Empowerment in social work: an individual vs. a relational perspective


Dag Leonardsen, Lillehammer University College, 2626 Lillehammer, Norway E-mail: dag.leonardsen@hil.no


Social workers with only an individualistic understanding of empowerment will easily end up as moralising agents rather than as facilitators for their clients. It is in the complex interaction between a given socio-material situation and the individual capacity to interpret and act that one finds the key to an empowerment worthy of its name. This presupposes two things: that social workers have as a part of their education theoretical knowledge about organisational structures, and that they themselves have been empowered in ways that give them practical competence to act in relation to situations. They need the competence to identify the complexities of interests and power relations in society. The implication of such a recogni-tion should be clear for the education of social workers: the ideology of empowerment has to be contextualised. To discuss this topic the author makes a distinction between an individua-listic and a relational perspective and between social problems conceived of as a ‘lack of money’ vs. a ‘lack of meaning’.


Towards the end of the twentieth century ‘the sociology of worry’, or the ‘tradition of progress and cultural pessimism’ (Rasmussen, 1996), seemed to flourish. There was a burgeoning literature about welfare crisis, social exclusion and what Fukuyama (2000) called ‘The great disruption’ (for an elaboration, see Leonardsen, 2004). Jordan (1996: 21), writing about poverty and social exclusion, announced that there was ‘urgent concern to find a new cement for society’.

In this era of ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman, 2000) one can register a chaotic market for the interpretation of modern social life. Even though many scholars and politicians from different ideological camps agree that Western societies are fracturing, the situation is rather confusing regarding how to explain or understand modern society and modern social problems. Pluralism in life styles is mirrored in pluralism in the framework for interpretation. A combination of a multitude of social problems and a multitude of professions analysing the situation has resulted in a chaos of meaning universes that further escalates the confusion. Let me give just one illustration: crime prevention. In the early 1990s, fear of crime was often evoked as the most urgent social problem when people were asked to rank different political challenges. Politicians who sought (re-)election had no chance unless they addressed this topic in a convincing and confident way. In my office there are piles of reports on how to prevent crime. It would be a lie to say that these reports present a consistent message. As Young (1999: 130) declares, regarding the many varieties of panacea that have been offered to solve the crime problem: ‘Take your pick, the fashions come and go.’ All over the world, governments are struggling to find the right ‘cure’ against the evil. The way the crime problem is understood as well as the strategies for dealing with the problem are – to put it mildly – conflicting.

However, during the last couple of decades there seems to have been broad agreement among diverging schools of thought regarding the importance of empowering clients. From widely different starting points one can hear scholars as well as politicians plead the same case: in spite of good intentions the modern welfare state has come to play a ‘disempowering’ role in relation to its subjects. While the political right has tried to redraw moral borders more rigorously by focusing on individual responsibility and family values, the political left has openly admitted that ‘meaning cannot be created administratively’, that is, there are practical as well as principal limits to state intervention into people's lives. At least in Western cultures, the idea of autonomy and self-reliance as basic values in a society seem to be broadly accepted.

I feel no need to dissent from this consensus. However, as already indicated in the title of this article, my own contribution will be to introduce the essential distinction between empowerment in an individualistic and in a relational perspective. Today, ‘empowerment’ has become a catch-all buzzword (like sustainable development and preventive politics) that obscures more than it clarifies. My contention in this article will be twofold:

  • 1If social workers have nothing but an individualistic understanding of empowerment, they will end up as moralising agents, rather than as facilitators who are able to link the individual empowerment to a broader comprehension of situatedness. Furthermore, it is important to differentiate between social problems as value conflicts and social problems as a matter of social engineering.
  • 2A contextualised understanding of empowerment should be mirrored in the standards for social work education. If students are to be taught about principles of empowerment they need to practise empowerment during the education period.

