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In this article, we propose a model of the process of empowerment. The notion of empowerment is compelling and much employed across many subfields inside and outside of psychology, but the lack of consistency in the ways prior literature has defined it is an obstacle to meaningful synthesis of findings and consistent application in practice. Our empowerment process model builds on prior work in taking the following steps: articulating empowerment as an iterative process, identifying core elements of that process, and defining the process in a way that is practically useful to both researchers and practitioners with terms that are easily communicated and applied. The components of the model are personally meaningful and power-oriented goals, self-efficacy, knowledge, competence, action, and impact. Individuals move through the process with respect to particular goals, doubling back repeatedly as experience promotes reflection. We make specific recommendations for research and practice and discuss applications to social justice.
The Process of Empowerment
A Model for Use in Research and Practice
Lauren Bennett Cattaneo and Aliya R. Chapman
George Mason University
In this article, we propose a model of the process of
empowerment. The notion of empowerment is compelling
and much employed across many subfields inside and out-
side of psychology, but the lack of consistency in the ways
prior literature has defined it is an obstacle to meaningful
synthesis of findings and consistent application in practice.
Our empowerment process model builds on prior work in
taking the following steps: articulating empowerment as an
iterative process, identifying core elements of that process,
and defining the process in a way that is practically useful
to both researchers and practitioners with terms that are
easily communicated and applied. The components of the
model are personally meaningful and power-oriented
goals, self-efficacy, knowledge, competence, action, and
impact. Individuals move through the process with respect
to particular goals, doubling back repeatedly as experience
promotes reflection. We make specific recommendations
for research and practice and discuss applications to social
Keywords: empowerment process model, social justice,
self-efficacy, goals, power
Empowerment has long been a key concept in disci-
plines such as critical, liberation, and community
psychology, multicultural and feminist counseling,
and social work (e.g., Fox, Prilleltensky, & Austin, 2009;
Freire, 1970/2000; Gutie´rrez, 1990; Martı´n-Baro´, 1994;
Rappaport, 1987; Solomon, 1987; Sue & Sue, 2007).
Within each perspective, empowerment is central to the
work of improving human lives. It spotlights social, polit-
ical, and material resources and inequities in the environ-
ment, the strengths of individuals and communities, and the
enhancement of well-being through support of the natural
inclination to strive for positive change (Zimmerman,
2000). It encompasses a sense of personal control, which
has been linked clearly to greater health and well-being
(Chandola, Kuper, Singh-Manoux, Bartley, & Marmot,
2004; Griffin, Fuhrer, Stansfeld, & Marmot, 2002; Rodin &
Langer, 1977; Sue, 1978); it suggests a mechanism for
righting power imbalances in society (Freire, 1970/2000;
Goodman et al., 2004; Martı´n-Baro´, 1994; Toporek & Liu,
2001); and it fits well with current dominant trends in the
profession such as strengths-based psychology and con-
sumer-oriented mental health care. In short, the breadth and
compelling nature of the concept of empowerment has led
to its widespread use in the contexts of research, practice,
and social action in psychology and related fields (Kar,
Pascual, & Chickering, 1999; Masterson & Owen, 2006).
The current popularity of this term is easy to demon-
strate. In the research context, a search for empowerment in
the PsycInfo search engine yielded 6,266 results. In com-
parison, self-confidence yielded 4,309 results and self-de-
termination yielded 2,960. Of course, PsycInfo results rep-
resent only a subset of the scholarship that actually exists,
as work using the concept of empowerment spans a wide
array of fields beyond psychology. To illustrate its use
outside academia, we conducted a Google search using the
term; it yielded over 14 million hits, the first of which led
the browser to websites as diverse as Green Empowerment,
Employee Empowerment, the National Empowerment
Center (for recovery from mental illness), and Citizens’
Internet Empowerment Coalition (a group focused on free
speech issues on the Internet).
Though much used, even a cursory search such as this
one makes it apparent that this construct is not well defined.
In fact, one might argue that the lack of precise definition
has made it amenable to diffuse applications, which have
then exacerbated the lack of precision in its definition. Our
own work in the field of intimate partner violence, where
the empowerment of victims has long been a focus, drew
our attention to the shortcomings in current thinking on the
topic in general. In attempting to measure empowerment
for the purpose of research and to employ the concept in
program development and evaluation, we found current
understandings difficult to apply. This impression led us to
an in-depth review of the empowerment literature. We
concluded that the many ways empowerment has been
defined allowed researchers and practitioners to pick from
a menu of related, and at times vague, concepts rather than
rely on a cohesive picture. The model we have developed
captures this cohesive picture by including key concepts
from prior literature, refining them where necessary and
linking them together where appropriate. Our overarching
Lauren Bennett Cattaneo and Aliya R. Chapman, Department of Psychol-
ogy, George Mason University.
We thank Jonathan Mohr for his invaluable consultation and support
during the process of writing and revising this article. We also thank Jim
Maddux and Lisa Goodman for their very helpful comments on drafts of
the article and model.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lau-
ren Bennett Cattaneo, Department of Psychology, George Mason Univer-
sity, 4400 University Drive, MSN 3F5, Fairfax, Virginia 22030. E-mail:
646 October 2010 American Psychologist
© 2010 American Psychological Association 0003-066X/10/$12.00
Vol. 65, No. 7, 646– 659 DOI: 10.1037/a0018854
goal was to articulate the process of empowerment in a way
that is both precise, with face valid terms and operational
definitions, and broad enough for researchers and practi-
tioners to apply across contexts.
In this article, we briefly present our model and then
present an overview of prior literature, highlighting the
ways we have integrated or added to it. We then detail the
components of our model and ground them in an example
of the empowerment process from our own work. Finally,
we describe the model’s applications to research, practice,
and social justice.
The Empowerment Process Model
and Its Connection to Prior Literature
The Empowerment Process Model
As the term suggests, the process of empowerment is
fundamentally about gaining power (Gutie´rrez, 1991; Kar
et al., 1999; Masterson & Owen, 2006; Speer & Hughey,
1995). The definition of power has itself been the subject of
much scholarship (see review by Tew, 2006). In general,
scholars view power as embedded in social interactions;
these interactions are not limited to struggles for domi-
nance but include the wide range of ways in which people
exert influence. Thus, an increase in power is an increase in
one’s influence in social relations at any level of human
interaction, from dyadic interactions to the interaction be-
tween a person and a system. Keeping this understanding
of power in mind, we define empowerment as an iterative
process in which a person who lacks power sets a person-
ally meaningful goal oriented toward increasing power,
takes action toward that goal, and observes and reflects on
the impact of this action, drawing on his or her evolving
self-efficacy, knowledge, and competence related to the
goal. Social context influences all six process components
and the links among them. As shown in Figure 1, the
process is not linear, and a person may cycle through
components repeatedly with respect to particular goals and
associated objectives, reevaluating as experience promotes
reflection. The successful outcome of the process of em-
powerment is a personally meaningful increase in power
that a person obtains through his or her own efforts.
The model sets empowerment apart from related con-
cepts such as mastery, agency, self-efficacy, self-advocacy,
self-determination, and self-regulation in two primary
ways. First, the empowerment process focuses on a subset
of goals (those that are personally meaningful and power
oriented). Second, its aim is change in a person’s social
influence rather than only intrapsychic change. This focus
on change in human interactions at multiple levels high-
lights the profound importance of social context in the
empowerment process. All people who lack power do not
have an equal chance at gaining it. Instead, the process of
empowerment takes place in a context where power is
unequally distributed and where structures exist to perpet-
uate the advantages of some over others. As we describe,
this context influences the entire process but becomes most
starkly apparent in the impact component. It is this com-
ponent that most clearly extends the empowerment process
out of the intrapsychic realm, moving the model beyond
people’s feelings about their abilities to include the ways in
which social context constrains or facilitates their efforts.
In the next section, we detail the ways in which this model
builds on prior literature.
Figure 1
The Empowerment Process Model
647October 2010 American Psychologist
Exemplars of Definitions of Empowerment
We have already described prior literature on empower-
ment as including a wide variety of definitions. Here, to
give a sense of this landscape, we describe several of the
most frequently cited definitions and their primary
strengths and weaknesses. We then draw from these de-
scriptions and the broader literature on empowerment to
crystallize the most pressing issues in prior work that our
model addresses.
Empowerment is mastery. Rappaport (e.g.,
1987, 1995) has contributed much to the thinking on em-
powerment, calling for it to be the center of theory devel-
opment in community psychology. His frequently cited
definition of empowerment as “a mechanism by which
people, organizations, and communities gain mastery over
their affairs” (Rappaport, 1987, p. 122) captures the sense
of gaining personal control that is intuitively central to the
concept. However, this “mastery” notion of empowerment
has also been critiqued as giving insufficient attention to
the relevance of the construct for community well-being
(Goodman et al., 2004; McWhirter, 1998a; Prilleltensky,
1997; Riger, 1993; Toporek & Liu, 2001). Riger (1993)
suggested that this emphasis promotes a conflict-based
model of empowerment and marginalizes the human need
for social integration. She challenged empowerment theory
to integrate these fundamental drives—to include both
mastery and connection.
