Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Self-Help Group Participation and Empowerment in Hong Kong

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Self-Help Group Participation and Empowerment in Hong Kong

Article excerpt

This paper reports on the first comprehensive study of self-help groups in Hong Kong. Initial findings from the quantative and qualitative data suggest that self-help group participation has an impact on intrapersonal, interpersonal and community/political empowerment. Based on existing data, this study has resulted in the development of a hypothetical model encompassing the interrelationships among self-help group participation, social support, social learning, leadership and empowerment, for testing in future research.

Key words: intrapersonal empowerment, interpersonal empowerment, community/political empowerment, social support, social learning, leadership


Participation empowers! When participants interact with each other to make meaningful changes and to assert influences individually and collectively, empowerment occurs. Past research has shown that participation and empowerment are closely related (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977; Schulz et al., 1995; Rappaport, 1987; Zimmerman & Rappaport, 1988). However, this relationship may be complex and complicated. Itzhaky and Schwartz (1988) found that not all the elements of empowerment are affected by all the elements of participation. Itzhaky and York (2000) further suggest that the relationship between participation and empowerment can be erratic, although the former can well be an antecedent of the latter. When participation affects empowerment, the path can be direct, indirect or combined (Zimrnerman, 1990; Prestby et al., 1990; Chavis & Wandersman, 1990; Speer & Hughes, 1995).

Participation in self-help groups certainly help members to empower themselves (Chesler, 1991; Nylund, 2000; Mok, 2001). Self-help group activities empower members to cope with problems and stresses, and they also empower members in their relations with the organizations that serve them, and with the community where they live. Empirically, it was found that participation in self-help group activities is instrumental in reducing family burden, loneliness, and guilt-feeling, and at a macro-level, self-help group members' advocacy activities can affect government policies (Citron, et al., 1999; Medvene & Krauss, 1989). The strong correlation between self-help group participation and self-confidence, self-efficacy, civil responsibility, and political efficacy has also been supported in research studies (Florin & Wandersman, 1984; Zimmerman & Rappaport, 1988).

Various social science theories, such as the theories of affiliation, attribution, change, coping, deviance and social exchange provide some explanation of why participation in self-help groups empowers members. Steward (1990) concluded, after synthesizing some theoretical and empirical studies, that the provision of social support and social learning in self-help groups is the major factor in self-help group effectiveness. In a study of three organizations (one of which was a mutual help organization for persons with severe mental illness), Maton and Salem (1995) found that the reason why they are so empowering is because they have a belief system that inspires growth; an opportunity role structure that is pervasive, highly accessible and multi-functional; a support system that is encompassing, peer-based, and cohesive; and leadership that is inspiring, talented and shared.

The relationship between self-help group participation and empowerment has been widely discussed, but very few studies have been conducted in a Chinese context. Are self-help group members in Chinese communities empowered individually and collectively after joining these groups? What are the covariates of self-help group empowerment in such contexts? This paper explores and analyses these questions, based on a pioneering and comprehensive study of self-help groups in Hong Kong. It is contended that self-help group participation in Chinese communities should lead to individual and collective empowerment, as is the case in Western communities. …

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