Dynamics of Empowerment: Identity, Capabilities, Civic Spaces and Autonomy Respecting Assistance in Arunachal Pradesh

Manjunath Shankar
Johns Hopkins University
June, 2010

A dissertation submitted to Johns Hopkins University in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Copyright:2010 Manjunath Shankar All Rights Reserved. Shared with permission by Future Generations, co-founded by Dr. Carl Taylor.


Empowerment has come to occupy center stage in development debates and policy discussions. WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health has recommended that countries should tackle inequitable distribution of power, money and resources to address health inequities. In light of this, researchers have increased their efforts to measure empowerment using various indices and scales. But few have paid attention to the interactive relationship between agency and opportunity structure through which empowerment emerges and evolves. 

Methods: Using critical ethnography, this study explored the dynamics of empowerment in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Unstructured interviews, semi-structured interviews and participant observation were done over a period of two years in the program sites of Future Generations Arunachal, a community based non governmental organization working in comprehensive primary health care. The study focused on kitchen gardens, an activity taken by women’s groups in Palin and Ziro areas. Themes were drawn after coding the interview transcripts and field notes.

Results: The context of Arunachal Pradesh, a tribal society undergoing tremendous transition was described in detail. A conceptual map was drawn of the socio political economic terrain over and through which empowerment has to emerge. Employing kitchen gardens as a metaphor, the study explored themes of identity, capability, civic spaces and the role of autonomy respecting assistance in the empowerment process. The concept of ‘Isopowerment’ was developed to view empowerment as a performative act of moral courage. The themes were weaved together while describing a critical event to interpret the empowerment process.

Conclusion: Amartya Sen’s ideas on justice and capability approach together with David Ellerman’s autonomy respecting development assistance provide critical insights applicable to an empowering process. Empowerment is a process of self actualization through identity formation, where an individual balances his social and personal identity. It can be seen as a performative act where an individual acts beyond his ‘well-being’ based on his values.  The process should be seen as an evolving strategy in a repeated non-zero sum game scenario. Development actors should kindle the autonomous motivation of people through a mentoring relationship to achieve empowerment. 

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