Empowerment is participation. Rappaport
later endorsed the Cornell Empowerment Group’s narrower
definition of empowerment as involving respectful, caring,
and reflective participation in a community group in order
to gain equal access to and control over resources (Rappa-
port, 1995). This definition addresses the criticisms of
Riger and others in that it explicitly involves social con-
nection, but it does so quite narrowly (specifying partici-
pation) and only as a mechanism toward greater control of
Empowerment forwards the social good.
McWhirter’s (1991, 1998b) definition of empowerment
calls explicitly for attention to community well-being:
the process by which people, organizations or groups who are
powerless (a) become aware of the power dynamics at work in
their life context, (b) develop the skills and capacity for gaining
some reasonable control over their lives, (c) exercise this control
without infringing upon the rights of others, and (d) support the
empowerment of others in their community. (McWhirter, 1991,
p. 224)
In this definition, McWhirter, who developed her no-
tion of empowerment for the context of counseling, is in
alignment with eminent scholars and activists who have
invoked the idea of increasing the power of marginalized
populations in their work toward social justice (Freire,
1970/2000; Martı´n-Baro´, 1994; Rappaport, 1981; Trickett,
1991). In this way, this definition is an aspirational one that
reflects social justice values—what one might hope to
encourage—rather than a description of a process that one
(as an activist, therapist, program, or field) might decide to
facilitate or not on the basis of such values. In practice,
McWhirter (1998b) noted that falling short of this ideal
does not necessarily connote a lack of empowerment:
“Many clients will not be ready for or interested in the
empowerment of others. . . . This must not be considered a
failure on the part of the client or the counsellor to
‘achieve’ the goal of empowerment” (p. 15). This impor-
tant consideration must be integrated into the way empow-
erment is conceptualized.
Empowerment is goal achievement. Me-
chanic (1991) defined empowerment as “a process in which
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” (p.
641). In focusing on goals, this definition includes the
important notion that empowerment is about whatever is
meaningful to a particular person. However, this definition
is similar to the mastery concept in that it can be construed
as entirely intrapsychic, involving no actual changes in
power. In the critique cited earlier, Riger (1993) argued that
although successful empowerment-oriented action may re-
sult in increased independence, political power, or influ-
ence over the allocation of resources, an individual who
believes she or he is capable of influencing the environment
may not necessarily have such influence and thus may
attempt without success to achieve goals. Rather than con-
stituting simply a weaker degree of empowerment, this
failure may actually cause further difficulties or distress. A
model of empowerment that addresses this critique must
include both the “sense of empowerment” and the “increase
in actual power” that is the aim of the process (Riger, 1993,
p. 282).
The nomological network of empower-
ment. In an attempt to achieve greater specificity than
prior definitions, Zimmerman (1995) proposed a “nomo-
Aliya R.
648 October 2010 American Psychologist
logical network” of empowerment at the individual level,
which he termed “psychological empowerment.” In this
network he specified “observable phenomena” that con-
stitute psychological empowerment, subsuming some
elements of preexisting definitions (Zimmerman, 1995,
p. 587).
In Zimmerman’s (1995) network, psychological em-
powerment consists of intrapersonal, interactional, and be-
havioral components. The intrapersonal component is pri-
marily belief oriented: It refers to “how people think about
themselves” with respect to their ability to achieve a par-
ticular outcome in a particular domain (p. 588). It also
includes motivation. The interactional component com-
prises an understanding of the environment in which the
individual is located, a “critical awareness” of the resources
and options that are available and how to manage them, and
a sense of what may (or may not) be done in order to
achieve the desired outcome. It also includes possession of
relevant skills such as decision making, problem solving,
and leadership. The behavioral component refers to an
action taken in the environment.
Zimmerman’s network represents a step forward in
that it specifies particular groups of variables under the
umbrella of psychological empowerment that can be mea-
sured and are thus more amenable to research than prior
definitions. It has inspired a significant body of work,
particularly in the area of predicting community participa-
tion and often including the development of setting-specific
measures of empowerment (Banyard & LaPlant, 2002;
Bolton & Brookings, 1998; Garcia-Ramirez et al., 2005;
Holden, Crankshaw, Nimsch, Hinnant, & Hund, 2004;
Holden, Evans, Hinnant, & Messeri, 2005; Peterson,
Hamme, & Speer, 2002; Peterson & Hughey, 2004; Peter-
son et al., 2006; Speer, 2000; Speer, Jackson, & Peterson,
2001). However, there are important issues in the develop-
ment of a comprehensive and practical model of empow-
erment that this network does not resolve. Next we describe
the challenges in developing a useful model of empower-
ment that these exemplars bring into focus and that we have
attempted to address.
Priorities in Refining Empowerment Theory
The need to describe empowerment as an
iterative process. From the earliest descriptions, em-
powerment has been understood as a process (see, e.g.,
Finfgeld, 2004; Foster-Fishman, Salem, Chibnall, Legler,
& Yapchai, 1998; Gutie´rrez, 1991; Laverack & Waller-
stein, 2001; Rappaport, 1987; Speer & Hughey, 1995).
Particularly in qualitative work, this process has further
been described as nonlinear, with components that influ-
ence each other in dynamic ways. For example, in his
classic book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (1970/
2000) wrote of the key bidirectional link between action
and reflection:
The insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their
concrete situation is not a call to armchair revolution. On the
contrary, reflection—true reflection—leads to action. On the other
hand, when the situation calls for action, that action will constitute
an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of
a critical reflection. (p. 66)
In a similar vein, in his landmark qualitative study of
emerging citizen leaders in grassroots organizations, Kief-
fer (1984) concluded,
The longer participants extend their involvement, the more they
come to understand. The more they understand, the more moti-
vated they are to continue to act. The more they continue to act,
the more proactive they are able to be. The more proactive they
are able to be, the more they further their skill and effect. The
more they sense their skill and effect, the more likely they are to
continue. (p. 22)
Despite the presence of this theme in much of the
writing on the subject, the empowerment process has not
been clearly articulated and (consequently) applied. The
exemplars just described sometimes use the word process,
but they generally do not identify the elements of that
process or the links among them. Even McWhirter’s (1991)
definition, which articulates empowerment as a process
more clearly than the others presented here, does not spec-
ify the links among elements, and the iterative nature of the
process—the give and take between action and reflection
that Freire (1970/2000) described—is not explicit.
As a result, most empowerment research focuses on
one or more variables viewed as falling under the empow-
erment umbrella (Hur, 2006; Kasturirangan, 2008). Several
recent examples illustrate this point. Castro, Casique, and
Brindis (2008) explored the relationship between intimate
partner violence and various relationship dynamics among
Mexican women, measuring empowerment with indices of
women’s decision-making power and freedom of move-
ment. Maly, Stein, Umezawa, Leake, and Anglin (2008)
explored determinants of quality of life and type of treat-
ment among women with breast cancer and viewed em-
powerment as involving the participatory style of the phy-
sician, or how much input the patient felt she had into
decisions about her care. Hough and Paisley (2008) eval-
uated the effect of an adventure program for adults with
disabilities, defining empowerment as the perception of
control over how to use one’s leisure time and over the
activities involved in the program. In the body of work
based on Zimmerman’s (1995) network, studies have
tended to measure indices of empowerment within the
network (such as self-esteem, perceived control, knowl-
edge of a particular system or problem, and participation in
a community group) and to explore how they were linked
(e.g., Holden et al., 2005; Speer et al., 2001; Zimmerman &
Rappaport, 1988). Exploring the connections among these
indices fits with the idea that empowerment is a process
(knowledge of the system predicts participation in it), but
all of these studies have taken different elements of interest
out of the larger process at work. In focusing on whatever
pieces of the empowerment process were of greatest inter-
est in that particular study and terming them empowerment,
they equate any piece of the process with the whole. This
tendency makes it impossible to compare findings across
studies and essentially brings the field full circle, with
many conceptualizations of the same construct.
649October 2010 American Psychologist
An important consequence of this trend in the litera-
ture has been the frequent omission of the two bookends of
the empowerment process: the establishment of goals and
the real-world impact of the individual’s efforts toward
achieving those ends. Omitting these pieces of the process
risks ignoring the values of the person in the process of
empowerment and the way that actors within this person’s
social context respond (or do not respond) to her or him.
For example, adding these elements of the process to the
breast cancer study just described would mean learning
what patients’ preferences were about the degree of input
they wanted and evaluating the impact of this input. Add-
ing the understanding of the process as iterative would
mean exploring the way elements of the process might shift
over the course of the relationship with the doctor, as
interactions informed the patient’s understanding of what
she desired and how able she was to achieve her aims in a
system where she had a prescribed low-status role.
