Since I started my social work training in 1998, I have spent a lot of time thinking about power and my relationship with it. When I was a student, I didn’t feel that I had ‘power’. It felt like it was being at the bottom of a professional hierarchy. Yet we learnt about ‘empowerment’ and how we, as students and (eventually) as social workers advocate and ‘empower’ other people.

It was a tired old adage. Social work is about ‘empowerment’ but it always sat a little bit uncomfortably. By saying that I empower someone else, that makes a number of assumptions. Firstly that somehow I have more knowledge and authority than the person that I am ‘empowering’. It is a patriarchal approach at best. I ‘empower’ you. What does that say about me – and about you and our views of the world? Secondly, I didn’t think – and we weren’t taught about empowering ourselves. It was about different ‘client groups’ we worked with. We learnt about oppression, prejudice and all those structural issues that exist in society but we weren’t, as students in a setting where we were very much amid and victim to massive issues of power differentials – with lecturers and tutors and with practice teachers – of empowering ourselves in relation to the course and the university. So all that theoretical teaching begins to take a hint of vague hypocrisy.

Sometimes I still see tutors talking about how they teach their students to ‘empower’ others. Is that what they are doing themselves? Are they empowering their students or encouraging their students to challenge them? I had a particular experience at university (when I was studying my social work MA) which colours my view. The leader of the MA programme was a bully. He enjoyed his power relationship with students. We didn’t see it at the time, but saw it for what it was fairly rapidly afterwards.  He would talk about ‘empowerment’ while demeaning students and emphasising his own power within the context of teaching social work. It was the kind of thing that made me terrified of the thought that he had ever practised social work.

Then, when I was on my first placement, with my fantastic practice teacher – she said to me to remember my own power in the relationships with the people I saw on placement. I felt like a ‘little student’ – we had been disempowered as students as a part of the course by the attitude of this tutor and she told me that I had enormous power in respect to people who used the service we were providing. It helped me feel a lot less sorry for myself and helped me to understand power and empowerment much more clearly than anyone in the university was able to. You see, I hadn’t recognised my own power while I had been caught up in other people’s power games over me. We rarely recognise our own power. If I “empower” someone else, I am immediately putting myself in a position where the balance is skewed.


I have power. I can give you power. I empower you. No. I think that’s the wrong way of looking at the process. I can, perhaps, help you to recognise your own power so that you can empower yourself but I maintain that it isn’t possible for me to empower you. If I empower you, I immediately remove some of the ‘power’ from you because I am in the position of gifting it. I may be able to create conditions for you to recognise where and how power fits in between us. I can, perhaps, create an environment that allows people to seize power and challenge me. I hope they do. But I can’t ‘empower’ you as it isn’t within my gift to change the way you think.

That’s the way I see it. I struggle still with my relationship with power. It was a large focus of the ASW training when I did it. I was in a supremely powerful position where I was able to remove someone’s liberty without a court judgement. I could make a decision to detain another person in a hospital. That is immense power. Yet in my own organisation, in the NHS trust I worked in, I wasn’t trusted to give feedback to a woolly ‘consultation’ about the services we ran. My voice wasn’t heard when I did raise concerns about cuts in services or even, when we aren’t talking about money, about poor services that didn’t respect the rights of individuals. The shouting wasn’t always about cuts – sometimes it was about quality. I felt disempowered and yet I was in one of the most powerful positions it is possible to have – to make a decision to detain someone.

It made me think a lot about ‘empowerment’. As an AMHP, I had power. I had immense power. I couldn’t give that power away. I couldn’t empower people. I could discuss and consult. I had a duty to. But the power was mine and it was not mine to give away. In order to talk about power and empowerment, we have to confront our own power – even when we, as professionals don’t feel powerful within the organisations or systems in which we work. If we underplay our power, we do everyone a disservice, especially those who rely on us to use our power well and ethically.

I’m a in position now where I have power. Sometimes I feel disempowered but it is my responsibility to work on that. I don’t and can’t ask other people to ‘empower’ me. Can I ‘empower’ anyone else? I don’t think so. I can recognise – indeed, I have to recognise my own power. If I deny my power, I am denying the positive changes which I, personally, can effect. If I tell someone else, I will empower you, I am possibly taking power away from them.

