Pepka Boyadjieva and Petya Ilieva-Trichkova, members of the JustEdu project’s team presented a paper at the HDCA Annual Conference “Capabilities and Transformative Institutions”, September 19-22, 2022 in Antwerp, Belgium.

2022 HDCA Conference – Antwerp, Belgium | Human Development and Capability Association (

The conference was carried out in person with nearly 300 participants from all over the world and with about 700 participants online. The HDCA conference raised the following questions: How can we organize today for the world of tomorrow? Covid-19 has taught us that we are not ready. We have re-discovered our common vulnerability – not only to a virus, but also to problems and difficulties arising from policy mismatch, institutional hiccups, authoritarian backlash and the effects of increasing national and international inequality. How can we improve the structures of living together and face the challenges ahead to build a more just and sustainable world?

The title of the paper is “Patterns of empowerment among people experiencing early job insecurity through adult education: A capability approach perspective”.


In the context of the recession from 2008 and the recent Covid-19 crisis, the issue of empowerment through participation in education comes to the fore/gains significance. To address this issue, we will build upon the capability approach to look at adult education as an empowerment process, and we will try to understand if and when agency leads to empowerment.

This paper aims to: (1) conceptualise empowerment as well as its relationship with agency, through the lens of the capability approach; (2) identify patterns of empowerment through adult education, and (3) reveal the main factors, which can enable or hinder the empowerment role of adult education.

Despite the previous research which discusses the meanings of empowerment by drawing on different concepts associated with the capability approach (e.g. Ibrahim and Alkire 2007), the relationship between empowerment and agency within the capability approach literature is understood differently. So, although both concepts are related, there is disagreement within this literature about whether these concepts overlap or differ. In spite of this, we could agree with Unterhalter (2019, p. 80), who argues that “the capability approach provides some important additional conceptual connections that help link empowerment more closely to ideas about social justice and an understanding of the institutional space in which this is to be achieved”.

Taking into account this literature, we define empowerment in and through (adult) education as an expansion of both agency (process freedom) and capabilities (opportunity freedom). It is not only an expanded agency but an agency which has a clear goal – gaining control over one’s environment with the aim to improve individual and societal well-being. The empowerment role of (adult) education has two sides: a subjective one, which refer to individuals’ capability to gain control over their environment; and an objective one, which reflects the available opportunity structures.

The paper presents a static model of people’s (un)realised empowerment with regard to adult education. The model clearly demonstrates that empowerment through adult education is not always a self-evident, secure, or fulfilling process. It occurs only when achievements from involvement in adult education become the basis for empowered agency, i.e., an agency which aims at (and result in) increasing one’s well-being and one’s control over the environment.

The paper develops the concept of ‘patterns of (un)empowerment through adult education’ to capture different types of (un)empowered agency based on gains made in adult education. Empirically, we have analysed data from 81 semi-structured life-course interviews with young people belonging to the 1990–1995 birth cohort in seven European countries who have experienced unemployment or early job insecurity. In accordance with the above-described model, we have analysed only those episodes in the interviewees’ life courses where we could identify patterns of realised agency regarding adult education. We have tried to answer the following research questions:

1. What are the patterns of empowerment among people experiencing early job insecurity through adult education?
2. Which factors have hindered the empowerment of people experiencing early job insecurity through adult education?

We carried out a two-step analysis of the interviews. First, each author independently read the extended summaries of the life-course interviews with the aim of identifying types of (un)expanded agency, i.e., agency which has occurred (or was expected to occur) or not after involvement in adult education, based on agency achievements from it. We did not consider the commonality of each type, but rather only whether it represented an expanded agency or lack of agency when viewing the different types of gains made in adult education and different types of improvement of well-being. Second, we compared these types in a combined list from both authors’ identification efforts. There was about 90 percent coincidence in the identified types. We then selected and classified these overlapping types, introducing the notion of patterns of (un)empowerment ([un]empowered agency) to capture different types of (un)empowered agency based on gains made in adult education. Thus, we identified different patterns within the two broad groupings of empowerment: realised empowerment (patterns of expanded agency) and unrealised/stumbled empowerment (patterns of unaccomplished expanded agency). Within each one of these two broad groupings we furher reveal different sub-patterns. Thus we identified patterns of realised empowerment based on improving well-being (e.g. ensuring quality employment) and on different agency achievements (e.g. increased self-esteem). Patterns of unrealised and stumbled empowerment through adult education refer to individuals who are not able to use their agency achievements from involvement in adult education (obtained certificate, acquired knowledge and skills, personal development, and identity formation) as a basis for expanded agency.

The results from the empirical study have shown that the process and results of empowerment through adult education are neither linear nor unproblematic. Instead, it becomes clear that it is only in some cases that the benefits from adult education can lead to empowered agency. In this regard, two groups of factors turn out to be most important. The first one refers to adult education – more concretely, to the quality of the knowledge and skills acquired and specificity of the educational process and its influence on students. The second group of factors includes the socio-economic situation and arrangements which could enable or hamper individual agency.

In line with Paulo Freire’s (2005 [1970]) ideas, the capability approach allowed us to view the empowerment of individuals through adult education as a process which must be forged and accomplished with them, not for them. Such an understanding provides a reliable basis to disagree with those critics of the concept of empowerment who insist that empowerment is a power relationship which, even when the will to empower is well-intentioned, remains “a strategy for regulating the subjectivities of the ‘empowered’… toward an appropriate end” (Cruikshank 1999, p. 69). Thus, in contrast to previous research, the capability approach offers a fruitful viewpoint from which to rethink education (e.g. Walker and Unterhalter 2007) by taking into account the wider benefits it could have, not only for the individual but also for society.