It is in the complex interaction between a given socio-material situation and the individual capacity to interpret and act that one finds the key to an empowerment worthy of its name. This presupposes that social workers have, as a part of their education, not only the formal, theoretical knowledge about social and organisational structures, but that they themselves have been empowered in ways that give them the practical competence to act in relation to situations, not only in relation to abstract and context-free individuals (cf. Gillman, 1996). This also presupposes that the social workers have developed a competence to identify the complexity of interests and power relations. People whom they meet and whom they are supposed to assist will always be socio-economically and culturally situated, and this situatedness will always reflect some form of power relations. Or to echo Sartre (1991), human activity can be described as a project including a certain degree of freedom. However, the human freedom is fenced in by facticity (we are deeply rooted in socio-material structures) and by situations (any human action takes place in a situation). The implication of such a recognition is that empowerment as a project has to be contextualised (Braye & Preston-Shoot, 1995). This insight should be transmitted not only through a theoretical syllabus in the social work education, but it should become, so to speak, an ‘entrepreneurial’ and action-oriented preparedness. A professional social worker needs macro-oriented knowledge in combination with the ability to be a social entrepreneur with a good practical judgement (or what Aristotle called phronesis. For an elaboration on phronetic knowledge, see Flyvbjerg, 2001).

I would argue that confronted with the complex mosaic of modern social problems, more attention within higher education of social workers should be directed towards what Bacchi (1999) calls the ‘what is the problem’ approach. According to Bacchi (1999: 21) this approach ‘highlights the interests and commitments at stake in postulated solutions, and suggests that analysts as well as other political actors have interests and commitments here that cannot be denied’. When social workers intervene in citizens’ everyday life to ‘help’ them cope with multifarious types of problems they, of course, do not operate in a vacuum and they do not (cannot!) act without representing a specific set of values. Every solution they might present has built into it a particular representation of what the problem is. Or, as formulated by Naustadli (1974: 84),

The explanation of connections in the structure of problems at the same time tells us what are meaningful solutions and what are not meaningful solutions.... There is a dialectical relation between explanations and possibilities for change. Our pre-understanding of basic connections in society will influence how we choose to explain a phenomenon, while our way of explaining a phenomenon, to the extent that it constitutes the premise for practical action, will produce its own confirmation and thereby contribute to forming our understanding of connections in society. In reality, this is the same as saying that different ways of explaining a phenomenon will reflect different interests.

In other words, what I argue for is, in a broad meaning of the word, a politicisation of the concept of empowerment. Hellesnes (1975) has drawn an important distinction between indoctrination and politicisation: indoctrination is defined in a negative way, as a situation where students learn to understand their own situation with the thoughts of the educator. This indoctrination can be explicit or implicit, manifest or latent, but irrespective of this teaches the educand to adapt to situations that other people have arranged. Politicisation, on the other hand, implies that what is true, what is rational, has to be developed through deliberation and dialogue. Politicised people do not stick to chieftains and authorities; they think and act according to discursive rationalities. Social workers should be politicised in this meaning of the word, and they should be trained to politicise their clients so that they get competence and confidence to act upon situations. To attain such an aim, social work students themselves have to be empowered during their period of education. I shall elaborate my arguments on the next few pages by first specifying four perspectives on our understanding of social problems, and next, by relating this discussion to the global standards for social work education and training as proposed by International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW).

What is the problem?

Modern society is often described using concepts like confusing, pluralistic, anomic, risk society, liquid society and shimmering society. The world that once was united and consistent more and more appears as a chaotic melting pot of life-worlds that are hard to interpret and hard to understand. A pluralistic media structure further contributes to the confusion by presenting eclectic and scattered interpretations of modernity.

Before entering a discussion on empowerment, I find it essential to make a distinction between two sets of modern welfare problems: poverty (‘lack of money’) and psycho-social problems (‘lack of meaning’; such as mental depression, crime, drug abuse and suicide). In much of the debate regarding the way modern welfare problems should be addressed, these two sets of problems are often lumped together. However, safeguarding material life conditions presents principally a very different challenge to safeguarding and securing a social and meaningful life. Accordingly, the strategies that are needed to counteract the negative implications of material and social poverty are potentially very different.

In the chaotic market of interpretations that I referred to above, one further distinction is required, that between a harmony and a conflict perspective on how to understand modern social problems. Those who identify with the harmonising perspective apply a pluralist approach and have more of a focus on appearance than on essence, more of a focus on symptoms than on structural settings. Those who support the conflict perspective will look for the structural framework that surrounds people's actions. In the first perspective, one describes unwanted social phenomena simply as ‘problems’ or (as Mills, 1959, did) ‘troubles’, where these concepts have a pure nominalistic function. One observes what is missing and then tries to compensate for them and re-balance the situation. However, in the second perspective it is more common to talk of the relevant challenges as ‘contradictions’, and in a way that indicates a more relational perspective. Galtung and Nishimura (1975: 19) elaborate the essential distinction between problems and contradictions in this way:

To solve a problem it is sufficient to change a section or a part of a totality (‘trouble-shooting’); to solve a contradiction, however, the whole system has to undergo a qualitative change ...To overcome a contradiction it is thus necessary to break down something in order to be able to build something new – while solving of problems can be regarded as an attempt to avoid this by attacking the problem ‘locally’.