The importance of understanding empowerment as an
iterative process is not just academic. In practice as well,
the larger picture of the empowerment process is often
missed, and parts of the concept are often used without
attention to the whole. For example, a helping professional
who facilitates, supports, or even forces increases in any
part of a client’s empowerment process in current defini-
tions—ability to mobilize resources, awareness of power
dynamics, perceptions of control, participation in commu-
nity groups, and so forth—could consider their work to be
empowering practice. However, each of these processes
may or may not be related to later success, may or may not
be related to goals that are meaningful to that client, or may
even counteract the others. Although increases in each of
these areas might facilitate the empowerment process, the
links to the other components of the process are critical to
assess. The distress and frustration for a client who ends up
mobilizing the wrong resources at great cost, or who per-
ceives control but does not take action, or who takes action
that backfires (because the perception of control was incor-
rect) might actually be the antithesis of empowerment. The
empowerment process model brings attention to this
broader context.
The need to incorporate both individual
and broad social aspects of empowerment.
As articulated earlier, the literature focusing on the con-
ceptualization of power identifies it as a characteristic of
human interactions at all levels—from the dyadic to the
macrosystemic. These interactions have profound conse-
quences for how people view themselves (Foucault, 1982;
Tew, 2006). For example, Martı´n-Baro´ (1994), writing in
the context of violence and oppression in El Salvador,
described how the work life of the underclass perpetuates
their oppression:
The image of the “lazy Latino” crystallizes the most negative
causal explanation a worker can adopt with respect to his or her
position of subordination, namely the conviction that he or she is
personally incompetent, which results in a devaluation of the self.
The crushing conclusion is that workers are where they ought to
be because they’re no good for anything else. (p. 98)
If empowerment represents changes in such interac-
tions, then, like power, it crosses the boundary between the
individual and his or her social world.
The consideration of both internal experience and
social context in the process of empowerment is similar to
Sue’s (1978) elaboration of the related concept of locus of
control. This construct was historically considered acon-
textually as reflecting persons’ beliefs about their ability to
“shape their own fate” (Sue & Sue, 2007, p. 294). Sue
suggested that, rather than representing an intrapsychic
trait, perceived locus of control is profoundly influenced by
people’s experience in the social world—likely to differ
across race, class, and culture—and their resulting knowl-
edge about their ability to wield power. This ability is
constrained by social forces such as powerful others, dis-
crimination, and the myriad institutions and structures that
regulate behavior. These influences are the reason that
groups with less social power tend to have a more external
locus of control (Sue, 1978; Sue & Sue, 2007). A model of
empowerment must pay similar attention to context.
As we have discussed, early conceptualizations of
empowerment focused primarily on perceptions of personal
control, with limited attention given to context. Given the
critiques we have described, later revisions perhaps over-
corrected for this focus, emphasizing not only context but
particular forms of prosocial interaction such as participa-
tion in community groups or supporting others. However, if
empowerment is about power, the broad range of social
interactions that enact power dynamics needs to be in-
cluded in its definition. Restricting the interactions to those
deemed positive through a particular lens is problematic
both conceptually and in application, where research par-
ticipants and service recipients may have different frames
of reference.
For example, in her discussion about the breadth of
the concept of power, Riger (1993) drew from Hollander
and Offermann’s (1990) description of power in organiza-
tional contexts to differentiate the concepts of “power
over” (dominance), “power to” (freedom to act), and
“power from” (the ability to resist the demands of others)
(Riger, 1993, p. 282; see also Yoder & Kahn, 1992).
Within this broad definition, the power seeking involved in
the process of empowerment does not necessarily involve
attempts to control other people or to wrest resources away
from another group (power over). Instead, the goal of the
process of empowerment may be explicitly to strengthen
connections with others, perhaps by having a voice in
group decisions or raising a grievance (“power to”). In the
“power from” category, the goal of the process might also
be greater separation from a group or less vulnerability to
their influence. In short, the broad definition of power upon
which the empowerment process model relies allows for
this wide range of goals: The process can be driven by the
As suggested by this quotation about the social order being inter-
nalized and perpetuated, the existence and nature of the boundary between
the individual and the social world are themselves profound questions.
See, for example, considerations of the self as inseparable from context by
Ogbonnaya (1994) and by Robb (2006).
650 October 2010 American Psychologist
desire for community or autonomy and can serve the in-
terests of individuals, groups, or both. This breadth in
conceptualization allows for careful thought on what facil-
itates prosocial action in the empowerment process—a
person, program, or group certainly does not need to sup-
port the empowerment process regardless of its aim. Social
justice values might (and we would argue should) guide
decision making about what to facilitate. The model simply
teases the process apart from the decision of under what
conditions one would wish to support it.
The need for precision. In order for research-
ers and practitioners to compare the empowerment process
(and strategies to facilitate it) across studies and settings,
there must be consensus on what the core elements of the
process are. Up to this point, many related concepts have
been merged under an oversized umbrella; our model in-
corporates the components we view as key. Locating these
core elements within an iterative process further means that
we need to understand how these core elements relate to
each other. Next we describe each component and its role
in the iterative process.
The Components of the
Empowerment Process Model
We identified the core concepts in the process of empow-
erment using several criteria: the extent to which the liter-
ature supports its importance, the ease with which it can be
communicated both to researchers and practitioners, and
the applicability of the concept to the fulfillment of partic-
ular goals in particular contexts.
Setting Personally Meaningful, Power-
Oriented Goals
Goals are not often included explicitly in definitions of
empowerment or in empirical work based on those defini-
tions, but qualitative descriptions convey the process as one
strongly driven toward personal aims. In his study of citi-
zen leaders, Kieffer (1984) described a pressing desire for
change awakened when these leaders’ “sense of integrity
[was] directly violated or attacked” (p. 18) and noted that
such experiences were energizing only in the context of
their meaning to those particular people. Similarly, Boehm
and Staples (2004) discussed the meaning of empowerment
with 20 focus groups made up of social workers and
recipients of social work services in Israel, and described
participants’ painful or life-changing experiences as the
common reference point. In sum, the empowerment pro-
cess is driven by a subset of the goals a person might
pursue. As is evident in these descriptions, these goals are
not only power oriented but personally meaningful. Under-
standing the nature of such goals and how they differ across
people and contexts is critical to facilitating the process of
The importance of personally meaningful
goals. Self-determination theory, originated by Edward
Deci and Richard Ryan (2000), elaborates the idea of
personally meaningful goals. The theory suggests that an
individual is personally committed in varying degrees to
every behavior he or she undertakes. An individual engages
in some behaviors for the sake of fleeting pleasure, or in
relation to externally imposed consequences, and engages
in others as conscious attempts to reach personally impor-
tant goals. Cultural values influence both the importance of
particular goals and the choice of avenues to reach them.
Motivation for these behaviors is called integrated regula-
tion, because the goals are integrated with a person’s sense
of self and core beliefs. Behaviors supported by integrated
regulation are likely to occur autonomously, because the
individual believes that the goal is important enough to
overcome difficulties. However, unlike intrinsic motiva-
tion, which involves activity that is intrinsically enjoyable,
the goals involved in integrated regulation involve reaching
for some kind of external reward (Markland, Ryan, Tobin,
& Rollnick, 2005). In the case of empowerment, the reward
is power.
Evaluating the personal meaning of goals necessitates
the consideration of social context, because a wide range of
contextual variables influence one’s sense of self and core
beliefs. In fact, in their discussion of counselors engaging
in advocacy, Toporek and Liu (2001) cautioned that advo-
cating on behalf of a client without collaborating on the
goals of advocacy can render even the very well-inten-
tioned counselor “paternalistic and condescending” (p.
399). There is solid support for the idea that when research
or practice is out of step with this context, at the very least
it misses the mark (Boehm & Staples, 2004). For example,
Kasturirangan (2008) noted that for some domestic vio-
lence victims violence is not the only—or the most impor-
tant—problem they are facing, and their goals may be
markedly different from those assumed by service provid-
ers. A helping professional’s insistence on her or his goal,
when it differs from the client’s, would not facilitate the
client’s empowerment process.
Elaborating the important role of culture in the per-
sonal meaning of goals, Constantine and Sue (2006) argued
that it is not possible to “separate definitions of optimal
human functioning from the cultural context in which they
arise” (p. 229). In their discussion of ethical dilemmas that
arise when counseling psychologists work within a social
justice agenda, Goodman and colleagues (2004) provided a
clear example. As part of a training experience in a social-
justice-oriented program, graduate students developed
“empowerment groups” for Asian American middle school
students who reported feeling marginalized at school. The
goals of these groups were for the students to identify and
assert their needs in the classroom. Over time, however, the
facilitators “came to recognize that the girls did not share
these individualistic goals. Many disclosed that they felt
uncomfortable with the behaviors associated with ‘empow-
erment,’ such as speaking up in class. Instead, the girls
wanted to hold onto their cultural values of modesty, re-
spect, honor, and collectivism” (Goodman et al., 2004, p.
820). The notion of personally meaningful goals makes the
empowerment process model particularly sensitive to the
influence of sociocultural context on empowerment.
