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Social Work Empowerment Theory Essay

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As an undergrad social work student at University of Texas-Arlington we are taught how to become a generalist social worker. Becoming a generalist social worker will provide us with a broad range of skills to work with micro, mezzo and macro groups from all different ethnicities, ages, and religions. Professors here at UTA teach us many different models and theories that we can use as tools to work with our clients or groups successfully.

A newer social work perspective that I would like to discuss in this paper is the empowerment approach.

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The empowerment theory gained legitimacy as a paradigm back in 1981 by Julian Rappaport who discussed this paradigm in his Presidential Address at the American Psychological Association. He stated, “Empowerment is the mechanism by which people, organizations, and communities gain mastery over their lives” (Cummings pg.141). This statement provided the foundation for the empowerment approach that we as social workers use.

Since Rappaport’s introduction, the empowerment concept has taken shape and acquired meaning primarily through the work of social theorists, rather than practitioners. To clarify empowerment further, a great definition by social worker and professor Lawrence Shulman states in his book The Skills of Helping, “the empowerment process involves engaging the client, family, group, or community in developing strengths to personally and politically cope more effectively with those systems that are important to them”(Shulman pg.18).

Today the empowerment approach has been researched and proved to be an effective tool to helping individuals and groups. For example, alcoholics who attend meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous have shared feelings about how these peer-led workshops and discussion groups they attend have greatly enhanced their self-worth and helpfulness. The dignity to be able to not only help themselves to stop drinking but also help another alcoholic individual who is struggling as well is proved great satisfaction. This satisfaction in helping others is reciprocated by the other peers in the group thus empowering both individuals and improving chances for a change and self-worth.

Looking back at my life I remember certain tough situations that I had struggled with and how the empowerment process helped me. A big influence towards my empowerment of myself was my parents, in many different events during my life they helped me help myself. One situation in particular that jumps right out at me was when I was 18 years old looking for my first apartment. After looking around at numerous apartments for nearly a month I had decided on three that I really liked. Problem of being a young guy just out of high school, it was tough finding an apartment owner of a decent complex to rent to me, even if I had met all the legal and financial requirements to move in. It was extremely aggravating, and I began to feel helpless and powerless with no clue what to do, so I turned to my family for support.

Instead of my parents making it easy and signing for the apartment in their name while I lived there, they helped me with a better approach that enabled me to empower myself so that the owners and managers of theses apartment complexes could not discriminate against me because of my age. My parents acted as a broker, and gave me the phone number to the local tenant union so I could get a form that is used to take the proper legal action. It turned out that a week later after handing my form into the tenant union, all three of the apartments that had previously denied me because of “no credit history” offered me an apartment. I was more ecstatic than ever, I felt like I just hit the winning shot in a basketball game. I felt so powerful that I thought- “hey, what’s next?” – I could have tackled anything.

From my experiences using the empowerment approach, it had worked for me, but not in all my tough situations. As a social worker, we must realize who the client is, what their background is, ethnicity, and religion and be able to decide whether or not such a paradigm will work for such situation they are in. It is not always the case that empowerment is the correct approach, my situation could have easily gone the opposite direction and I could have felt even more powerless and helpless than before. After the apartment situation the empowerment process failed for me in a different struggle but knowing that it has worked before gives me confidence that it can work again given the right circumstances.

It is especially important to know how different age groups react to the empowerment approach. In a research study of the empowerment approach towards various age groups ranging from juveniles to elderly there was a great variance in what outcomes the empowerment paradigm concluded. Elderly clients were more focused on improvements in their state of health, conditions in their living quarters, social networks, financial situation and relations with family and friends. Middle Aged persons associated empowerment with their progress toward economic independence.

Only the teenage group was not focused on concrete outcomes from the empowerment process, as one teen stated in the research study, “Empowerment is the personal capability to manage my life, based on interior sincerity and freedom…Empowerment is the feeling of being free…To be free means to be free of others who influence you too much and free to have the courage to do what you really want to do” (Boehm & Staples pg. 453).

This idea is that empowerment is the way from dependency to independence, however many of the elderly clients preferred that the social workers do things for them that they felt unable to do for themselves. One elderly client in the research study stated, “There are cases in which I expect the worker to act instead of me. At my age, empowerment is not what it once was. The idea should be judged with greater understanding from a different starting point. Once empowerment was dependent on me, as responsible for the activity, being very active, but today, in my state, even when the worker acts instead of me, we should see the activity as empowerment. My function today concentrates more on my ability to obtain suitable help” (Boehm & Staples pg.455).

One of the most important findings in the research study was that clients viewed empowerment in terms of both processes and outcomes, although they placed much greater emphasis on tangible results. Clearly from the research findings there were important differences in each of the various age groups and how they viewed the nature of empowerment, as well as the appropriate facilitator role for social workers to play in the empowerment process. Instead of contributing to one uniform general theory of empowerment for all populations, social workers need different sets of assumptions and predictions for different populations.

Furthermore, as a generalist social work student, I believe we must be responsible and have the ability to contour the empowerment paradigm and other paradigms applied in the helping process towards the individual client so that it may produce the best possible results for each client’s individual situation. The empowerment theory can be and is applied at the individual, organizational, and community levels. At the organizational and community levels, empowerment involves increasing the political power of a collective group, whereas at the individual level, it involves increasing the individual’s sense of control without actually affecting structural change (Hamme & Peterson).

In conclusion, the empowerment paradigm is a fairly recent but highly effective method to use in conjunction with a variety of other theories and paradigms studied in social work. To optimize the results from a client or group the empowerment must be continual and adjustable to each specific crisis and person. I myself have used the empowerment approach in my life with both positive and negative results, which has only further pressed my opinion that it is not the perfect approach for every situation but can be highly effective towards a person’s self-worth and image if it works.


Banyard, Victoria & Laplant, Lindsey.(2002). Exploring Links Between Childhood

Maltreatment and Empowerment. Journal of Community Psychology, 30(6), 687-


Boehm, Amnon & Staples Lee.(2002). The Functions of the Social Worker in

Empowering: The Voices of Consumers and Professionals. Journal of Social

Work, 47(4), 449-460.

Cummings, Sheila.(2001). An Empowering Model for Collegiate Substance Abuse

Prevention and Education Programs. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education,21

(4), 137-154.

Hamme, Christina & Peterson, Andrew.(2002). Cognitive Empowerment of African

Americans and Caucasians. Journol of Black Studies, 32(3), 336-351.

Morell, Carolyn.(2002). Empowerment and Long-Living Women: Return to the Rejected

Body. Journal of Aging Studies, 17(1), 69-85.

Shulman, Lawrence.(2006). The Skills of Helping Individuals, Families, Groups, and

Communities. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

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