With the distinction between lack of money and lack of meaning on the one hand, and between problems and contradictions on the other, we can differentiate between four different foci regarding how to understand and discuss our subject, as shown in Table 1. From this analytical (and, consequently, simplified) overview we can look at different types of solutions that logically flow from these four categories.

Table 1.  Four different foci for discussing social welfare challenges.
Lack of moneyI) Focus on symptoms: shortage of moneyII) Focus on relations: some are rich because some are poor. Avoids demand-based selectivity
Lack of meaningIII) Focus on symptoms: individual crisis of meaning. Comfort. Support.IV) Focus on relations: what social patterns do we find? Who suffers?

1. Lack of money

Lack of money, understood as a problem, is what designates the traditional and non-radical approach. People in some kind of responsible or authoritative position observe economic inequalities that are defined as unacceptable. The problem is obvious and exists as a given fact. If people who lag behind economically are supplied with more money, the problem will be ‘solved’. This implies that an adequate solution can be found within the sphere of distribution, and, consequently, it will be outside the agenda to discuss basic power structures in society. A satisfying strategy for solving the problem will be to compensate for missing provisions. Within this approach one will both find a paternalistic conservative ideology, advocating charity and benevolence, and a moderate social democratic welfare ideology. In Norway the role of social workers has to a large extent turned into a job framed within this way of thinking: the passive disbursement of financial support. The social worker mainly occupied with pecuniary problems is a typical illustration of square I in Table 1.

2. The critical approach

This is what designates a critical approach. At a general (or macro) level it includes a perspective recommending a basic redistribution of both power and income in society. In this perspective one recognises that poor people are structurally situated in ways that make it very difficult to change their life condition in a fundamental manner without addressing broader interdependencies in society. If some people are poor, this has to be understood as the final outcome of an asymmetrical relation of interaction, and it is this asymmetry that has to be addressed if one is to have a chance of removing poverty (cf. the parallel discussion regarding rich and poor countries). While in the first perspective the challenge is a problem that can be dealt with in an isolated manner, in the second perspective poverty is the other side of affluence (Novak, 1996). Poverty as a relational challenge cannot be abolished by way of provisions from a benevolent institution. Only by attacking unjust structures of power and only by attacking unfair terms of trade in society can the mechanisms that reproduce inequality be neutralised. The essential difference between perspective I and II has been expressed thus by Camara (n.d.), ‘when I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint; but when I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist’.

However, for the social worker these macro perspectives are of little guidance in their everyday work with clients. What does perspective II imply when doing fieldwork? The answer has to be to try to counteract the Matthew effect: ‘for unto one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’ (Matthew, 25:29 regarding requests for help). Theories of availability (Schaffer & Huang, 1975) tell us that it takes resources to collect resources from public (or private) bureaucracies. The public sector receives its legitimacy from its capacity to redistribute resources in accordance with given criteria. It is by reaching out for the really needy that social workers can defend their activity. Unfortunately, the redistributive effects of bureaucratic welfare systems have been ambivalent (Goodin & Le Grand, 1987; Le Grand, 1982). There seem to exist mechanisms of selectivity regarding both demand and supply. The ideal of empowerment, of course, is to make clients independent of systems of help. However, in modern society with intensified demands regarding efficiency and performance, one has to remember that pecuniary welfare support is established as a civil right aimed at compensation. Too often, street-level bureaucrats end up as the adversary of the clients rather than their ally and partner. In short, the relational perspective regarding lack of money implies fortifying the redistributive qualities of the welfare system and safeguarding its decommodification function (Esping-Andersen, 1990). Dowling (1999: 25) points out this perspective clearly by saying, ‘if social workers are not to contribute to deepening social inequalities, they need to be aware of selection, delivery and rationing systems that can operate against the poor’. Just as higher income groups have advisers regarding the tax system, poor people should have their own special advisers. Empowerment as operative philosophy for the social worker should not be synonymous with client independence of public support systems. It should include safeguarding rights for a decent life for the less successful among us.

