. Social practitioners must respond to the needs and interests identified by groups and communities in ways that will assist them to realize their hopes, dreams and aspirations and builds on their strengths (Lee, 1994). This paper analyzes: the social Change Process in the Empowerment Approach to Social Work practice; problem definition in the empowerment approach in social work practice; Social work Practice and Cultural Competence; Change Process in the Empowerment Approach to Social Work; Practitioners Requirements and Empowerment Approach to Social Work Practice; and The Empowerment Approach and Social Work practice Evaluation for Effectiveness

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The Social Change Process in the Empowerment Approach to Social Work Practice

The empowerment approach’s origin dates back to the history struggle over equality by black people. Solomon (1976) viewed the process as a means of increasing personal, interpersonal, social and economic power so that individuals could take action to improve their life situations. Lee (2001) provided how the perspective expanded to include not only to what is happening internally of people but to include social processes, objectives, and changes. The empowerment approach is both a process and an outcome. As a process the approach includes attitudes and beliefs, validation through collective experience, knowledge and skills through critical thinking, and social action (Gutierrez, 1994).

The empowerment oriented practices offer support for people in crisis, assisting in overcoming long term transformations in their life situations and to enhance quality of their lives. The concept of power is central to the empowerment approach. Implicit in the power concept is the knowledge that disadvantaged people are threatened by powerful others in their lives. The economic hardships of the disadvantaged individuals may arise from global forces over which they are powerless and over which they may be unaware. Gutierrez (1994) attributes gaining a sense of personal power can be the first step in assuming personal responsibility of change; as an emotional force, this sense of personal power can move as from emotional apathy and despair to positive social action. Empowerment practice demands social workers to be agents of change, to assist people to gain or regain power in their lives. This forms the objective of counseling at the interpersonal level (Lee, 1994).

The empowerment approach has always been and will remain a perspective of social work practice. The empowerment approach refines each individual involved in social work practice as its basic structure specifies the ingredients required to work with the vulnerable groups of society. The approach relates significantly to the individual as well as the social, political, and economic development in the reality of human suffering and oppression. Estes (1991) postulates about six types of social development practice; personal empowerment, group empowerment, conflict resolution, institution building, nation building, and global building. Empowerment approach in social work also involves raising the level of consciousness, and empowerment of group processes. These are core processes of empowerment perspective and of raising consciousness in social work practice (Gutierrez, 1994).

Analysis of Problem Definition in the Empowerment Approach in Social Work Practice

The role of social work is addressed effectively by the empowerment approach in face of increased human rights violations and insufficient or lack of provision of basic human needs such as food, shelter and safety. These problems are perpetuated by severe poverty levels affecting various stratum of society worldwide. Besides severe poverty, there are also other types of human rights violations, especially violence against women. Violence against women is a global problem that happens in every stratum of society. In New York, for instance, violated women constitute about 40 percent of homeless families. Many countries have safe places for violated women in the form of shelters. These shelters are makeshift treatment centers for both victims and perpetrators of the violence, and also for the oppressed individuals and those who oppress or allow oppression (Gutierrez, 1998).

Specifically, empowerment approach is intended to work with oppressed groups. Empowerment approach’s conceptual framework introduces professional purpose, values, principles, knowledge base, and methodology to working with individuals, families, small groups, and communities that face poverty and persecution (Lee, 1994). At the minimum, there is a belief that people can come together to affirm life and promote social justice and equal opportunity for everyone.

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Social practice at all levels interacts with and is influenced by factors external to social practice field, including values of society, laws, and policies. Individual experiences, especially powerless individuals, and the circumstances they face should prompt social workers to analyze social problems and conditions under the paradigm of social justice and to assess whether the civil and human rights are being violated. Equipped with this knowledge, social work practitioners and social welfare organizations need to assume proactive roles in offering the leadership for addressing policies and laws that empower an individual, group, and communities (Lee, 1994).

The empowerment approach insists that it is unethical to clinically or interpersonally treat victims of violence without trying to help raise consciousness, get over their oppressors, and become victors. Harris (1993) notes that oppressed people whose consciousness have not been raised are victimized by their powerlessness and fear and they translate these into internal appropriation of subservient and menial roles. These victims usually turn their frustrations inwards and in the process destroying themselves and others. As a result, they will further meet further retribution by the dominant society. Gutierrez (1998) relates gang violence and many other forms of violence to be caused by internalized oppression and blocked opportunities, as does the high rates of suicides. Social practice professionals must address themselves to both the inner and outer developments of a person in a time of social crisis. Social practice professionals have the potential of human connection, caring and mutual aid, education, democratic processes, and inspiration of social action. This provides the optimum medium for empowerment practice. In essence it provides remedy for injustices for the poor and working people (Harris, 1993).

Social work Practice and Cultural Competence

The empowerment approach acts as a mechanism for dealing with feelings of alienation from, and oppression by, the dominant culture (Solomon, 1976). For social workers to be able to assist clients, they must become culturally competent, designing the activities to satisfy the values and practices of program beneficiaries. Cultural activities associated with culturally competent practice in social work may include; doing research to earn knowledge about other cultures, accepting one’s prejudices and beliefs, gaining the ability to communicate across cultures, involving oneself in cultural events and the daily life of a community, respecting cultural values and traditional leaders, and others (Estes, 1995). Culturally competent social practitioners should in addition, have self awareness and be able to assess what resources they require to provide appropriate interventions. For instance, they should be: aware of their cultural values and heritage; aware of how their prejudices affect cultural perceptions; tolerant with cultural differences; to demonstrate understanding of social power structure and how powerless or non-dominant groups are treated (Solomon, 1976).

