Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Empowerment: What exactly does that mean?

Empowerment is the word of the day in the academic setting. People empower themselves in everyday life, by resisting the structures of oppression. Computer users empower themselves by resisting the given softs and hards and creating new things. Consumers empower themselves by choosing not to give in to advertising. Women empower themselves by wearing high-heels and make-up for themselves, and not for the male gaze. And the list goes on and on...

Empowerment is posh. I'm not sure where it came from, but someone should do a genealogy of the concept. I'm willing to bet though that Gramsci's notion of 'hegemony' and Foucault's notion of 'resistance' played quite a big role in boosting 'empowerment. Michel De Certeau famously popularized the idea of 'strategies and tactics' in everyday life power/resistance.

But where resistance has sense, empowerment fails to convince me. In a recent research on gender in virtual worlds, I felt that the empowerment one can take out of being in virtual environments in respect to one's gender identification can - at best- be described as subjective (both in terms of recognition and effects) and limited. Such empowerment hardly has any impact on the material infrastructure or the given norms of the social environment.

In fact, I am not sure 'empowerment' is the right word: just because you take your moment of pride, of liberation, does that empower you? Does that allow you to act differently in the world? Does that give you a say in decision making that affects you?

Say the people in your community suspect for some time the industry next door is bringing a plague to them: cancer. Say they took their precautions, they resisted the industry in every way they could - but the law, the institutional setting places constraints on them. Say the experts find out that indeed the industry next door is polluting and can be linked to the unusual incidence of cancer rates in this commmunity. In my mind, when your life is endangered by man-made things that can be removed (at a cost, I agree), that's quite a huge thing. So, in an ideal world, people have the right to life (and this includes, to me, the right to a healthy life). What happens? Well, nothing so far. We need more reports. We need more info. We are unsure that the link is indeed causal, yadda-yadda, blah, blah. Read the rest for yourself here.

Exactly where is the empowerment? Yes, maybe (but maybe not) you have the means to move out of that community. Maybe you resist the industry next door, you refuse to buy their products, you lobby against their polluting the environment. And yes, you blog, you post comments on stuff, you participate in the town hall meetings, cause - hey! - that's your moment of power, the exercise of your democratic, civil rights. Does that empower you? I must have the wrong definition of empowerment in mind, cause it seems rather futile and helpless to me...

Photo credits: Dominic

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