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Urban Suffering Studies Center




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Benedetto Saraceno


Although the way in which the term "empowerment" is translated in different languages is not a matter of academic or linguistic interest it does, however, imply a non-neutral choice made by the translator.
Using the translation of the term empowerment as a starting point helps us to reflect on the real meaning of the word and on the important implications associated with it.
In French the most commonly used word to translate "empowerment" is "responabilisation" whilst in Spanish it is "apoderamiento". It is obvious that the French word places the emphasis on assuming responsibility, or rather, on an increase in the duties of the "empowered" subject. Two terms are in frequent use in the German language: "Mitwirkungsmöglichkeit" and "Befähigung", both of which stress the opportunities a subject is presented with, or rather, the "capacity" to do something. And in Italian? The two most common translations are "conferimento di potere" and "attribuzione di responsabilità". The former (similar to the Spanish translation) highlights the attribution of power whilst the latter (closer to the French translation) emphasises the increase in duties associated with assuming responsibility.
It is not difficult to understand how the choice of one term over another (power or responsibility) is neither neutral nor irrelevant.
It could be said that intending empowerment as a form of responsibilisation seems to reflect the attempt to keep a (paternalistic) connection between he who gives and he who receives, thus highlighting that even if we are dealing with a process in which the recipient receives something (as was the case in the first tentative octroyed constitutions or rather the ones which were "conceded" to European populations by their rulers) and this conferment is in essence a concession or a "gift".
More than anything else, this "conceded gift" implies new duties and new responsibilities and, surprisingly, the emphasis on duties overshadows the idea of assuming power. This is not, however, the interpretation of empowerment offered by those who emphasise the legal and political aspects of the "conferment of power" on a subject who is not vested with this power.
As I have already said, such distinctions are not semantic subtleties, but rather choices with important implications and I do not feel that they are given much consideration in the widespread, overused and often dogmatic use of the term empowerment in common journalistic, political and social language. Empowerment does, although dogmatically, allude to a positive notion. That is to say, it has become a politically correct term which means that it is frequently used incorrectly and has assumed a meaning which is just as positive as it is vague. Thus, the term has basically been deprived of any real meaning and does not therefore imply any real consequences. First and foremost, a term cannot automatically assume a positive connotation: are all processes of empowerment "good"?No one would automatically think that the empowerment of regional administration assessors should necessarily be considered as a positive process to pursue just as no one would ever wish for the empowerment of Stock Market traders!
a) it is necessary to better define what is intended by empowerment
b) it is necessary to specify who should be receiving this empowerment (and who should not!)
We could say that to a first approximation empowerment is a process which confers more:
a) "capacity to aspire" (according to the notion conceptualised by Arjun Appadurai)
b) "capacity to function"(according to the notion conceptualised by Arjun Appadurai)
Therefore empowerment is not so much an abstract and decontextualised conferment of power but rather the implementation of processes which promote different capabilities at the same time as acquiring assets and resources:
a) capability to aspire to....(greater well-being, greater freedom and increased power)
b) capability to acquire tools to enhance well-being, freedom and power
and, lastly
c) the acquisition of goods and resources which enhance well-being and freedom.
If taken seriously, this more articulated definition of empowerment can have important practical consequences.
If we consider some of the many formative, habilitative and rehabilitative processes aimed at the vulnerable, then we do not often appreciate a real implementation of empowerment, but rather we witness controlled paternalistic ways of conceding autonomy and resources. A paradigm which clearly illustrates the ambiguous nature of empowerment actually substituting it with a paternalistic concession can be seen in the rehabilitation of psychiatric patients: all too often they consist in the gradual, controlled and fundamentally authoritarian concession of resources and skills. The shortcomings associated with psychiatric care create chronicity, dependency, barriers, exclusion, invalidism, that is to say that it goes to create the infantilisation of those who are considered and treated as nothing more than the passive receivers of treatment and support. In other words they are treated as a "cost". Service users are infantilised because services are part of that "process of mutual immaturity which represents the great secret pleasure of mankind", as Witold Gombrowicz so cleverly put it in Ferdydurke (1)... In the invalidating and infantalising context of an institution attempts to enable rehabilitation and empowerment are destined to fail as they are unable to shed this negative stigma.
There is an ever increasing and unbridgeable divide between the world of invalidation and the world of validation, between the world of healthcare and the world of production, between the world of dependency and institutional shortcomings and the world of business, autonomy and efficiency; there is a divide between State and Market where class divisions seem to be increasingly fragile and literary, and where the divide between the strong and the weak, the well and the infirm, is becoming more and more dramatic across the classes.

