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A Working Definition of Empowerment

Judi Chamberlin


"Empowerment" is a term that has become very popular in mental health services (at least in the United States). Nearly every kind of mental health program claims to "empower" its clients, yet in practice there have been few operational definitions of the term, and it is far from clear that programs that use the term are in any measurable way different from those that do not. Still lacking a definition, the word has become common political rhetoric, with a flexibility of meaning so broad that it seems to be in danger of losing any inherent meaning at all. Some conservative U.S. politicians have promoted welfare "reform," for example, by claiming that cutting off benefits will "empower" recipients (who would thus, presumably, become self-sufficient)! Such usages make it difficult to claim that "empowerment" is a meaningful concept. The problem of using the term meaningfully becomes even more problematic in other countries and other languages. When I have spoken abroad, I find that the word is usually not translated; the translator merely repeats "empowerment," in English, perhaps hoping that the listeners will be able to draw some meaning from the context. Nonetheless, I believe that the term can have real meaning, and that the first step in making it meaningful is to define it.


Chamberlin, Judi. 2013. A Working Definition of Empowerment. Retrieved from,

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Contributed on 10/25/2013

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