When individuals or groups are low in power, they tend to be low in any kind of power one might have: They receive little positive attention from others, they are not trusted, they lack access to material resources, they are subject to violence and exploitation, they have little authority and rarely occupy positions of authority, they suffer poor health and impoverished and dangerous living conditions, and are often discriminated against by institutions and norms (e.g., Pratto, 2016; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). When people desire to reduce such abject conditions, they often speak of reducing inequality. A different way of understanding that is to figure out how people who are low in power can gain access to the things they need, as well as to have more autonomy, available positive choices, security, legitimacy and respect from others (Pratto, 2016). In a word, how can people empower themselves, even if they begin with relatively little power? 

Empowerment has conceptual roots in social and political movements for equality, peace, and justice (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004; Rappaport, 1981). Empowerment is an active process used by individuals, organization, and communities in order to gain greater agency, control, efficacy, power, and “social justice.” In community psychology, the theory of empowerment has been defined as “a group-based, participatory, developmental process through which marginalized or oppressed individuals and groups gain greater control over their lives and environments, acquire value resources and basic rights, and achieve important life goals and reduced societal marginalization” (Maton 2008, p. 5). The theory of empowerment has been used in health promotion work (Earnshaw, Bogart, Dovidio, & Williams, 2013; Thompson, Molina, Viswanath, Warnecke, & Prelip, 2016) and in social movements and interventions that highlight the importance of efficacy in establishing societal change (Hope, Keels, & Durkee, 2016; Rosenthal, 2016). 

If one understands low empowerment, and disempowerment, as due to systemic oppression, then one understands that empowerment also has many facets. For example, what is called  “individual empowerment” focuses on one person’s perspective, and treats empowerment as a personality variable rather than an agent for social change. In contrast, psychological empowerment is often theorized as a multidimensional construct, comprised of behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and relational components, even if it is sometimes measured  at the individual level (see Zimmerman, 1990). Psychological empowerment does not neglect ecological and cultural influences. Here are some “components” of psychological empowerment:

  • Behavioral empowerment refers to actions, be they individual or collective, that are taken in order to influence and gain control of environments. 
  • Emotional empowerment often refers to perceived self-efficacy and motivations to control the environment. This component is conceptualized in terms of individuals’ feelings or perceptions that they can take action against one’s environment and that their actions can result in the intended outcome; oftentimes measures as socio-political control. 
  • Cognitive empowerment surrounds a critical awareness of the beliefs, behaviors, and practices that shape one’s society. 
  • Relational empowerment deals with interpersonal relationships and one’s relationship with their social environment and how this, in turn, influence other psychological empowerment processes. 

More broadly, Cattaneo and Chatham (2010) propose that empowerment must occur from a larger group of people, from their positions in their communities and societies. They say that there must be community changes to empower individuals and communities within broader settings. They also argue that any given processes of empowerment might prompt different other processes of empowerment. 

Specifically, they suppose that individual psychological processes of empowerment that can feed into each other are knowledge, a sense one can be effective, and competence (being capable). They posit that such processes can occur as a person interacts within his or her environment, and the social context for each person is necessary to understanding how and why a person might become more empowered, or is disempowered. For example, with feedback, a person’s skills and knowledge can improve. As a person takes action, she or he learns what helps accomplish goals and what does not. Being able to achieve one goal might encourage a person to set another goal, and the psychological tools for being empowered will be strengthened. Further, use of those tools will change one’s social context (and therefore that of other people).

Even more broadly, Felicia Pratto (2016) offers an ecological perspective on empowerment, conceptualizing empowerment as a state of being able to achieve one’s goal and differentiates empowerment from the closely related constructs of agency and social control. An ecological perspective on empowerment can be used to better understand social organization, social change, justice, and how increases in power can reduce inequalities. Pratto (2016) details how one’s degree of empowerment depends on individuals' capacity to meet their goals and the affordances provided by one’s social and environmental ecology to aid in one’s goal pursuit. In this way, empowerment can be used to understand people’s life conditions and their overall well-being.


Cattaneo, L. B., & Chapman, A. R. (2010). The process of empowerment: A model for use in research and practice. American Psychologist, 65(7), 646-659. doi:10.1037/a0018854

Christens, B. D., Winn, L. T., & Duke, A. M. (2016). Empowerment and critical consciousness: A conceptual cross-fertilization. Adolescent Research Review, 1(1), 15-27.

Earnshaw, V. A., Bogart, L. M., Dovidio, J. F., & Williams, D. R. (2015). Stigma and racial/ethnic HIV disparities: Moving toward resilience. Stigma and Health, 1(S), 60–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/2376-6972.1.S.60

Hope, E. C., Keels, M., & Durkee, M. I. (2016). Participation in Black Lives Matter and deferred action for childhood arrivals: Modern activism among Black and Latino college students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 203.

Maton, K. I. (2008). Empowering community settings: Agents of individual development, community betterment, and positive social change. American journal of community psychology, 41(1-2), 4-21.

Peterson, N. A., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2004). Beyond the individual: Toward a nomological network of organizational empowerment. American journal of community psychology, 34(1-2), 129-145.

Pratto, F. (2016). On power and empowerment. British journal of social psychology, 55(1), 1-20. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12135

Rappaport, J. (2002). In praise of paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention. In A Quarter Century of Community Psychology (pp. 121-145). Springer, Boston, MA.

Rosenthal, L. (2016). Incorporating intersectionality into psychology: An opportunity to promote social justice and equity. American Psychologist, 71(6), 474-485.

Thompson, B., Molina, Y., Viswanath, K., Warnecke, R., & Prelip, M. L. (2016). Strategies to empower communities to reduce health disparities. Health Affairs, 35(8), 1424-1428.

Zimmerman, M. A. (1990). Taking aim on empowerment research: On the distinction between individual and psychological conceptions. American Journal of community psychology, 18(1), 169-177.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think the first steps should be if a group wants to empower itself?
  2. Can people who are not in a group help to empower those in a different group that seeks empowerment?
  3. Are petitioning or protesting others, such as government authorities, ways for a low-power group to empower itself? Why or why not?
  4. How can empowerment lead to engagement in collective action and political participation?
  5. Does empowerment benefit different subordinated and marginalized groups (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, gender minorities) in the same ways?
  6. In today’s political discourse, where do we see instances of empowerment for minority groups? Where do we instances of disempowerment? 

Additional Materials and Resources:

TED Talk: How empowering women and girls can help stop global warming

Project: Empowerment  http://researchforempowerment.com/

Class Exercises

What does empowerment mean to you? How do you define it?

Remember a time that somebody had power over you or you were subordinated but felt like you were able to get what you needed/do what you want to do. What feelings and thoughts were associated with that?  Does this experience fit your perception of empowerment?

Additional Resources

Power vs. Personal Empowerment | Psychology Today

WHO Suggestions for Community Empowerment

Building Healthy Communities