"Charity" in the most obvious sense of the word (certainly not the "intellectual charity" Cardinal Martini spoke of) creates the paradigm of the controlled, paternalistic and authoritarian concession of resources and skills.
In Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians we read: "And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me. Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up;Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never falleth away".
(1Cor 12,31 - 13,13)
It is interesting to note that for Paul charity is not about the distribution of goods but about rejoicing with the truth, seeking to help others and seeking what is right and just.
However, all too often charity involves nothing more than giving away unwanted items and expecting the poor person receiving them to be grateful and use them responsibly in return. However, this authoritarian form of charity is no different from the processes of invalidating concession within any public system which, rather than promote autonomy, ability and power concedes space, time and resources, provided that they are compatible with the control and conservation of its bourgeois ratio and order: an empowerment process can only be authentic if it results in a considerable reduction of the power gap between those who have power and those who do not.
Therefore, in order to be authentic, each and every empowerment process must involve a degree of risk which we could define as the risk of freedom inherent in the conferment of skills and power to a subject. When children become more autonomous their parents perceive a risk which is correlated to the increase in freedom: empowerment increases skills, resources and power and, consequently, freedom (and every increase in freedom) increases the risks associated with making choices.
If we are to reflect upon empowerment then we must also "critically" ruminate on the processes of "liberation" which are, at times, promoted in unwittingly colonial ways or, in any case, authoritarian even within the framework of innovative and progressivist initiatives ("we know what you need"). Empowerment is often limited to a process for the transferral of resources or rights which, however, on the one hand does not question the "capacity to aspire" and on the other hand is characterised by major imbalances in terms of knowledge and power as to "what" and "how much" is transferred in terms of rights and resources.

One of the most interesting points to emerge from the animated and complex international situation during the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities is the emphasis, at times even radical, placed on the disabled person's freedom to choose (fruit of the pressure applied by users' associations in the drafting of the Convention text). Article 14 of the Convention, for instance, ensures that "any deprivation of liberty shall be in conformity with the law, and that the existence of a disability shall in no case justify a deprivation of liberty":according to the interpretation of most psychiatric patients' associations the Convention states that involuntary healthcare treatment and/or admission to an institute are under no circumstances admissible. Aside from the controversy surrounding different interpretations of article 14, there is absolutely no doubt that the articles of the Convention which relate to the right of the physically or mentally disabled (the Convention makes no distinction), the right to housing , the right to work and to education paint extremely radical pictures of empowerment which, in years to come, national and local governments, healthcare systems and individual healthcare workers will not be able to ignore. Indeed, in the coming years, the claiming of rights which have been systematically denied will become an increasingly pressing matter and turning to national and international courts will become a common occurrence. It is both possible and to be hoped that either the individual users of services for the mentally or physically disabled or organised groups of users (this seems more probable) will progressively increase the pressure they put on healthcare and rehabilitation providers to obtain greater rights, resources, power and freedom.

Ajun Appadurai's marvellously written pieces on "deep democracy" in the slums of Mumbai give vivid and clear illustrations of processes involving the development of negotiating skills as well as training in patience strategies carried out by organised groups of slum dwellers. The condition of refugee camps (which are always intended to be temporary at the outset but then become permanent), of camps where the Sinti and the Roma are forced to stay in Europe, of the so-called "sensitive" areas in French and English metropolises represent a small scale reproduction of the situation of 25% of Mumbai's inhabitants, that is to say some 4 million people.: poverty, exclusion, violence, physical and mental illnesses, reduced rights.
Nevertheless, although on a smaller scale and with or without of some of the variables which characterise the slums of Mumbai, the main problems related to the non-citizenship of these hundreds of thousands of people remain the same. The people involved are lacking in and systematically deprived of rights, of resources and of a voice. This leads to situations which feed off collective demoralisation, apathy and dependency. These can only be tackled through organised groups which enable the identification and pursuit of goals.
In this way forms of democracy which are unknown to and ignored by dominant public institutions are created regardless of how democratic they are. These "different" ways of practising democracy constitute the deep democracy Appadurai speaks about. This "democratic invention" according to the felicitous turn of phrase of Lefort implies a dynamic practice of democracy which is no longer just the ritual practice of the founding myth of democracy but its interpretation through practices which interrupt and challenge insitutional continuity forcing it to turn to the radical nature of innovation. Etienne Balibar writes about the need for the continuous transformation of democratic institutions brought about by the active citizen who "never loses sight of the link between the notions of insurrection and revolution, not just in the sense of a violent or peaceful event, which interrupts institutional continuity, but also as a process which begins over and over again and whose shape and objectives depend on historic conditions which are also constantly evolving. (E. Balibar: Cittadinanza. P.161. Bollati Boringhieri Turin, 2012).