A range of literature, particularly in the context of
therapy, supports the suggestion that identifying personally
651October 2010 American Psychologist
meaningful goals is a key step in making positive changes
of various kinds (not limited to empowerment). For exam-
ple, a focus of humanistic approaches to therapy is on
creating a safe and supportive environment where the client
may find his or her authentic self and begin to make choices
consistent with his or her own values rather than the
“oughts” which are externally imposed (Rogers, 1961, p.
168). Models of brief therapy and motivational interview-
ing both rely on the therapist’s ability to empathize and to
identify a focus that resonates with the client’s own mo-
tives (Bennett, 2001; Rollnick & Miller, 1995). Acceptance
and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has particular techniques
for identifying clients’ values and the goals associated with
them, such as asking clients to consider the content of the
eulogy they would want read at their own funeral (Hayes,
2004). The importance of goals with personal meaning is
thus supported by theory and research both inside and
outside of the empowerment literature and is integrated in
many models of psychotherapy. What sets the empower-
ment process apart from this literature is its application
across contexts (outside the therapy office), its extension
outside the intrapsychic realm (highlighting the very real
contextual obstacles for many people in reaching their
goals), and its focus on power.
The importance of power-oriented goals.
We established earlier that the goals pursued in the em-
powerment process are power-related and embed the pro-
cess of empowerment in social interactions. We described
a power-oriented goal as an aim to increase one’s influence
in social relations at any level of human interaction, from
dyadic interactions to the interaction between oneself and a
system. Such a goal could forward one’s own interests
and/or the interests of a group and could move one toward
greater connection or autonomy.
In sum, the process of empowerment is motivated by
goals that are related to power and that are profoundly
compelling to the individual because of their personal
meaning. The pursuit of a goal that is power oriented but
not personally meaningful as we have defined it, and vice
versa, would not be empowerment. For example, the pur-
suit of hedonistic pleasure would not meet either of these
criteria. The pursuit of a promotion at work might meet the
power-oriented criterion but would only meet the personal
meaning criterion if it fit with the individual’s core beliefs
and sense of self. Making a resolution to be kind to others
might meet the personal meaning criterion but would only
meet the power-oriented criterion if it was meant to in-
crease influence.
Identification of goals that do meet these criteria may
range from acknowledging something that is immediately
obvious to engaging in a lengthy and complex process in
and of itself, and might involve the identification of smaller
goals or objectives that serve an overarching goal. Because
personally meaningful goals are particularly motivating
(Deci & Ryan, 2000; Markland et al., 2005), successful
identification of such goals should fuel the behavioral com-
ponents of the model—gaining relevant knowledge, build-
ing competence, and taking action. One’s experience in the
empowerment process is also likely to lead one to redefine
goals—part of the iterative action–reflection process de-
scribed earlier.
Scholars describing empowerment often include the indi-
vidual’s sense of agency—the individual’s beliefs about his
or her abilities that Riger (1993) set apart from the indi-
vidual’s actual power. For example, in the context of social
work Gutie´rrez (1991) described part of empowerment as
an increase in “personal power,” or “experiencing oneself
as a powerful or capable person” (p. 202). In the context of
an agricultural cooperative, Kroeker (1995) stated that the
“psychological goals of empowerment are to increase feel-
ings of value, self-efficacy and control” (p. 752). Fitzsi-
mons and Fuller (2002) suggested that “an empowerment
approach promotes recognition of the power and capabili-
ties that individuals already possess” (p. 483). As men-
tioned earlier, intrapersonal empowerment is a broad con-
ceptual umbrella in Zimmerman’s (1995) network,
including overlapping concepts such as self-efficacy, mas-
tery, perceived control, and locus of control. For the pur-
pose of greater clarity and consistency, this is the compo-
nent of the empowerment process most in need of
On the basis of the criteria we have described, we
identify self-efficacy as the core element of this part of the
empowerment process. Compared with related concepts
such as locus of control and mastery, self-efficacy has been
much studied and measured in a domain-specific fashion,
and there is a large amount of consistent evidence linking
it to motivation and performance across situations and
cultures, including both communal and individual efforts
(e.g., Bandura, 2002; Bandura & Locke, 2003; Stajkovic &
Luthans, 1998). Further, goal-setting theory identifies self-
efficacy as a moderator between goals and performance and
specifies motivation as an offshoot of highly valued goals
for which a person has high self-efficacy; Locke in fact has
termed personally valued goals and self-efficacy as the
“motivation hub” (Locke & Latham, 2002, p. 709). Con-
sonant with this theory, we view this part of the process as
the engine for the rest.
Earlier we described Sue’s (1978) elaboration of the
concept of locus of control, which brings cultural ideology
and social experiences to bear on a concept that is often
viewed and measured intrapsychically. A similar point
applies to the influence of social context on self-efficacy
(Bandura, 2002). In particular, the opportunities, obstacles,
and resources in one’s environment have obvious impact
on one’s beliefs about what one can accomplish. Assessing
the links between self-efficacy and other components of the
empowerment process model helps to highlight these dy-
After identifying a goal and feeling that one can accom-
plish it, one must identify a course of action. Both Mc-
Whirter (1991) and Zimmerman (1995) integrated versions
of this “how to” component in their definitions (as an
awareness of power dynamics and as a part of the interac-
652 October 2010 American Psychologist
tional component, respectively). In our model, we define
knowledge as an understanding of the relevant social con-
text, including the power dynamics at play, the possible
routes to goal attainment, the resources needed, and ways
to obtain them.
The type of knowledge required depends on the goal
of the process; within this broad range, the literature has
discussed attunement to power dynamics most extensively.
Gutie´rrez (1991) described conducting a “power analysis”
with clients, in which counselors help clients to become
aware of the ways in which power disparities function in
their lives. Indeed, a central tenet of feminist theory is that
power asymmetries become “embedded in daily life” in
“invisible and sometimes nonconscious ways,” and a fun-
damental goal of feminist therapy is to help the client gain
awareness of these dynamics (Brown, 1994, p. 17). Freire
(1970/2000) originally termed this process critical con-
sciousness (concientizacao), in which the disenfranchised
gain power through recognizing themselves as oppressed
and taking action. Martı´n-Baro´ (1994) also used this con-
cept to describe the liberation of the oppressed, a change in
mentality moving hand in hand with social change.
In a recent experiment, Chronister and McWhirter
(2006) applied the idea of critical consciousness to a career
intervention for battered women and provided empirical
support for its importance in the pursuit of goals. They
developed two versions of the intervention, one with a
component meant to increase participants’ critical con-
sciousness, and one without. The women who received the
critical consciousness component persisted in goal pursuit
for a longer time and made more progress in achieving
goals. More generally, Speer (2000) provided evidence of
a link between knowledge and community participation.
Both of these studies support the notion that knowl-
edge—of power dynamics or of systems in general—is
linked to other components of the empowerment process.
Once an individual knows what is required to reach a goal,
his or her level of actual (as opposed to perceived) skill
relevant to the task becomes salient. This element of the
process is an explicit part of McWhirter’s (1991) definition,
and Gutie´rrez (1991) similarly viewed the identification of
skill deficits and learning new skills as a key element of the
empowerment process. Zimmerman (1995) included it in
his interactional component, together with knowledge. We
believe it is important to articulate competence separately
from knowledge because it is conceptually distinct—
knowing what to do is not the same thing as knowing how
to do it—and there may well be different obstacles to each
of these components.
Success or failure with gaining skills is certain to have
a reciprocal relationship with other pieces of the process.
Learning skills to accomplish a task will increase self-
efficacy and promote action, and experience with taking
action will refine skills, further influencing self-efficacy
and action (Kieffer, 1984). Before a person has taken
action, assessing their perception of their own competence
is the same as assessing their self-efficacy. Taking action
may confirm parts of this perception, but likely will also
yield new information about strengths, weaknesses, and
environmental obstacles and opportunities.
In order to actually achieve goals, one must take action.
The action is shaped by the pieces of the process that come
before it—it is driven by particular goals, motivated by the
personal value of those goals and beliefs about one’s ability
to reach those goals, informed by relevant knowledge, and
carried out using relevant skills. We have adopted the term
action because it is intuitive and because of its connection
to the action–reflection dynamic described earlier (Freire,
1970/2000). This element of our model is similar to Zim-
merman’s (1995) behavioral component of psychological
empowerment as he originally defined it, though it has been
translated rather narrowly, most often as participation in a
community group. Our model differs from this conceptu-
alization in that we consider participation only one of an
almost limitless range of actions that might be employed
toward fulfillment of goals. For example, an individual may
actually desire less contact with a community group if she
or he wishes to be less subject to external influence (“power
from”) or may wish to have more influence within an
important dyadic relationship (“power to”) as opposed to a
community group, which might involve asserting herself or
himself with a significant other rather than participating in
an organization.
