Lemay, Marie-Pier (2017). 'Conceptualizing Relational Empowerment as Power-with' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Within the development scholar community, it is now a commonplace to deplore the depoliticization and neoliberalization of empowerment in the development industry. While its origins can be traced back to grassroots and radical social movements, the empowerment discourse has become a means to reinforce a transnational neoliberal status quo (Barry-Shaw and Oja Jay 2012; Batliwala 2007; Calvès 2009; Cornwall 2016; Cornwall and Rivas 2015; Hickel 2014; Mosedale 2005; Parpart, Rai, and Staudt 2003; Sardenberg 2009; 2010; Sharma 2008). Several development scholars claim that the concept of empowerment has reached a turning point, suggesting that either it should be more clearly defined, or simply abandoned (e.g. Batliwala 2007). As a way out of this impasse, numerous development scholars influenced by the capability approach have developed a relational reading of empowerment, which seeks to go beyond a merely individual notion of empowerment (e.g. Cornwall 2016; Drydyk 2013; Khader 2015; Koggel 2009). As Koggel notes (2013), having a relational reading of empowerment implies two main aspects: a) empowerment must be understood as a means to challenge oppressive social structures and b) empowerment must be understood by paying attention to the embeddeness of disempowerment in social and institutional norms and traditions. This relational reading of empowerment thus seeks to put concerns about interlocking power dynamics at the centre of empowerment discourse. The concept of relational empowerment then brings to the fore the political dimensions of collective empowerment.

            In this paper, I wish to contribute to this new emerging reading of empowerment, as it seems to be the most promising way to meaningfully redefine empowerment. I aim to develop and systematize the aspect of relational empowerment that is linked to power-with (i.e. the power to act in concert), which has not been fully explored. To do so, I will use the insights from the literature on empowerment by feminist development scholars in the early 1990s, which merit more attention. In the last part of my paper, I will suggest that this relational understanding of empowerment could be put into closer dialogue with the other emerging literature on collective capabilities. Indeed, I will suggest that collective capabilities could be understood as a dimension of relational empowerment.

            I will begin my paper by engaging with the distinction suggested recently by Drydyk (2013) between agency and empowerment, where agency, understood in an individualistic sense, is contained in empowerment, but empowerment is more about changing structures. As he writes: “empowerment must be concerned not only with expanded agency but also with removing gaps and barriers between people’s agency and the expansion of their well-being” (Drydyk 2013, 254). This is then the major idea of the relational empowerment framework, which is broadly the idea that empowerment must be rooted in a social and political context. The relational aspect of empowerment involves paying attention to women’s self-understanding or the hidden reasons that explain women’s disempowerment, such as traditions and familial structures, which could constrain their possibilities for action (Koggel 2013). Choices must then be reconsidered in light of the circumstances that shape them (Khader 2015). Thus, relational empowerment means to pay attention to the local context, but also to how global structures influence and shape the possibilities for empowerment (Koggel 2008; 2009). Such an account will be attentive to the way that other levels of power dynamics impact the purely local aspects, particularly how economic globalization shapes opportunities. Some similarities arise when we compare this emerging literature with the influential writings on empowerment from the 1990s (Batliwala 1994; Kabeer 1994; Rowlands 1997) where empowerment was understood as an “imbrication of the personal and the political” (Cornwall 2016, 344).

            However, when we compare the recent relational empowerment framework with the influential writings on empowerment from the 1990s, we may remark that power-with has been curiously neglected in the recent literature.  When the notion of collective empowerment is discussed, it is in the context of being aware of the complexities and challenges of collective empowerment, with respect to minorities within marginalized groups experiencing difficulty expressing themselves (Drydyk 2013). As shown by postcolonial and intersectional insights, it could be difficult to adequately conceptualize a notion of solidarity that will not homogenize groups or encourage intragroup marginalization (e.g. Guijt and Shah 1998). I suggest that this emerging literature on relational empowerment must pay more attention to the conceptualizations of power-with, as a means to advance social change.

            In the last part of my paper, I will suggest that integrating a conceptualization of power-with within the relational reading of empowerment could lead us to create more direct links with other emerging literature on collective capabilities. They both share the concern of wanting to leave the individualistic framework that has been sometimes associated with the capability approach and its focus on individual agency. My approach is then close to the one provided by Ibrahim (2006; 2017) who argues that in order to operationalize the capability approach, we must pay attention to the collective aspects that constitute identities. Conceptualizing collective capabilities implies more than considering only the aggregation of individuals, but it necessitates taking into account the group’s interest in achieving collective emancipation. It departs then from the original conceptualization of agency by Sen from the capability approach, which has been criticized for its excessive focus on expanding individual agency (Deneulin 2008; Drydyk 2013; Ibrahim 2013; Sen 2001; 2002).

            In a nutshell, I will suggest that a relational conceptualization of empowerment would not be complete without integrating the different aspects of power-with, which can be done by integrating the writings on empowerment from the 1990s and the promising concept of collective capabilities. 

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