Should we be teaching ‘empowerment’ on social work training? I don’t think so  but if we don’t teach about power and our honest relationship with it – for good as well as bad – we do everyone who comes across us a massive disservice. We shouldn’t be afraid of the power we have. We need to recognise and learn to understand it so we can spread it and hope that it becomes contagious.

5 thoughts on “Empowerment

  1. I think advocacy is the core of any empowerment agenda and that’s what they should be teaching more of on SW courses. How to use your own voice. How SUs can use their voices. How to make a complaint that sticks. How to talk to specific people/professionals in ways that means they have to listen. That sort of thing.

  2. Thanks for this post. As a 3rd year social work student I’ve wrestled with this topic of empowerment and being told by lecturers I empower people which, if I’m honest, just didn’t sit well with me. Funny, that after many hours reflecting on the subject and trying to get a full understanding of ’empowerment’ that you come along and put into words what I was having dificulty in accepting myself. It’s good to know I was not alone in thinking this way.

    Yes we can create the right conditions and environment for individuals to realise their own power and to empower themselves, but to empower another individual the way it was discussed at uni would inevitably lead to the fundamental power imbalances I want to remove. And as you say we need to recognise the power we have but it’s not ours to ‘gift’. Thanks for switching the light on

  3. I wrote quite a bit on empowerment in my recent dissertation reading around Foucault who says power is not owned but is there to be exercised or not. By whomsoever I wondered – me, you, service user. I thought my job on placement with LDP was about helping my SUs utilise their own power with me being a facilitator.

  4. Ideas about empowerment emerged out of important principles from our rich heritage of social work practice. I see nothing wrong with training which emphasises relationship-based work and libertarian values that respect the individual. When social workers get Into practice they inevitably have to find their own way of reconciling empowerment with opposing principles when they carry out their statutory responsibilities. However, in the past there was sufficient consensus within society about the values that social workers were expected to uphold and the profession was held in higher regard than it is today. Now, the clash of values between social workers perceived as ‘wet liberals’ and another group in society which claims to be the ‘moral majority’ has become more of a problem. In other words, the notion of ’empowerment’ is often meaningless because there is no consensus about the values that social workers are required to uphold. Nowadays, I am increasingly concerned that it seems to means whatever social workers want it to mean and is too subjective. In child protection work it has even been used to avoid carrying out statutory duties – and this can lead to dangerous practice.

  5. Interesting post. I agree. Power is not some magical essence we can pass on apostolically. Power is what we do. Social workers often don’t feel very powerful, particularly in the current climate of austerity and budget bullying but compared to the vulnerable people we work with, we are influential figures who are seldom challenged and whose judgments change lives. This lack of recognition of the power we have is naive and has several different negative impacts. A particular dislike of mine is cynical and jaded practice of the ‘I don’t make the rules, I just fill in the forms’ variety in adult services. I swear some people actually enjoy this approach and while there are some excuses, such as it being a way of limiting unreasonable demands on the worker and it being a bit of a psychological foxhole, it is colluding with a particular view of service users as problematic and needy, and there can be a lot of implicit hostility to service users in this sort of narrow approach. Some of ‘the rules’, about funding limits and eligibility for services aren’t actually written down (largely because budget holding managers may be cynical but aren’t stupid) and I suppose the hallmark is whether individual staff are actually trying to report exceptional circumstances, make valid claims on extra resources and are thinking creatively about support packages or just internalising (and sometimes officiously extending) the ‘do you think we’re made of money?’ approach. Ironically, this sort of practice isn’t necessarily cheaper because it’s often risk averse and leads to earlier admissions to institutional care for physical and cognitively frail people. Another feature of viewing yourself as lacking power is viewing yourself as lacking potent skills and abilities. I am often surprised how often social workers don’t consider that they can change a situation and just accept the initial situation as the final account. What used to be called ‘use of the self’ seems to be implicitly discounted. If you don’t think you can change someone’s mind about accepting services, build rapport and trust with a spiky relative, overcome the nagging of a doctor who wants someone to be permanently institutionalised, frankly you’re unlikely to try to work for any of these things. Some of this is about skills and recognising that change takes time and sadly, these are not propitious times for developing these skills for new practitioners.

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