3. Lack of meaning

Lack of meaning, as understood in the non-radical approach, implies taking Hippocrates seriously: we should sometimes cure, often relieve, but we always comfort. People who experience their life as without meaning need human nearness and consolation. Traditionally, this has been the approach of ‘moral organisations’ such as the Salvation Army or comparable humanitarian movements. Their focus is directed towards individuals rather than social patterns (i.e. systematic variations between groups of individuals (in terms of their class, ethnicity, gender etc.), and, consequently, the remedying strategy is not contextual.

4. Finding meaning in life

Finding meaning in life could be defined as an individual project. According to the fourth perspective, however, ‘meaning’ is per definition regarded as a relational challenge. Most of all, human beings are social creatures and their identity is based on interaction with other people. It is by mirroring ourselves in the eyes of the Other, and it is by continually spending time in close company and meaningful interaction with others that people become human. This elementary sociological insight is – it might seem – often forgotten in the discussion of how to approach the modern crisis of meaning. The more we are able to move two steps back and observe how these challenges appear in a systematic way in our society, the easier it will be able to act strategically at a societal level. The moment we are able to identify patterns of illness, patterns of addictions, patterns of crimes and so on, we will be forced to extend our perspective and strategies for coping with the meaning crisis as a sociological topic. As I see it, the way different social problems appear in systematic patterns tells a silent story that should be interpreted sociologically; that is, at a trans-individual level.

Let me give but one illustration: crime is traditionally defined as a problem that is attacked at the individual level. I accept that crime is an action carried out by responsible actors who should take responsibility for their misdeeds. However, if we, at the societal level, define crime as a conflict, we immediately add a relational perspective, where many more questions than that of individual morality are brought into the discussion. In the same way that one could argue that some people are poor because some are rich, one can argue that some people experience a crisis of meaning because some define social and communal life as the aggregate effect of individual, rational choices. The last perspective is nothing but a pure Adam Smith ideology: we reach the common best by maximising individual freedom of choice. The alternative way of seeing things would be to argue in the manner proposed by Hirsch (1976: 177):

Rather than the pursuit of self-interest contributing to the social good, pursuit of the social good contributes to the satisfaction of self-interest. The problem is that the latter pursuit needs to be deliberately organised under existing standards and instincts of personal behaviour. So the invisible hand is presently unavailable where it is newly needed.

What does this rather abstract perspective imply for social workers desiring to empower their clients? Being well aware of running the danger of over-simplifying a rather complex topic, let me briefly say this. I take the rise of the communitarian movement in Western societies as an indication of the ‘individual freedom gained vs. the community lost’ syndrome (Leonardsen, 2004). As the market society has gained impetus over the last couple of decades, it is no surprise that indications of atomisation and alienation appear. Certainly, those who have the human capital it takes to make the most of the competitive society have much to gain within this system. However, an increasing minority in Western societies will almost certainly discover that a loss of human capital soon turns into a loss of social capital. Withdrawal and isolation will be the logical consequences. Empowering people who experience the accompanying loss of meaning must address the social and relational aspect of this crisis. This means that building networks and creating alliances among the excluded should gain the most attention. The logical strategy following from this type of perspective should be to support the establishment of self-help groups and at the same time stimulate these people to act as an organised group.

With this somewhat schematic classification into two ways of interpreting social challenges (as problems vs. contradictions) and two ways of categorising these challenges (as a lack of money vs. a lack of meaning), we can address the main analytical topic of this article: a discussion of empowerment in an individualistic vs. relational perspective.

Empowerment in an individualistic vs. relational perspective

As Humphries (1996) correctly observes, over the past 10 years or so a plethora of books and articles on empowerment have appeared. These books have largely represented empowerment in reductionist and simplistic ways, implying that empowerment is simply a matter of will, either on the part of those who are disempowered, or on the part of those in a position to empower. In much of this literature, there is an absence of any context for discussions of empowerment or any questions as to why empowerment is a concept claimed by advocates right or left of the political spectrum, or as to its popularity at this historical moment.