The empowerment approach is also concerned with the relationship of social workers with individual clients, couples, families and small groups. The approach focuses on the social workers’ commitment to clients, the client’s self determination informed consent, and client’s access to records. It also focuses on the competency of social practitioners to work with clients and require social workers to acquire social competency in working with diverse groups. The approach provides that the social worker interacts with others to advocate for social diversity. Other ethical principles focus on social worker conflicts of interest and the protection of client privacy and confidentiality.

Analysis of the Change Process in the Empowerment Approach to Social Work

The empowerment approach endeavors to channel individual practice and social change into one coherent flow. There is a close interrelationship between individual power and social change. To understand the concept of social work practice, one must identify direct and indirect internalized blocks of power. Lack of empowerment of individuals is a state of powerlessness in them. It is based on several factors that include: economic insecurity, lack of access to information, compromised personal and interpersonal strengths, lack of experience in the political arena, lack of training in critical and abstract thought, physical and emotional stress, learned helplessness, and aspects of a person’s emotional or intellectual make up that prevents him or her from realizing possibilities that do exist. The real and perceived ability to utilize resources contributes to a sense of power that is directly connected to self esteem (lee, 2001).

In social work, empowerment approach is considered a multi-system approach that recognizes that social challenges have their origins in interconnected systems. Therefore, effective interventions must often happen at multiple levels; individual, group, family, organization, and community systems. Individuals involved in social work often assume multiple roles such as; advocates, therapists, mediators, brokers, and others in order to intervene at these multiple levels (Lee, 2001). The empowerment approach in social work is applied to intervene at the levels of intrapersonal, interpersonal and social. The approach focuses exclusively on the people with low income, communities of color, and members of other oppressed groups. The approach needs the application of models of problem solving as well as assessment, intervention, and evaluation strategies that need direct participation of clients (Gutierrez, 1994).

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The empowerment approach has inherent social work approaches that incorporate the principles of social justice and a commitment to culturally competent practice. In essence, empowerment can be seen as a major goal of social work intervention, as a process through which people reduce their sense of powerlessness and gain greater control over all aspects of their lives and their social environment. The concepts of empowerment are highly used to social work in relating to all population sizes; individuals, groups, and communities; and their strengths-based interventions are highly effective, building on the positive in people, assisting people tap into their resources (Lee, 2001).

Practitioners Requirements and Empowerment Approach to Social Work


Practitioners in social work need to have an understanding of power theories to be able to apply them in their social work. Power is gained through knowledge. One of the major roles of social workers in social work and human service practice is that of facilitator or educator of the gaining of knowledge. Practitioners of social work also have power and authority vested in them by virtue of the positions they hold as helpers and the oppressed position of many of their clients. Social work practitioners are also required to be able to apply empowerment ideas into practice (Estes, 1995).

They also need to understand the assumptions that underpin empowerment, such as; empowerment being a collaborative process between practitioners and those with whom they work; it is based on the position that people are inherently competent and capable provided they have the right resources and equal opportunities; an empowerment approach requires that clients are able to change and define their goals and the means to achieve them; competence comes from affirming experiences rather than being instructed what to do (Gutierrez, 1994).

In practice, empowerment can be conceptualized at the levels of; personal, interpersonal, social, professional, and organizational (Lee, 1994). At the personal level, empowerment approach assists the person make positive changes. At the interpersonal level, for instance, in working with families, empowerment based practice works towards strengthening social networks. Working in groups can involve collective decision to influence government; for instance, by lobbying politicians or voicing collective concerns. Empowerment approaches in community work involves working alongside communities to support them to determine their goals and access the necessary resources to assist them achieve these goals. Social work practitioners working in policy contexts require empowerment approach to consult with interest groups and affected stakeholders affected by a particular policy (Gutierrez, 1998).

In research and evaluation, empowerment perspective would apply methods such as action research in which the participants participate in all stages of the process, including determining research questions and data collection. Research to do with emancipation seeks to obtain liberating solutions to human problems, explicitly taking the side of the oppressed people and marginalized groups (Gutierrez, 1998).

The Empowerment Approach and Social Work practice Evaluation for Effectiveness

Evaluation in social work practice requires clearly specified goals and objectives in terms that are measurable. Evaluation is normally an ongoing process in general; for which is necessary to establish social indicators at the beginning of the intervention. The evaluation process involves continuous, systematic monitoring of the impact of intervention, which demands development and implementation of techniques of data management. Systematic analysis of data allows social workers to determine, for instance, if the social program activity is being implemented as planned and whether it is achieving the stated programs goals (Harris, 1993). Social practitioners require skills in choosing an appropriate research design, techniques of measurements, and analysis of data. The empowerment approach requires social workers to stress the importance of including client groups in the evaluation process. Clients should be involved in establishing success indicators as well as evaluating the outcomes including whether they perceived themselves to have been empowered (Gutierrez, 1998).

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In sum, it is important to understand that the empowerment process resides in an individual, not the social worker who is a helper. Lee (1994) states one of the central principles of empowerment approach to be people empowering themselves, social workers should only assist. Empowerment has three interlocking dimensions; development of more positive and potent self, construction of knowledge and capacity for more critical comprehension of social and political realities of an individual’s environment, and the cultivation of resources and strategies for the achievement of personal and collective social goals (Estes, 1995).


Estes & Richard (1995). Social Development and Social Work with Groups. New York: The Haworth Press.

Gutierrez, L., Parsons, & Cox, O. (1998). Empowerment in Social Work Practice. California: Brooks/Cole.

Harris, F. (1993). Ministry of Social Crisis. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Lee, J. (1994). Social Development and Social Work with Groups. New York: Columbia University Press.

Solomon, B. (1976). Black Empowerment. New York: Columbia University Press.

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