Freire (1970/2000) wrote convincingly of the links
between action and other elements of the empowerment
process. In particular, he wrote that action that leads to
liberation cannot be imposed from without but instead must
be generated by a person’s perception of his or her situa-
tion. In the terms of the empowerment process model,
action is linked to people’s knowledge about the power
dynamics that operate in their lives and the ways they can
or cannot change them. An important source of information
about these possibilities and the limits others place on the
individual’s freedom is the next component of the empow-
erment process model—impact.
This element of the empowerment process involves an
assessment of what happens following the individual’s
actions. The environmental response will be a result of
much more than one individual’s actions—as we men-
tioned earlier, not all people have an equal chance of
gaining power. The individual’s perception of his or her
personal impact likely moderates the relationship between
impact and other elements of the process. This perception
is in turn determined by many factors, including people’s
culturally informed beliefs about personal control (the ex-
tent to which they believe they are “masters of their fate”)
and whether they or the environment have primary respon-
sibility for success or failure (Sue, 1978, p. 422), their
experiences with discrimination, and structural obstacles to
their goals. An environmental response that corresponds to
individuals’ goals will increase their self-efficacy to the
extent that they view the outcome as directly connected to
653October 2010 American Psychologist
their behavior. This link has been much explored in the
self-efficacy literature discussed earlier, where it has been
shown that one’s level of perceived success or failure and
one’s explanations for it are the strongest influences on
one’s efficacy beliefs, and this finding holds true whether
the action is undertaken on one’s own or as part of a group
(Bandura, 2002). It is in reflecting on impact that obstacles
to success such as discrimination, lack of resources, and
institutionalized racism will become glaringly clear, reveal-
ing related power dynamics (knowledge) and leading to the
refinement of goals. This is the component of the model in
which the role of social context is most explicit.
Example: The Case of Sara
Case Description
The following case is an amalgam of the stories of numer-
ous women with whom we have worked; it provides an
example of the empowerment process model in action.
Sara’s family immigrated to the United States from Peru
when she was a teenager. The family came using a tourist
visa and then stayed illegally. Sara finished high school but
was not able to attend college because of her lack of
documentation. She married Tony, a U.S. citizen, shortly
after her graduation. Tony promised to help her become a
legal permanent resident but put off the process for years.
Sara and Tony eventually had two children, who automat-
ically have U.S. citizenship. Tony began to be physically
abusive to Sara after the birth of their first child, and he
regularly threatens to have Sara deported. When Sara con-
fides in her mother about the abuse, her mother tries to help
her with strategies to pacify Tony, agreeing with Sara that
the threat of deportation is real and that if Sara was de-
ported to Peru it would be a disaster for her children.
One night Tony and Sara begin to argue, and he hits
her. A neighbor hears the commotion and calls the police.
The police officers see marks on Sara’s face and arrest
Tony over Sara’s protests, explaining that they are required
to arrest if they have reason to believe there has been an
assault. The officers hand Sara written information about
intimate partner violence and explain to her that she must
come to the court the next morning. Sara is terrified. She
believes that if she does not go to court and somehow get
Tony out of trouble, he will have her deported, but she fears
that if she goes to court, the authorities will discover she is
undocumented. After the police leave she calls her mother,
who calls a friend who has been involved in the court
system to advise them. Their friend assures them that the
court will not ask about Sara’s immigration status and that
as Tony’s wife, Sara cannot be forced to testify against
him. The next morning, Sara leaves the children with her
mother and goes to the court with the intention of having
the charges against Tony dropped. She decides that if she is
asked about her immigration status she will feign needing
to go to the restroom and will leave. When she arrives in
the Domestic Violence Intake Center at the court, she is
assigned a victim advocate, who sits down with her to
describe the court process and her options in it.
The Empowerment Process
Sara’s immediate goal is to extricate her family from the
legal system in the service of an overarching goal: to
protect her children. This goal has profound personal
meaning for her; her role as a mother is central to her
identity, as are her roles as daughter and wife. She worries
that Tony’s arrest will put her ability to perform all of these
roles in jeopardy. In the terms we have used to define
power, she wishes to increase her influence in her interac-
tion with the legal system. At the moment she comes to
court she is at the system’s mercy—her husband is in jail,
and she is in the country illegally. Her desire is in the
“power from” category in that she wishes to resist what the
court is demanding of her: to testify against her husband so
that he can be held accountable for his abuse. Initially,
given her immigration status and her family’s negative
experiences with law enforcement in their own country, her
self-efficacy for reaching this goal is understandably low.
Talking with her mother’s friend increased her knowledge
about how the system worked. She learned that the process
in Tony’s case would not raise her immigration status, that
in order for the court to pursue the case they would need
her testimony, and that they could not force her to testify.
At the point when Sara gains this important knowl-
edge about the system, she revisits her goals. Perhaps if she
had not learned more about the system, she would have
taken her children and gone into hiding. With the knowl-
edge about an avenue to resist testifying, her goal is re-
fined: She will get the court to drop the charges by refusing
to testify. She has moderate self-efficacy for this because of
what she has learned about the system. Meeting with the
advocate will increase her knowledge about how the sys-
tem works. At this point, Sara’s story can go in numerous
directions depending in large part on how savvy the advo-
cate is and what the institutional pressures are on that
advocate. If the advocate is culturally competent, she may
guess at some of the issues Sara is struggling with; she may
find sensitive ways to inquire about her immigration status
and may wonder about the role her children are playing in
her decision making. In other words, she may assess what
Sara’s goals are in coming to the system and how her social
context influences them. Alternatively, the advocate may
believe (and the advocate’s employer may tell her) that no
matter what Sara’s preferences, Tony is an abusive hus-
band and therefore a poor father, and a criminal prosecu-
tion will serve the family best. It is important to note the
role that policy plays in this scenario—it limits both Sara’s
choices and the advocate’s options in working with her.
Sara’s competence comes into play as she interacts
with the advocate. In the service of her goal, she needs to
convince the advocate that there is no way to persuade her
to testify and that she is not in serious danger. Her ability
to speak English may be important. As she gives the
advocate the story she has rehearsed with her mother (in-
creasing her self-efficacy and her competence), she is tak-
ing action toward her goal.
Sara is able to observe the impact of her action while
at the courthouse as the advocate goes to talk with the
654 October 2010 American Psychologist
prosecutor and comes back to tell her what will happen
next. If the charges are dropped, Sara has increased her
power in the way she wanted. However, having the charges
dropped was a short-term goal in the service of an overar-
ching goal—the protection of her children. Her power
increase is not lasting in that if the police are called again,
she will be in the same situation. Tony may decide to report
her or her parents to the Immigration and Naturalization
Service in any case, and she will then be at the mercy of
that system.
The advocate’s perspective is critical to consider in
Sara’s empowerment process. If an advocate worked with
many women like Sara and noted the at best limited impact
of their actions (as this model would encourage her to do),
she might conclude that policy changes were needed in
order to create other options for such women. The organi-
zations employing such advocates could gather information
from advocates and clients in order to lobby for such
changes. In this case, such policy changes did occur: There
are provisions under the Violence Against Women Act
(2005) that allow an undocumented immigrant married to
an abusive U.S. citizen to obtain lawful permanent resi-
dence (“VAWA Laws for Abuse Victims: Basic Info,”
2009, para. 2). This information could increase Sara’s
knowledge, which might then refine her goal. She might
wish to get citizenship in order to better protect her chil-
dren. This goal might still be at odds with the goal of the
court system, which is offender accountability; the advo-
cate’s effectiveness in supporting Sara’s empowerment
process relies on her accurate assessment and sensitive
handling of this disparity.
Applications of the Empowerment
Process Model
The empowerment process model was developed for broad
use in both research and practice and has relevance for
work toward social justice inside and outside those arenas.
Here we suggest some applications with particular poten-
Applications for Research
In general, the model can be used as a starting place to
specify the empowerment process in a particular context,
identifying the ways in which components manifest. For
example, in the pursuit of particular empowerment goals,
what are the types of knowledge required? What actions are
particular groups likely to take? In this vein, our model
differs from prior work on empowerment because of the
greater specificity of the variables making up the empow-
erment process. We hope that this specificity will lead to
more consistency among researchers, allowing for the syn-
thesis of findings across studies. Beyond exploring opera-
tionalizations of the components of the process, researchers
should test bidirectional links among them. Moderators and
mediators of those links—also sure to be context depen-
dent—should also be identified. For example, there may be
some contexts in which access to particular resources plays
a large role in moving from one component to the next.
