Empowerment is a notion which is centrally important in debates about identity, autonomy and citizenship which are at the heart of social and political dilemmas many countries and regions are facing at the present time. However, for some time now it has been possible to argue that empowerment has reached a critical stage in its development, particularly within the arena of educational discourse. Simultaneously championed on the one hand by proponents of market-led reforms and on the other hand by those whose concerns have more to do with the development of an emancipated citizenry than with the proliferation of free-wheeling consumers, its semantic fabric is inclined to fall apart at the touch. However, whilst it is true the burgeoning use of ‘empowerment’ has gone hand in hand with its increasingly elusive meaning, paradoxically, its significance has become more rather than less compelling.
In the face of the kind of conceptual enervation to which writers like Vincent (1993:374) rightly draw our attention, together with evidence from the United States that ‘the concept of empowerment has come to be regarded by many teachers as yet another cynical and reformist panacea’ (LeCompte and de Marrais 1992:22), the temptation is to write empowerment off as a reliably and unremittingly vacuous notion suggesting we would be as well to just get on with our lives by ignoring it, making grudging allowances for it, and/ or regarding the speaker with appropriate suspicion. None of these responses is appropriate. However fatuous or pretentious its utterance, empowerment is neither trivial nor trite in its ambitions or consequences. To ignore or marginalise its use is to misunderstand the seriousness and power of language even if, or especially when, it is used carelessly or crudely. The social and political threads which comprise the various linguistic cloths that then become the garments of conversation and debate have in their weave the texture and colour of different ideals of human flourishing. The intention of this chapter is to render problematic the notion of empowerment in educational discourse, to examine with appropriate care and attentiveness the assumptions that inform its use, to map the conceptual frameworks which support and enrich those assumptions, and, finally, to make a number of suggestions with regard to its future development.