Empowerment as Ceremony
Many people in the United States are poor, lead marginal lives, and need jobs as well as basic services such as education, medical care, and housing. Multitudes in other parts of the world, in addition to being poor, are jailed, tortured, and killed for being members of the wrong ethnic group or expressing political opinions. Those who argue for empowerment claim it is a magic bullet. It can liberate the oppressed, largely through self-organization, self-motivation, self-invention, and even self-clarity.
William M. Epstein sees contemporary empowerment practice in the United States as a civic church of national values, one better in performing its ceremonial role than god-based houses of worship. By itself, empowerment is not worth the effort of commentary, since it achieves none of its goals and has not even generated a respectable critical literature. But Epstein argues that empowerment practice and American social welfare both embody prescriptive cultural preferences. Like art and music, empowerment opens windows into deeper social meaning.
The social sciences have carved out roles for themselves by looking for simple remedies, ones that are inexpensive and compatible with contemporary social arrangements. Epstein shows that those in social work practices have not only deluded themselves into thinking that these services have real instrumental value, but really operate at cross-purposes. This accessible work will attract critical attention among these professional groups. It bases its carefully-documented insights upon informed sociological and anthropological theory.
“For decades the human service professions have been enthralled with empowerment practice, mistaking talk therapy and personal adjustment for an effective challenge to socioeconomic inequality. Empowerment as Ceremony aims to end that romance. Epstein’s trenchant analysis traces the revolutionary roots of the idea of empowerment to its degeneration into a deeply conservative accommodation to the status quo through small scale self-help, encouraging adaptation to social norms, consciousness raising, and re-education. He challenges the usefulness of empowerment practice on historical, ideological, and empirical grounds. This bracing critique takes few prisoners and those it confines for questioning are not treated kindly. Empowerment practice, he argues, does not challenge the ruling class, but rather serves ceremonial functions by engaging in the ‘literary theatrics of liberation.’”
—Stuart A. Kirk, professor emeritus, Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA
“Social work as a field has focused on empowerment rather than self-efficacy. Dr. Epstein’s thoughtful and provocative consideration of the problems with the use of the construct of empowerment takes the reader a long way towards understanding why social work has suffered from pursuing this path.”
—Gary Holden, Ph.D., professor, New York University Silver School of Social Work