Other potential moderators are cultural values, which we
suggested might influence the relationship between impact
and self-efficacy, and aspects of collective identity such as
perceived stigma, which may influence the link between
knowledge and action, among others (Major & O’Brien,
2005). Moderators or mediators that play a consistent role
across contexts might in fact need to be added to the model;
future research should explore the need for such elabora-
The dynamic and complex nature of the empowerment
process will present methodological challenges, and Fos-
ter-Fishman and colleagues (1998) have made the argu-
ment for constructivist methods as particularly well-suited
to the task. In areas where there has been little study of the
empowerment process, qualitative work certainly seems
like a fruitful starting point. However, because empower-
ment is a term that is used colloquially in a way different
from the one we are suggesting here, we recommend that
researchers develop questions that target the components of
the process rather than ask participants to reflect on the
term itself. In terms of quantitative methods, we recom-
mend techniques suited for longitudinal data (e.g., path
modeling, structural equation modeling). The entire model
does not need to be measured in a single study—it may be
viewed as the broader context within which a study could
fit; however, researchers must always draw from an under-
standing of the entire process in framing research questions
and interpreting results. For example, if participants’ goals
are not assessed in a study of their experience with the
empowerment process, researchers may choose to draw
from prior literature on what participants’ goals are likely
to be. In the study of women with breast cancer described
earlier (Maly et al., 2008), this would mean searching for
literature on what this population generally wants from
their interactions with doctors and how these goals connect
to larger goals related to their treatment. If this information
is not available, that is an important gap in the literature to
be filled. This recommendation differs from those in prior
literature in its explicit call for attention to the overall
conceptual frame.
Beyond the use of the model as a schematic that
researchers might elaborate in specific contexts, an addi-
tional question provides fertile ground for research: What is
the relationship between the empowerment process of one
individual and the empowerment of another individual or
group? The idea that watching similar others can influence
beliefs about one’s own abilities is a cornerstone of the
notion of self-efficacy and of social cognitive theory (Ban-
dura, 1977; Maddux, in press), and it likely plays a role in
the empowerment process as well. For example, might an
African American who not only was not involved in
Obama’s campaign but did not vote have an increase in
self-efficacy related to personally valued and power-ori-
ented goals (facilitating his or her empowerment process)
as a result of Obama’s empowerment? Bandura (1977)
described vicarious learning as more likely when the model
is similar to the observer and when the model seems to
have exerted effort in order to achieve; but others have
recently found a negative relationship between a model’s
655October 2010 American Psychologist
performance and the observer’s self-efficacy when the set-
ting was competitive (Chan & Lam, 2008). Conditions for
vicarious learning in the empowerment process should be
explored with similar attention to context. The empower-
ment process model provides a related opportunity to ex-
plore the interaction between the empowerment process at
the individual and group levels. The model focuses on
empowerment at the individual level—a similar model
describing the process at the group level would allow
researchers to investigate connections between the two.
Finally, an important and practice-relevant area for
research lies in developing an understanding of facilitators
of the process of empowerment. Researchers might evalu-
ate how interventions influence particular components of
the process, and then how those changes relate to other
components. For example, a program that focuses on skill
building might evaluate not only the impact of the program
on competence but the ways competence relates to action
and whether those actions have impact related to clients’
goals. Chronister and McWhirter’s (2006) study of career
interventions with and without a critical consciousness
element, described earlier, is a good model for such explo-
ration. Applying the empowerment process model to such
a study would mean including the other components of the
process, varying the target of intervention, and investigat-
ing the effect on goal attainment.
Application to Practice
In the context of practice, we view the empowerment
process model as relevant across a wide range of service
provision, both at the level of individual client work and for
the assessment of programs that aim generally to support
the empowerment of their clients. Table 1 lists questions
related to each element of the process that might be asked
in each of those contexts. Across these applications, the
literature on empowerment is clear on the practitioner’s
role—or rather, on what the practitioner’s role is not.
Empowerment “is not a commodity to be acquired,” and
thus cannot be given to one person by another (Kieffer,
1984, p. 27). Instead, the practitioner is in the position of
facilitating, helping to identify obstacles, and otherwise
supporting a client’s own process of empowerment, which
began before the practitioner entered the scene and will
continue to evolve after she or he exits. As Kasturirangan
(2008) put it in the context of services for domestic vio-
lence survivors, “Programs designed to address domestic
violence do not, in and of themselves, empower women.
Rather, women may turn to programs as a resource at
various stages of the empowerment process” (p. 1473).
In individual therapy, our model is likely to be par-
ticularly salient in two situations: when a therapist has an
orientation (such as feminist or multicultural) that brings
power as we have defined it to the forefront with any client
and when a therapist is working with a client for whom
power is an important issue. As we have discussed, power
disparities can exist on multiple levels. Both clients who
feel powerless on a micro level (with their families, in their
workplaces) and clients who are powerless within their
broader social context (being members of groups living
with stigma, marginalization, or discrimination) fit within
this way of thinking. A power analysis will help the prac-
titioner to identify the particular type(s) of power that the
client seeks (Gutie´rrez, 1991).
In facilitating the empowerment process, therapists
must consider the client’s prior iterations through it. For
example, if a client has tried many times to gain the power
he or she craves, these efforts will be critical for the
practitioner to understand and will be impossible to grasp
without drawing on the client’s expertise in his or her own
social context (Constantine & Sue, 2006). The model can
serve as a good rubric for the therapist—and perhaps the
client—in developing this story and where the current work
in therapy fits. It is important to note that this practice itself
could facilitate the process of empowerment by increasing
knowledge as the client articulates what the obstacles have
been, what resources are missing, and what in the environ-
ment is resistant to change. Goodman and colleagues
(2004) described the counselor’s role in this process as
being a “co-learner” (p. 801). This collaborative stance is
imperative in facilitating empowerment (Freire, 1970/
2000; Kieffer, 1984; Toporek & Liu, 2001) and is inherent
in this model.
In settings where organizations aim to facilitate the
empowerment of their clients, the model might also be used
at the level of program assessment. The questions listed in
Table 1 may be considered by organizational leadership but
are probably best addressed by a combination of practitio-
ners and clients through interviews and focus groups where
resources permit. We are not suggesting that a program
must support every element of the model in its work;
rather, in assessing what it does do, a program should
consider its place in the empowerment process as a whole.
For example, if a program is helping clients to build skills
but clients are not successfully using those skills to reach
their own goals, practice should be reconsidered. The pro-
gram should explore the obstacles to client success and
decide what its role should be in addressing them, as in the
example of Sara. In sum, consideration of the empower-
ment process as a whole should help to locate what the
program does within a larger picture.
Relevance to Social Justice
In subdisciplines such as community, liberation, critical,
and counseling psychology, there has been a call for a
focus on the social context that the process of empower-
ment highlights. Even among those who have traditionally
focused on individual-level interventions, as Toporek and
Liu (2001) have noted, “Mental health is affected by ex-
periences of oppression. . . . Counselors may need to ex-
tend beyond the intrapsychic work and begin to address the
external forces that perpetuate clients’ negative conditions”
(pp. 390–391). The empowerment process model provides
a tool for consideration of such contextual stressors and the
ways that psychologists (and others) might influence them,
whether in the therapy office, in the context of other types
of services, or through social action. When social condi-
tions create situations of powerlessness that produce pain
and suffering, many have argued that the place for inter-
656 October 2010 American Psychologist
vention is in the social context (Banyard & Goodman,
2009). Moreover, if during the use of this model, practi-
tioners repeatedly see the same obstacles stymieing clients’
efforts, it is time to address the obstacles. The model is
relevant to social justice in that it requires the identification
of these obstacles and provides a rubric for gathering
information about their impact on clients.
From the social justice perspective, a limitation of this
model is that it does not discriminate among the personally
meaningful power-oriented goals that a person may have. It
Table 1
Components of the Empowerment Process Model and Questions for Application at the Person
and Program Levels
Component What individual helpers should assess What programs should assess
Personally meaningful,
What kind of power is this person seeking?
What makes this goal personally meaningful?
How are more short-term goals related to
overarching goals?
To what extent do clients tend to have a clear
idea of their goals when they request services?
What mechanisms do we have to assess how
our services might relate to client goals?
What is the range of typical client goals?
What goals is our program designed to assist
Self-efficacy Does this person believe she or he can reach
her or his goal?
What factors contribute to this person’s sense
of self-efficacy, including the history of his
or her attempts to reach this goal, and
practical considerations?
What mechanisms do we have in place to learn
about clients’ beliefs and the context of those
Knowledge What does this person know about what is
required to reach his or her goal?
What can I teach the client about what is
needed to reach his or her goals?
What can I learn about the client’s
environment and history that will increase
my knowledge about what is needed to
reach his or her goals?
How do the power dynamics relevant to this
goal operate in this person’s life?
What do clients need to know, and how can the
clients we tend to see best learn?
What resources do clients need, and what is
their access to those resources? How can we
enhance their access to these resources?
What mechanisms do we have in place to
ensure that we learn about obstacles and
opportunities in each client’s environment?
What mechanisms do we have in place to
consider power dynamics related to clients’
Competence Does this person have the skills to do what is
Do I understand the history of this person’s
attempts to gain such skills?
Are there obstacles to gaining skills that I can
help to address?
What do clients need to be able to do, and how
can the clients we see best build these skills?
What resources are needed to support their skill
How can we increase access to these resources?
What mechanisms do we have in place to learn
about obstacles to and opportunities for skill
building in each client’s environment?
Action Is this person taking action to pursue his or
her goal?
What are the pros and cons of taking action?
