‘Empowerment’ or ‘Emancipation’?


One of the questions I got on my PhD viva was ‘Why are using empowerment and not emancipation?’ As I had spent five years working on a framework to analyse empowerment I had to come up with a good answer… Not sure I convinced my external examiner, but here’s a few words about my view on this matter.

First of all, the question was posed based on the understanding that ‘empowerment’ has been co-opted by international institutions and used as a way to justify international intervention by giving it a more ‘bottom-up’ shape — even if that meant basically providing capacity building based on Western values and interests. To a large extent I agree with this interpretetion, which is why part of my research included precisely a historical account of the changing ontology of the dominant understanding of empowerment (see my previous post).

That said, it should be noted that ‘emancipation’, as much as ‘empowerment’, does not have a fixed meaning either, having acquired different connotations over time. In its origins, the concept goes back to the Enlightenment, when it was associated with “a view of progress as a movement towards freedom and equality” (Pieterse, 1992: 7). As noted by Pieterse, at the time emancipation was a unifying theme, which called for the liberation of the most diverse groups of people – the human kind – in the context of modernisation. In time the concept became associated with the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory where, generally speaking, it is related to a deep critique of the status quo and the need for a transformation of the order so as to expand individual freedom (Horkheimer, 1937; Baumann, 2000; Wyn Jones, 2005). The details regarding what emancipation entails, nevertheless, vary significantly.

Marx himself had a very broad understanding of human emancipation, stressing a difference between the former and political emancipation, which represented only partial emancipation. As he posited in On the Jewish Question (1844):

Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.

Marx’s understanding influenced scholars of the Frankfurt School. In his seminal 1937 essay, Horkheimer equated emancipation with the increased domination of nature, which was, in turn, related to the existing forces of production. In his view, the potential for a better life was present in the forces of production, however its concrete benefits were undermined because of the focus on capital instead of humanity as the main driver of the economy. His critique was, thus, directed to the status quo – namely, capitalism – as the reason for the unfulfilled potential that could otherwise better serve human beings. Emancipation was directly related to the review of that order.

Horkheimer’s view of emancipation was eminently material. The further development of Critical Theory, however, brought other dimensions into play. The work of Habermas, for example, redirected the focus of emancipation into the domain of communication and interaction. “On the Habermasian reading, speech is the location of emancipatory premise and capacity”, therefore “the developments that help realize this potential [unconstrained communication and unforced understanding] are considered emancipatory” (Wyn Jones, 2005: 224).

These definitions point to the different ways emancipation may be interpreted and the different analytical and practical implications arising from such understandings. They stress thus the flexible connotation of the term. In fact, as noted by Bauman (2000), what emancipation entails needs to be contextualised according to its historical setting, which means that Critical Theory needs to be constantly revisited in order to explain the current expression of modernity.

Perhaps because of the complexity underlying the debate on emancipation, the term is often referred to in an all-encompassing way. In Critical Security Studies, for instance, Booth (2005: 181) defines emancipation as:

. . . the theory and practice of inventing humanity, with a view of freeing people, as individuals and collectivities, from contingent and structural oppressions. It is a discourse of human self-creation and the politics of trying to bring it about . . . The concept of emancipation shapes strategies and tactics of resistance, offers a theory of progress for society, and gives a politics of hope for common humanity.

Discussing the concept from Marx’s perspective, Le Baron (1971: 562) notes that emancipation is “neither destination nor vehicle, but the journey itself, the continuous effort to enlarging freedom and community.” Furthermore, emancipation refers not only to the liberation from external chains of oppression, but also to the liberation of individuals from their own intellectual prison, or the realization of self-awareness (ibid.).

Whether the general and all encompassing understanding of emancipation is a strength or a weakness is subject to debate. According to Laclau (1996), the main dimensions of the concept of emancipation (which include its dichotomic character, its holistic dimension, transparency, the pre-existence of oppression, the dimensions of ground and rationality) are not a unified whole and do not constitute a coherent theoretical structure. In fact, he notes that “the assertion of the classical notion of emancipation in its many variants has evolved the advancement of incompatible logical claims” (Laclau, 1996: 2). Yet, this is not a weakness. On the contrary, “by playing within the system of logical incompatibilities of the latter we can open the way to new liberating discourses which are no longer hindered by the antinomies and blind alleys to which the classical notion of emancipation has led” (ibid.).

If anything, emancipation, as much as empowerment (and any concept, for that matter) is always in motion. But what is then the difference between emancipation and empowerment? If we look at the earlier approaches on empowerment (as used among social movements in the 1960s-70s), they presented a clear emancipatory perspective, in the sense that they called for the elimination of oppression in terms of gender, race, etc. My own purpose of bringing empowerment into the peacebuilding debate was certainly influenced by this emancipatory perspective and the concern with the long-term effects of institutional reforms in terms of the societal distribution of power.

Nevertheless, there are important differences as well. First, it is important to flag the different backgrounds of each concept, in particular their (dis)connection with a specific set of theories. As noted, ‘emancipation’ was developed as a concept part of a much broader sociological discussion about modernisation. In contrast, ‘empowerment’ has been used mostly as an expected outcome of coordinated action or policy.

Second, whereas emancipation has been subject to debate, the concept itself has always been understood in the context of some kind of confrontation or power struggle. Emancipation necessarily entails that some kind of oppression exists. This is not necessarily the case with ‘empowerment’, at least since its co-optation into the mainstream political agenda. Even if we consider that power-over/domination is an ever-present issue in the history of humanity, we must consider this depoliticisation of empowerment in the policy discourse as an important element of analysis. In fact, precisely because ‘empowerment’ has become a policy jargon, it is important to look back at its history and meaning, as well as its utility. In fact, the current co-optation of empowerment may be used a strong reminder of how any concept is/may be subject to bias and political use and how important reflexivity is in our academic enterprise.

In my view, the beauty of emancipation relies precisely in its nearly utopian and all encompassing character; conversely, the beauty of empowerment relies in its very practical appeal. When I think of the normative drive of Peace Studies, and even though I appreciate and recognise the value of abstract theory, I feel that empowerment may be used more concretely in terms of providing not only a tool to measure development policies, but also as a solid framework to understand changes arising from peacebuilding practices. Of course this also requires working towards the clarification and development of empowerment as framework of analysis.

Last but not least, emPOWERment is a constant reminder that POWER is the issue at stake in the analysis. Whether this discourse represents an expression of ‘power-over’ or ‘power-to’, we are instantly called to consider this element in our intellectual exercise and policy action (if that is the case).



Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, in association with Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 16-52.

Booth, K. (2005) Emancipation. In: Booth, K. (ed.) Critical Security Studies and World Politics. Boulder, London: Lynne Rienner, pp. 181-187.

Horkheimer, M. [1937] (2002) Traditional and Critical Theory. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell. In: Horkheimer, M. Critical Theory. Selected Essays. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, pp. 188-243.

Laclau, E. (1996) Emancipation(s). London: Verso, pp. 1-19.

Le Baron, B (1971) Marx on Human Emancipation. Canadian Journal of Political Science/ Revue canadienne de science politique, 4(4), pp. 559-570.

Marx, K. (1844) On the Jewish Question. Works of Karl Marx 1844. Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/index.htm (Accessed: 08 June 2010).

Pieterse, J. N. (1992) Emancipations, Modern and Postmodern. Development and Change, 23(3): pp. 5-41.

Wyn Jones, R. (2005) On Emancipation: Necessity, Capacity, and Concrete Utopias. In: Booth, K (ed.) Critical security studies and world politics. Boulder, London: Lynne Rienner, pp. 1-25.



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