The burgeoning literature on empowerment has made this statement more controversial today than it was 10 years ago. Not the least due to feminist and post-modernist research on women's empowerment (which holds by far the most uniform theoretical perspectives) reductionist perspectives have been challenged (Benhabib, 1992; Fawcett, Featherstone, Fook & Rossiter, 2000; Presser & Sen, 2000). The continual focus in this research on questions related to oppression, the possibility of ‘innocent’ knowledge and preconditions for political change, has challenged a simplistic and taken-for-granted conception of what social work is all about. As Rossiter (2000: 24) notes:

[P]ostmodern feminism has undermined the conventional rationality of social work at two basic levels. It has initiated a crisis of knowledge, raising such questions as ‘how do we know what we know?’ and ‘what authorises social work's claim to special knowledge?’ It has also produced a crisis of identity as the postmodern critique casts doubts on social work's historical assumption about the innocence of providing help.

Rossiter adds that progressive social work shares a great deal of the political intentions of feminism. I sympathise with this statement and want to define the present article as a contribution to the debate on critical social work. As Parsloe (1996) shows, empowerment is a slippery concept that is open to manipulation by different ideologies. Within a critical social science one has to go beyond micro-oriented perspectives and ask if empowerment in the context of social conservatism means exactly the same as empowerment would mean in a more radical context. If not, where would the essential demarcations go? Let me proceed in this discussion by returning to Table 1 introduced above.

Empowerment in the non-radical meaning

When I talk about a discussion on empowerment that might suffer from a possible individualistic fallacy, it is obviously the left column in the Table 1 I have in mind. Within this conceptual universe a voluntaristic ideology dominates, implying that a more or less moralistic undertone is revealed.

Let me first comment on square I.

I have described modern society as a threshold society. By this I mean a society where labour markets tend to become more and more closed, demanding increasingly better qualifications for job-seekers. If one does not possess the right human capital, one is all too easily excluded from all types of market-generated incomes and forced to turn to public welfare or charities. To the extent that modern society corresponds to the above description, it becomes ethically problematic to force an empowerment argument on economic questions. Anderson (1996: 22) gives a good illustration of this point:

An individual approach that failed to address root causes occurred in a programme with women living in poverty in the USA offering training in budgeting skills, job searching, stress management and nutrition (Thurston, 1989). It failed to consider how ‘budgeting’ an inadequate amount of money, searching for non-existent jobs, and knowing about nutrition while being unable to buy adequate food, could simply add to the stress the women were being trained to manage. This tendency to individualise and pathologise just response to unjust situations sees the problem lying with feckless and inadequate individuals who are in poverty because of their own deficiencies, rather than questioning the structures that inevitably lead to haves and have-nots.

Of course, the ideal is that people are able to provide for themselves, but this argument can primarily turn out to be a crack of the whip within the existing structure of modern society. When the structural framework seriously restricts the universe of potentialities one should become very aloof in the language of empowerment. Or rather, one should be very clear as to what one precisely means when one argues for empowerment in this regard. And to be even more explicit, the New Right argumentation, maintaining that each individual should take more responsibility in finding a job, becomes problematic, due to the structural conditions that surround those possessing human capital that is not in demand (cf. project vs. facticity and situation, in Sartre's [1991] terminology).

Next (square III), one could argue that in the modern Western world, problems of meaning have become, if not the main, at least the most complicated social challenge to address. If there has been a plethora of books on empowerment in the last few decades, the same should be said regarding books on trust, community and social capital. As already mentioned, there is broad agreement that meaning cannot be created administratively. Some will even argue that public involvement regarding how people should live their lives will function counter-productively. Public responsibility and well-meaning professions will kill, rather than stimulate, individual responsibility (see the telling title, Disabling professions by Illich, Zola & McKnight, 1977). Consequently, the answer should be empowerment, rather than public and professional support. By ‘public and professional support’ I am talking about the classical Weberian perspective (bureaucratic professionalism based on the careful management of expert knowledge) and not about some of the feminist writers (Fawcett et al., 2000; Presser & Sen, 2000; Worell & Remer, 1992) and postmodern perspectives (Foucault, 1980, 1989), taking either community work/civil society and/or facilitator approaches as their starting point.

However, people are situated differently in social and material terms. If the general message to groups of people experiencing some kind of meaning crisis is little more than empowerment, one offers them responsibility without power. If the discourse on empowerment conceals continued class, race and gender exploitation, one will end up blaming victims who have few chances of breaking their chains. There is an important distinction between power to (the capacity to act) and power over (dominion or domination) (see Anderson, 1996), and the debate on empowerment should pay due attention to how capacity to act is closely linked to economic and political power.