Are there ways we could shift the balance?
What is the context of any choices this
person has made in the actions she or he is
What mechanisms do we have in place to
assess how pros and cons vary depending on
clients’ context?
Impact What happened as a result of this person’s
What factors influenced the impact?
How will these events influence this person’s
continuing iterations through the other
components of the process?
What is the impact of actions we encourage, or
that clients tend to take? What is the impact
on our client, on our program, and on others?
What in the environment affects that impact?
Are there ways we could influence the response
to clients’ actions?
657October 2010 American Psychologist
does not prioritize goals that maximize the empowerment
of others or at least do not trample on others’ rights. As
community-oriented psychologists, we are wary of contrib-
uting to the empowerment of some individuals at the ex-
pense of others. The formidable task of balancing rights
and responsibilities is up to the researcher and practitioner,
as outlined in the American Psychological Association’s
(2002) ethical principles. In essence, as suggested by Pril-
leltensky (1997) and McWhirter (1991) among others, it is
incumbent upon psychologists to be aware of their own
values and to consider whose rights are being prioritized at
what cost. This assessment is separate from defining the
concept of empowerment—it has more to do with where
we as psychologists would like to put our resources, which
environmental obstacles we want to tackle, and what pro-
grams we want to develop.
In this article, we have attempted to move empowerment
theory forward by introducing a model of the empower-
ment process that is flexible enough to be applied across
contexts but precise enough to synthesize across applica-
tions. We have built on prior work in identifying the core
components of the empowerment process, in describing the
process as iterative, and by incorporating both the individ-
ual and the broad social aspects of the construct. It is our
hope that this model, in addition to its practical utility, will
provide a tool for dialogue on the important issues empow-
erment raises—dialogue that will be more easily integrated
across fields and settings.
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659October 2010 American Psychologist
... Finally, whereas environmental psychology typically investigates self-reported psychological predictors, some authors challenge the discipline to additionally examine structural factors and processes, such as institutional changes (Cattaneo & Chapman, 2010;Vestergren et al., 2016;Merle et al., 2019;Nielsen et al., 2021). The aforementioned multilevel perspective by Göpel (2016) stresses the need for integrating structural factors into psychological research (Wullenkord & Hamann, 2021). ...
... In a recent opinion piece, my colleague Marlis Wullenkord and I formulated a proposal on how to situate environmental psychology constructs such as efficacy beliefs in a heuristic multilevel model by Göpel (2016), in order to raise new and more transformative psychological research questions (Wullenkord & Hamann, 2021). A number of researchers have demanded to move beyond individualistic approaches and embrace structural changes (Cattaneo & Chapman, 2010;Cattaneo et al. 2014;Rees & Bamberg, 2014). This seems especially important because factors that strongly relate to PEB might not lead to actual sustainable change (see Agostini & van Zomeren, 2021). ...
Full-text available
In the face of numerous environmental crises, empowering large groups of people seems to be a key ingredient for any socio-ecological transition. Unless people gain a sense of efficacy and believe that they can contribute to a transition, they are likely paralyzed by the dimension of environmental problems and remain inactive. In this thesis, I therefore asked the following questions: How do beliefs about efficacy relate to pro-environmental action? What factors predict efficacy beliefs? And do efficacy beliefs play a role in explaining when activism spills over to private behavior and vice versa? Taking a multimethod approach, this thesis includes an experiment, an interventional field study, a longitudinal study, and a conceptual paper. Based on self-efficacy theory and current social identity research in environmental psychology, I examined three efficacy agents (personal self-efficacy, collective efficacy, participative efficacy), two efficacy aims (direct: promote environmental protection, indirect: encourage others for environmental protection), four pro-environmental behaviors (private, indirect, public, activist), and two types of samples (environmental volunteers, non-volunteers). Three empirical manuscripts showed that people who reported more pro-environmental behavior usually had stronger efficacy beliefs (i.e., inter-individual relation). This was true for all of the investigated efficacy types. Yet, longitudinal analyses revealed that a change in efficacy beliefs did not necessarily go hand in hand with a change in pro-environmental behavior (i.e., intra-individual and longitudinal relations). Looking at specific efficacy types, self-efficacy regarding the indirect aim that one can encourage others best explained private and indirect behavior inter-individually. In a non-volunteer sample, this efficacy type also predicted activist behavior. We also found intra-individual relations of self-efficacy and private behavior. In a volunteer sample, participative efficacy was the best predictor of activist behavior both inter-and intra-individually. Associations of collective efficacy and pro-environmental behavior depended strongly on the group agent. Collective student efficacy predicted private and public intentions. Collective efficacy regarding all humanity revealed positive bidirectional longitudinal relations to private behavior. Collective efficacy regarding one's volunteer initiative lost its predictive value in all studies when participative efficacy was analyzed simultaneously. Despite their generally strong relations, efficacy beliefs did not mediate any spillover effects from private to activist behavior and vice versa. Notably, a number of correlative predictors of efficacy beliefs emerged that should be considered in future studies: social identification with a volunteer initiative, positive affect, visioning, perceived knowledge and skills, and structural factors. Moreover, private behavior was a positive and activist behavior a negative longitudinal predictor of collective efficacy regarding all humanity. In a conceptual manuscript that builds on these empirical insights, I proposed the triple-A framework of agents, actions, and aims. This framework facilitates research integration in the field of efficacy beliefs and makes suggestions on how to unfold psychology's transformative potential by considering concepts of agency. I conclude by integrating all findings into pre-existing literature, elaborating on theoretical implications, and presenting practical recommendations on the role of efficacy beliefs for socio-ecological change.
... 13)." Cattaneo and Chapman (2010) argued that empowerment focuses on personally meaningful goals and aims to enhance one's social influence to exert power in social interaction. Starting from these conceptualizations, we assumed empowerment as a process that helps people gain control over their own lives (Page and Czuba, 1999), including reduced effects of stereotypes held by a society or community. ...
... As expected, higher school empowerment was associated with lower levels of STEM-gender stereotypes in the two groups of girls regardless of the national context. Higher levels of school empowerment contribute to giving girls more control over their lives (Page and Czuba, 1999), by focusing on personal goals and enhancing their power in social interaction (Cattaneo and Chapman, 2010). This can make it easier for girls to react to the socially widespread STEM-gender stereotypes, which in contrast reduce their active self-determination and participation. ...
Full-text available
While many sociocultural, contextual, biological, behavioral, and psychological variables may contribute to the widespread under-representation of girls and women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field, this study focused on STEM-gender stereotypes, school experiences, and adolescence as critical factors in driving students' interest and motivation in STEM. Based on this, the study (a) investigated differences by gender and national context (Italy vs. Nigeria) in adolescents' STEM-gender stereotypes, school empowerment, and school engagement in a preliminary step, and (b) simultaneously examined how adolescents' STEM-gender stereotypes were related to school empowerment and school engagement as well as to socioeconomic status (SES). These latter relations were considered within the context of the potential moderating role of gender and national context. Participants included 213 Italian adolescents (Mage = 13.91; 52.1% girls) and 214 Nigerian adolescents (Mage = 13.92; 60.3% girls), who completed measures of school empowerment and engagement, STEM-gender stereotypes, and SES. A multivariate analysis of covariance showed that Nigerian girls and boys reported significantly higher levels of school empowerment, school engagement, and STEM-gender stereotypes than their Italian peers. Moreover, regardless of the national context, boys scored significantly higher on school empowerment and STEM-gender stereotypes than girls. Furthermore, a multiple-group path analysis revealed how higher school empowerment was related to lower STEM-gender stereotypes in both Italian and Nigerian girls' groups, while higher school engagement was associated with lower STEM-gender stereotypes only in the Nigerian groups. Regardless of gender and nationality, higher SES was linked to lower STEM-gender stereotypes. These findings particularly suggest that school empowerment and school engagement can be relevant dimensions to be studied and to develop strategies to counteract STEM-gender stereotypes in adolescence. Nonetheless, gender and national context are key factors to be considered. Limitations, strengths, future research, and educational implications are discussed.
... 3 Empowerment approaches often rely on experts empowering beneficiaries. These approaches may mean psychological empowerment that focuses on the skills and resources of an individual, 4 community-based empowerment highlighting societal power imbalances 5 and economic empowerment targeting the economic well-being of individuals and communities. 6 An example is the World Health Organization's (WHO) community-based rehabilitation guidelines that identify empowerment as one of the five key components of improving the lives of persons living with disabilities. ...
... The interview guide for FGDs and individual interviews were both designed based on previous literature on empowerment. 4,26,27 The interview guide was adjusted and further refined iteratively after each interview. A separate topic guide was developed for participants from WHO and Autism Speaks. ...
