Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

By Deepa Narayan | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
Analytical Issues in
Measuring Empowerment
at the Community and
Local Levels

Norman Uphoff

Devising operational measures of empowerment is made more challenging by the inherent ambiguity and elusiveness of what is to be measured—power. Empowerment is commonly understood as the condition of having power, and being able to exercise it and obtain the benefits thereof. We thus cannot measure empowerment properly without a valid understanding of what constitutes power.

An important reason that both terms have remained ambiguous is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1929) called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” This is the incorrect attribution of certain qualities to something that does not and cannot possess them. For example, it is not meaningful to say “The United States does …” or “The United States wants …” Why? Because the United States is a geographic entity that cannot literally do or want anything. Moreover, the population of the United States is seldom if ever so united and fully agreed that, as a whole, it does or wants anything in any real sense. It is more correct and meaningful to say “The government of the United States does …” or “The president of the United States, speaking on behalf of the country, wants …” These latter formulations attribute agency and intention more accurately.

Such verbal shorthand is used all the time, of course. But unfortunately, it conflates the actions and statements of certain actors with inanimate or incoherent aggregations, so that it becomes difficult to attribute either intentionality or responsibility. Especially if we want to measure something, and to

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