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Empowerment unmasked: welfare professionals and the reluctant exercise of state power

Wainwright, David (1996) Empowerment unmasked: welfare professionals and the reluctant exercise of state power. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.86241) (KAR id:86241)


This study employed the methods of critical ethnography to examine the phenomenon of 'empowerment' as it occurred in a south London community project. The initiative aimed to form a partnership between welfare professionals and loca people, in order to identify the health needs of the population, as a basis for collective action to address the social, economic and environmental influences on health. However, this strategy proved unsuccessful and the focus of the project shifted towards the psychological empowerment of individual participants, and the provision of social support and health advice at a Drop-in Center.

By combining a detailed ethnography of the community project with a broader historical and structural critique of empowerment, the study aimed to appraise the emancipatory potential of the phenomenon. Key themes of the research were: the extent to which such initiatives could produce emancipatory knowledge, whether th exercise of professional power could be dismantled, and the effect that empowerment would have on the consciousness and practical activity of participants.

It was found that despite their subjective commitment to an emancipatory agenda, the welfare professionals' location within the state effectively neutralised the emancipatory potential of empowerment. Rather than producing a highly mediated social critique capable of informing emancipatory activity, the initiative produced a positivist needs assessment aimed at influencing local statutory agencies. Instead of generating critical consciousness amongst its lay participants, the project further subordinated them to professional surveillance and regulation, and created a culture of low expectations and authoritarianism. It was concluded that the professionals' self-identity made them the unwitting bearers of state-power, and that despite their subjective commitment to empowering people they were unable to participate in genuinely emancipatory activity.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.86241
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 09 February 2021 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Uncontrolled keywords: Local community involvement; Health needs
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Divisions: Divisions > Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice > School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 29 Oct 2019 16:37 UTC
Last Modified: 20 Dec 2022 08:35 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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