To the extent that empowerment is interpreted as an individual project, one misses two essential facts: (i) that human beings are social beings, and as such they are dependent on others, and (ii) that social life worlds are socio-materially situated, which implies that groups of people have widely differing chances of living what we vaguely call a meaningful life (which is not synonymous with an affluent life). Unless advocates for empowerment pay due attention to these two statements one will end up in an individualistic and moralistic trap.

If we turn to square II (lack of money as a contradiction), the main message regarding empowerment is that social clients are people who are often regarded as having a low value – both in their own eyes and in others. In a market society, having a low value is synonymous with not being noticed. As a consequence, this turns the low value into an even worse situation: no value.

Today there is a real conflict between a very demanding economic and technological structure on the one side, and individuals with more practical than theoretical qualifications on the other. Unfortunately, there is not much discussion on the social, ethical and political implications of this mismatch. The simplest solution, of course, is to increase the demands placed on the labour force: improve its human capital (which often means theoretically) and improve its efficiency. Is this what is meant by empowerment in this regard?

To me, a more adequate answer would entail giving clients as a collective group increased confidence, such as valuing themselves more highly. Empowerment should mean recognition of value as a politically defined concept. It is not a kind of natural logic that distributes scarce resources the way this is done today. A deeper knowledge of this among groups that have a low status in the labour market would contribute to a type of empowerment that I would define as essential. The solution of the poverty problem is not very different from the solution of the affluence problem. Economic challenges have to be solved as economic challenges, not as campaigns against individuals to lift themselves by their own bootstraps. ‘In so far an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unemployment becomes incapable of personal solution’ (Mills, 1959: 16–17).

Finally, let us turn to square IV. Since the Chicago School it has been common knowledge in sociology that social problems have a socio-demographic dimension. In Oslo, the relative difference in illness between the west (rich) and the east (poor) is more or less the same today as one hundred years ago (Toresen & Brevik, 2004). Bus drivers and sales staff living in the eastern part of the city have essentially a shorter life expectancy than lawyers and doctors on the western side, and westerners have significantly fewer social problems. What implications should this type of information have regarding empowerment?

As Mills (1959) emphasised, it is important to differentiate between issues and troubles. Issues are matters that transcend the local environment of the individual and concern the broader society and its structure. Troubles, on the other hand, have to do with private affairs; values cherished by an individual and felt to be threatened. To the extent that a crisis of meaning exists as a broader sociocultural phenomenon we should confront this as an issue. How do we attack such a task? Mills points out that issues often involve a crisis in institutional arrangements in a society, and that such crises should often be read as a contradiction or an antagonism. In other words, we are talking about relational or contextual challenges. Such challenges are supra-individual; they belong to structures out of the reach of single individuals. Black people in the US have succeeded in abolishing much of the oppression they experienced some decades ago. Women in Western countries have also succeeded in their fight for formal equal rights. Gay people are on the political agenda with their demands. To the extent that they have been successful it has been qua groups and by acting on behalf of a collective interest. It is via collective action that issues can gain momentum.

Poor people, on the other hand, have not been very successful in the Western world over the last 20 to 30 years. One reason is related to a basic characteristic of this group: it is, to use Sartre's (1991) concept, a ‘series’– not a group. There are few things that unite people in poverty, and therefore they have not developed a collective identity. To be able to act collectively requires being united and having a common definition of the situation. If a meaning crisis exists as a general problem, this problem has to be addressed as a challenge to create a collective consciousness that might prepare for collective action. Empowerment regarding this question is consequently related to the ability to organise and ‘educate’ people so that they can abolish the oppressive framework.

Consequences for the education of social workers

From the above discussion, the following can be learnt: first of all, that empowerment as a strategy to support people in need of help has to pay due attention to economic, political and cultural structures that limit an individual's freedom to choose. These structures are hard to manipulate for social workers in their practical activity and it is far from obvious how the practitioner should relate to this framework. The importance of safeguarding a preventive perspective in social work is certainly broadly accepted, but it is not easy to be precise about what it actually means. Expectations directed to the practitioner can easily be exaggerated in this regard and more attention and effort should be directed to the question: what does a relational perspective on empowerment imply for the education of social workers?

