Who are we to judge if they are empowered?

This blog comes about in light of reading a thought-provoking paper  by Richard Williams entitled ‘The collaboration as empowerment claim: The case of visual social research’. Initially I almost didn’t read it given that it was behind a paywall and Sociology Compass is not a title my library subscribes to. I’m glad I took a gamble based on the abstract, however, as it raises some interesting issues.

Williams highlights the disparity in the way the benefits of the research relationship are conceptualised by examining two visual studies in light of a framework of ideal collaboration.  For the researcher, he argues that there are tangible, measurable benefits associated with publications, outputs and other elements that enhance a CV. For the participants, however, they are often termed as being “empowered”, something of a slippery intangible concept and that is often assumed opposed to evaluated. He argues that this empowerment is also framed from the researchers perspective in terms of how they view that the project has empowered the individual, or group they have been studying. 

The main line of one of Williams’ arguments is for me incredibly important and one that does need further thought: How can we understand the ways in which the participants have been empowered? 

Williams’ highlights that ‘there is no room within the academic social structure for the research subject to express their opinion about empowerment’ (p.526). I think this is an important point to address in terms of how we frame the research relationship. It is expected that qualitative researchers make clear their own positioning to the research but there needs to be a place for the participants to do the same. A researcher wouldn’t make a claim within their analysis not backed up with evidence from their data therefore why should they be able to make similar claims in regards to the claims they make about empowerment? I think this debate opened up by Williams’ is an important one and something that needs to be considered by any researcher claiming to ’empower’ their participants through a participatory model of research. Williams’ is right, the current dissemination structures of journals do not allow for incorporation of the voices of participants. In fact, Les Back often highlights this concern through his attempts to add a participant as a co-author on a paper and how problematic it was for the editors to understand that she didn’t have a research affiliation.

There are two possible ways to address this. One is for editors, reviewers and academics to start addressing the issue through ensuring that published papers do address this issue and that they begin interrogating the question of how the researcher knows that the participant was empowered. The alternative is to ensure that research projects have an outlet for the multiple voices of their participants and places for them to examine how the research may, or may not have impacted upon their lives. Making them an active part of the project through web 2.0 platforms may be one way to do this. Allowing participation within the research not to be a one time thing that takes place during the collection of data, but by allowing them to continue to participate alongside the analysis phase and beyond publication to help researchers understand the way in which their research may, or may not have met it’s aims of empowerment.

There is an oft used phrase ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’ which is the anti-thesis of what participatory research that maintains a goal of empowerment aims to do. I would argue that without actually examining if and how participants are indeed empowered, that we are in danger of leaving only footprints that do not have a lasting effect on those who researcher claim to empower.



Williams, R. (2013) ‘The Collaboration as Empowerment Claim: The Case of Visual Social Research’, Sociology Compass, 7, 515-532


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