The title of this Editorial is "Empowerment" and we have seen just how closely linked empowerment and democracy are, or rather how closely the conferment of power and resources are linked to the complex processes involved in acquiring power and resources.
There are two fronts, or even better, vectors to consider: the one relating to the institutions which confer power and resources on those who do not have any and the one relating to subjects who lack power and resources but aspire to and learn how to acquire power and resources. This twofold situation implies a permanent process of internal and external transformation which involves both institutions and citizens.
Another quote from Balibar states: "Therefore the democratisation of democracy not only entails a transformation of institutions, structures or power relations, but also the work of the citizens themselves in a given historic situation.....In Foucault's words (the subject and power) it corresponds to the shift from subjugation to subjectivation as a means of self-governing and there is nothing to say that it must remain purely individualistic"(E. Balibar: Cittadinanza. P.168. Bollati Boringhieri Turin, 2012).

Thus, discussing empowerment means discussing a permanent twofold process of liberation from one's own servitude for individuals and from the self-reproduction of the inefficient rituals of democracy brought about by institutions and citizens.
We are dealing with the democratisation of resources, knowledge and opportunities which occurs through processes of culturally and socially specific moral and political transaction whose generalisability may be possible but as of yet there is no real evidence of this.

1. Arjun Appadurai (2002), Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics. Public Culture, 14 (1):21-47.
2. Etienne Balibar, Cittadinanza. Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2012.
3. Claude Lefort, L'invention démocratique. Les limites de la domination totalitaire. Fayard, Paris 1981.
4. Amartya K. Sen, La diseguaglianza. Il Mulino, Bologna 1994.




By the same authors:                Dancing the samba while piloting a jet plane   SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography*  A Return to the Way leading to Happiness   Aporeia of empowerment  Deconstructing the paradigm of "migrant emergency"  Defend the ways of liberation  Describing reality but also changing it  Educate in complexity  Global health, local health: a paradigm of the failures of globalization   Health systems are not designed for the needs of citizens  Reject Ferocity, Not Migrants  Souqbiblio (number 1)  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography number 8  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography*  SouqBiblio: internazional annotated bibliography (number 6)  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: annotated international bibliography  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography (number 5)  SouqBiblio: international annotated bibliography (number 3)  SouqBiblio: International annotated bibliography (number 7)  SouqBiblio: internazional annotated bibliography (number 4)  SouqBiblio: References (number 2)  The association Poverty - Mental Disorders and its implications for outcome and care provision   The Confusion to be managed  The paradigm of urban suffering  Time of Siege  Urban Resistance  Verbal violence and social paranoia 

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Center for urban suffering

The study centre wishes to study the phenomenon of urban suffering, in other words the suffering that is specific to the great metropolises. Urban Suffering is a category that describes the meeting of individual suffering with the social fabric that they inhabit. The description, the understanding and the transformation of the psychological and social dynamics that develop from the meeting of ...

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The Urban Suffering Studies Center - SOUQ - arises from Milan, a place of complexity and economic and social contradictions belonged to global world.Tightly linked to Casa della Carità Foundation, which provides assistance and care to unserved populations in Milan (such as immigrants legal and illegal, homeless, vulnerable minorities), the Urban Suffering Studies Center puts attention on ...


Centro studi Souq Management commitee: Laura Arduini, Virginio Colmegna (presidente), Silvia Landra, Simona Sambati, Benedetto Saraceno ; Scientific commitee: Mario Agostinelli, Angelo Barbato, Maurizio Bonati, Adolfo Ceretti, Giacomo Costa, Ota de Leonardis,  Giulio Ernesti, Sergio Escobar, Luca Formenton, Francesco Maisto, Ambrogio Manenti, Claudia Mazzucato, Daniela ...
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