During the last years the International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Federation of Social Workers have invested much time and energy in working out global standards for social work education and training (IASSW/IFSW, 2005). Their goal has been to arrive at ‘an agreed set of standards whereby high quality training could be assured’ (IASSW/IFSW, 2004: 1). Since this is a document that tries to set a professional agenda for social work I will relate my principal argumentation above to some of the main perspectives in this document.

A number of points are proposed for the core purpose of social work IASSW/IFSW focus (abbreviated version):

  • • to include marginalised people
  • • to address and challenge barriers, inequalities and injustices in society
  • • to enhance well-being and problem-solving capacities among people
  • • to encourage people to engage in advocacy with regard to pertinent concerns
  • • to advocate changes in those policies and structural conditions that maintain people in marginalised, dispossessed and vulnerable positions, for and with people
  • • to work towards the protection of people who are not in a position to do so themselves
  • • to engage in social and political action to impact social policy and economic development, and to effect change by critiquing and eliminating inequalities
  • • to enhance harmonious societies and promote respect for cultures, ideologies and religions.

In general, I support the values expressed in this list and I have little to add as long as we stick to purposes and what we could call the policy aims. Chambon and Irving (1999: 265–66) argue convincingly that the profession of social work has ‘to examine the functions served by our discipline and the consequences of our services’. The global standards developed by IASSW and IFSW mirror such an acknowledgement. Social workers can never become neutral and disengaged benefactors in a society of inequalities and injustice. The core values represent the logical recognition of such a position, and they raise high expectations for future social workers.

I have two critical and supplementary remarks to the IASSW/IFSW document; one related to the stated core values, and one related to how these standards may be reached. The first question relates to what is being passed on to social work students, the second is about how ideas and knowledge are imparted, that is, an educational question.

To avoid the classical burn-out syndrome that often hits social workers, it is important to adapt our ambitions to a realistic evaluation of our capacities. In that case we have to recall how social problems often should be regarded as value conflicts (Leonardsen, 2004). As noted by George and Wilding (1985: 118), ‘the economic system and the welfare system, therefore, require and depend on quite different value systems’. This means that there is no social engineering solution to this type of problem as long as they refer to the macro level. Value conflicts can only be solved in the sphere of moral choice. Or, as Worell and Remer (1992: 52) emphasise when writing on empowerment for women, ‘changes in sociocultural structures and practices must occur if women's health needs are to be addressed’. Social workers, qua professionals, will often have to confront value-related dilemmas, but they should not be encumbered with expectations to solve the type of value conflicts that really belong to the sphere of politics (i.e. the fundamental framing of everyday life situations). In short, social work education has to help students clarify what it means in practical life to fight barriers, inequalities and injustices that exist in society. To the extent that social problems are expressions of deeper economic, organisational and technological pressures, these pressures cannot be abolished by some ingenious empowerment strategies. By saying this I am not arguing for a separation in social work between a practical, instrumental agency and value-infected political work. Such a separation is neither desirable nor possible. However, it is urgent in educating social workers to bring forward the unequivocal message that some types of problems should be addressed through their trade unions or interest organisations and some types of problems can be dealt with in the sphere of client-based professional social work. This, I think, should be stated more explicitly in the IASSW/IFSW document. Today, there is too much vague and non-obliging political rhetoric about the importance of giving priority to preventive work rather than repairing, and the conceptions of empowerment are too vague.

Moving from the question of what (the content of education) to the question of how (the principles of pedagogy) my main message is that if students of political science are to learn about democracy they should be educated within a fully democratic university or college. Correspondingly, if students of social work are to learn about empowerment they should practice their role as students in a fully empowered way. This is nothing but an application of the principle of correspondence between theory and practice.

If we want to understand the quality of an educational programme it is not enough to study the core values, the syllabus, the curriculum and the lectures. As is well known from organisational theory, any educational institution has a hidden curriculum implanted in the organisational structure. If social work students learn (theoretically) about empowerment while studying within a hierarchical and undemocratic organisational structure, the final outcome will most certainly be disappointment. This acknowledgement is probably not very controversial. However, if this statement is taken to its full consequence I would guess that social work education and training around the world would need some important revisions. If ‘the pedagogics of the oppressed’ (Freire, 1995) is introduced not only as a theoretical perspective but as a principle for practical organisation of life on campus, then students would experience a more integrated, corporeal experience of learning.