Full-text available
Introduction: Empowerment of families raising children with developmental disabilities (DDs) is essential to achieving rights-based service development. Methods: In this qualitative study, we investigated stakeholder perceptions on the role of advocacy and empowerment in developing caregiver interventions for families of children with DDs in a global context. Participants had experience with at least one intervention, namely the Caregiver Skills Training developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Participants were clinicians, caregivers and researchers representing five continents, and representatives of WHO and Autism Speaks. Two focus group discussions and 25 individual interviews were conducted. Data were analysed thematically. Results: Three themes were developed: empowerment as independence and as a right; the role and practices of advocacy; and using evidence to drive advocacy. Many professional participants defined empowerment within the realms of their expertize, focusing on caregivers' individual skills and self-confidence. Caregivers expressed that this expert-oriented view fails to acknowledge their intuitive knowledge and the need for community-level empowerment. Participants discussed the challenges of advocacy in light of competing health priorities. The gap between the rights of caregivers and the availability of services, for example, evidence-based interventions, was highlighted as problematic. Scientific evidence was identified as a key for advocacy. Conclusion: Rights-orientated empowerment of caregivers and advocacy may make vital contributions to service development for children with DDs in contexts worldwide. Patient and public contribution: Research questions were revised based on views presented during focus group discussions. Participant feedback on preliminary themes informed the development of the interview guides.
... To start with, although practitioners may have different understandings of the goals and meanings of parent education, the relatively high mean scores and the confirmation of the PETLQ's two-factor model indicate that participants in general support the development of a transformative learning approach to parent empowerment that pays attention to the lived experiences of parents, the influence of social and cultural contexts in parenting, and the importance of mutual support and learning among parents. One possible explanation is that empowerment, characterized by a personally meaningful, goaloriented process of increasing power in cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal domains (Cattaneo and Chapman, 2010), is widely accepted by practitioners who want to improve their parenting intervention effectiveness (Rodriguez et al., 2011;Figueroa et al., 2020). Thus, even for practitioners who are not familiar with the concept of transformative learning, they may still agree with some of the core ideas that align with empowerment. ...
Full-text available
Although current literature demonstrates how parents benefit from parent empowerment programs, the development of a quantitative measure of parent empowerment has garnered limited attention in parenting research. The goal of this research was therefore to develop and validate a quantitative measure for the assessment of practitioners’ attitudes and competence in parent empowerment. In the process of item generation, the qualitative findings derived from four studies in relation to the perceived outcomes and experiences in parent empowerment were synthesized in the first stage. In the second stage, a list of narratives that articulated different themes of parent empowerment was generated, which resulted in an item pool containing 28 items. In the third stage, the research team converted the 28 items into a survey instrument. In the fourth stage, a first-scale validation study was conducted to explore the factor structure of the initial 28-item questionnaire. The exploratory factor analysis on the first sample of 366 practitioners yielded a twofold factor structure with 17 items, including practitioners’ attitudes in parent empowerment and practitioners’ competence in parent empowerment. In the final stage, a second-scale validation study was undertaken to verify the fit of the twofold factor structure. A confirmatory factor analysis on the second sample of 170 practitioners demonstrated a good model fit. The results of reliability tests for the whole scale and two subscales also indicate satisfactory internal consistency. The Parent Empowerment via Transformative Learning Questionnaire (PETLQ) was thus developed and confirmed as a scale with sufficient factorial validity and internal consistency to be used for assessing parenting practitioners’ attitudes and competence in parent empowerment and for evaluating the effectiveness of parent empowerment programs.
... Zimmerman's framework is used extensively in the literature to understand and improve healthcare goals (Chandola et al., 2004;Goodman et al., 2004), to understand youth participation (Rodrigues et al., 2018), or other socio-political issues dealing with power imbalance among the players in any context. The process of empowerment is also defined as an active and iterative one, formed by the circumstances and the events (Cattaneo & Chapman, 2010). At its core is human endeavor attempting to shift from a passive state to an active one based on the ideas of participation and engagement (Altermark & Nilsson, 2018). ...
Governments worldwide invest heavily in digital initiatives to develop information societies with connected and actively engaged citizens, but problems like lacking sustained engagement and quality of participation still plague them. We undertook a systematised literature review on the Scopus and Web of Science (WoS) databases, covering dispersed literature surrounding Digital Citizen Empowerment (DCE) from the past two decades.Categorising the literature under four thematic categories or strategies of DCE: Digital Activism (DA), Multi-channel Service Delivery (MCSD), Participatory Budgeting (PB), and Deliberative Governance (DG) critical comparative analysis is done. A conceptual model of DCE, covering how theories from different inter-disciplinary areas of political, social, and information science influence the development of information societies and DCE is presented. Action points in our conceptual model are mapped to policy objectives targeting improved delivery of empowering policy goals by practitioners, and future research opportunities in the context of DCE are discussed.
... Definitions of women's empowerment. (Maton 2008;Cattaneo and Chapman 2010) Women's empowerment is viewed as a reinforcement for people to improve various issues that are significant for their individual and social lives. (Kurtiş et al. 2016) Women's empowerment is a perspective that calls for women to freely exercise personal choice and express individual capabilities. ...
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The area of women’s empowerment has attracted increasing attention among a wide range of interest groups, from authors to researchers to feminist scholars and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This paper aims to identify the diverse understandings of women’s empowerment in the literature and to discuss empirical evidence from NGO projects in the field. A systematic literature review is employed that includes an analysis of relevant high-quality articles and research papers published in the Scopus database, as well as those produced by United Nations (UN) bodies and well-published authors. The findings highlighted four common understandings of women’s empowerment including granting women a voice, challenging existing power structures, the radical transformation of lives and livelihoods, and gender mainstreaming. The findings of these empirical studies on the role of NGOs in this field revealed understandings limited to granting women a voice and gender mainstreaming, thus reflecting the fact that limited knowledge of women’s empowerment hampers the ability of NGOs to serve women’s advancement and sustainable development. Furthermore, and given that these approaches and understandings still fall short of achieving social inclusion for women, it is recommended that these NGOs discharge their efforts toward initiating systemic change to actually sustain female empowerment in the communities in which they are active.
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Purpose The purpose of this study is to develop an empirically informed framework to analyze women empowerment and entrepreneurship, contextualized within a collective society. Design/methodology/approach The authors conducted 15 in-depth semi-structured interviews with women entrepreneurs located in the United Arab Emirates to understand their entrepreneurial experiences and how they were empowered. Findings Findings suggest that the three aspects of power characterized as “positive” from within Rowlands’ distinctions (“power to”, “power with” and “power within”) dominate, as opposed to those emphasized in the literature (“power to” and “power over”). Findings include empowerment of the “me” (individual) also synergistically contributes to empowerment of the “we” (society), when considering empowerment within a collective society. Originality/value A psychology model was used as a basis to develop a Collective Empowerment Process Framework. This framework provides a fresh look at empowerment, allowing for explanations of how women in specific contexts experience empowerment and social change.
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Leadership is one of the essential factors that can influence community involvement in realizing the character of male and female students in the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) in Jambi, Indonesia. This study proposed Nyai’s (female religious leaders in the pesantren) charismatic, economic, and social responsibility leadership models in the context of community empowerment (CE). This quantitative research aimed to determine the contribution of Nyai’s leadership models to CE. The data from the questionnaire were analyzed using path and flowchart analysis. The results showed that the three Nyai’s leadership models in this study influenced and contributed to CE to support the pesantren’s activities and programs. This study recommended adopting the three Nyai’s leadership models in empowering the community in the pesantren.
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This study explored relationships, between race, citizen participation, and three dimensions of cognitive empowerment: understandings of power through relationships, political functioning, and shaping ideology. Results revealed that, unlike emotional empowerment, cognitive empowerment was not directly related to citizen participation, and effects of participation on cognitive empowerment did not differ for African Americans and Caucasians. Importantly, a main effect of race on cognitive empowerment was found which showed that, accross levels of participation, African Americans had greater understandings of power through relationships and shaping ideology than Caucasians, Implications for empowerment theory and practice are discussed.
This article reports the development of a self-report instrument that measures 4 components of intrapersonal empowerment for people with disabilities. Subscales are Personal Competence, Group Orientation, Self-Determination, and Positive Identity as a Person With a Disability. Psychometric data indicate that subscales are reliable and support trait validity of the instrument. All 64 items with scoring key and preliminary norms are included so that interested readers can use the instrument in research studies and assessment applications.
The trend in research on power and leadership in organizations toward greater interest in the role of followers is examined. The historical development of this trend is reviewed, along with current applications aimed at greater follower involvement in organizations. Problems and prospects of empowering subordinates are discussed, along with challenges to be met. Although power and leadership research has made notable progress in addressing questions of relevance to organizations, suggestions are offered for additional work to be done.
The theory about "empowerment" has been formulated primarily in the academy. Consumers and social work practitioners generally have not taken an active role in the theoretical development of this concept. This study examines empowerment from consumers' and social workers' point of view. Twenty focus groups composed of four different Israeli consumer populations and social workers serving them were examined. The findings reveal the significance of empowerment from the perspectives of the different groups and identify differences among the consumer populations, as well as between consumers and social workers. The perceptions of consumers and social workers about empowerment provide deeper insights into and sharper formulation of this concept. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.