Is Self-Esteem Political?
Sonja J. ELLIS
Feminism and Psychology, (1998) vol. 8, no. 2, ps 251-256.
Self-esteem is one of the most widely discussed constructs in psychological, educational and in lay and popular discourse (e.g. Branden, 1987; Pottebaum et al., 1986; Watkins et al., 1988). One of the main reasons for this widespread interest in self-esteem, is that it is believed to be fundamental to the social and psychological well-being of individuals (Kohn, 1994).
However, in examining the literature on self-esteem, it is apparent that the self esteem construct and the way it has been operationalised are somewhat dubious. Much work on self-esteem seems to pathologise marginalised individuals or groups as 'possessing' low self-esteem. The purpose of this article is to explore some of the ways in which self-esteem is measured and applied and how it may contribute to or reinforce the marginalisation of already subordinated groups.
SELF-ESTEEM IN 'SCIENTIFIC' RESEARCH
Although self-esteem has been defined in a variety of ways (see Ellis, 1996), the term has typically been used to refer to an evaluative judgement which individuals make of themselves and their abilities (e.g. see Coopersmith, 1967). Thus in 'scientific' research, self-esteem is presumed to be internal, stable and global.
In feminist writing, the concept of self-esteem has been used as a way of describing the marks of oppression experienced by women. For example, a number of writers have highlighted the way in which many women have negative feelings about themselves (e.g. see Daniluk, 1993). Through self-help psychology we have been encouraged to enhance our self-esteem in turn allowing us to feel good about ourselves, our bodies, and our achievements (e.g. see Loulan, 1987; Squire, 1994). So, in feminist work, self-esteem has been employed as a means of empowering women, in a world which positions us as inferior to men. However, in contrast to this positive use of self-esteem, scientific research has tended to conceptualise and operationalise self-esteem in ways which in fact disempower us.
In psychological research, it has generally been presumed that self-esteem can be defined and reliably measured. Psychometric scales (e.g. the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, Coopersmith, 1967) are by far the most widely employed measures of self-esteem, and have typically been used to establish whether self-esteem is correlated with sex/gender, culture/ethnicity, class, social factors (e.g. unemployment, suicide, etc.), personality, family and/or psychopathic variables. Although there is little consistency in the findings reported in these studies, it is notable that there is (still) a tendency to conclude that women (e.g. see O'Brien, 1991; Orr and Dinur, 1995; Oyefeso and Zacheaus, 1990; Richman et al., 1985), and ethnic/cultural minorities (e.g. see Halpin et al., 1981; Sethi and Calhoun, 1986; Verkuyten, 1990) have lower self-esteem than men and the white majority. Although it may be true that (some) women and ethnic/cultural minorities do experience low self-esteem, the content and application of measures employed by researchers tend to be culturally biased and gendered. This bias and marginalisation in psychometric measurement has already been highlighted by a number of feminist writers (e.g. see Bem, 1993).
In relation to self-esteem, a number of studies have shown that in non-western settings, self-esteem is composed of and influenced by quite different components to those suggested by conventional western measures. For example, a study by Watkins (1988) found that although family, friends and school were important aspects in determining the self-esteem of Filipino young adolescents, factors such as food, money and clothes were also relatively important but are ignored by western instruments (see also Watkins and Regmi, 1993, for a similar study of Nepalese children).
Similarly, it is conceivable that if the self-esteem of adolescents in western societies is contingent on physical appearance and social acceptance as recent research suggests (see Harter, 1990), access to money and clothes may also contribute to the self-esteem of western adolescents. Thus, it is possible that these scales ask about things which are not pertinent (or at least of limited relevance) to the self-esteem of target groups (see Ellis, 1996; Watkins et al., 1988), raising questions as to the appropriateness of western models and measures for assessing the self-esteem of both western and non-western adolescents.
As well as being inherently ethnocentric in content, psychometric scales and other structured measures discriminate against marginalised groups in the way they elicit responses. For example, in Maori culture a high value is placed on whakaiti (being humble, or denigrating oneself) rather than on whakahihi (boasting, or putting oneself forward) (Ranby, 1979), yet psychometric measures rely on individuals to do the latter. A similar case may also be argued with regard to gender differences in response patterns.
Despite knowing this, researchers have continued to measure self-esteem in the ways that they always have, without questioning the appropriateness or otherwise of their instruments. Furthermore, researchers have assumed that self-esteem is internal, stable (unless some type of intervention has been applied to modify it) and global, and that this conceptualisation of self-esteem is universal (see Juhasz, 1985; Ranby, 1979).
A further problem arises from the way in which 'scientific' research has been seen as 'objective', and that because measures have 'proven' validity and reliability, they are presumed to provide (eternal) 'truths' about phenomena (Gergen, 1985). In psychological literature, self-esteem has been talked about as if it were a permanent characteristic of an individual, and that individuals therefore possess certain levels of self-esteem. However, the term 'self-esteem' is in fact a social artefact created to meaningfully describe the way in which some individuals feel good about themselves and others do not, but the terms 'low' and 'high' self esteem have been treated as naturally occurring categories (see Kitzinger, 1992).
So, instead of talking about self-esteem as a phenomenon which might be transient or subject to change, it has been conceptualised as something which is necessarily a characteristic of particular individuals or groups. Thus the methods employed in research have tended to manufacture individual/group differences in self-esteem. Moreover, researchers continue to ignore the possibility that their instruments are socially, historically and culturally constructed (Gergen, 1985), and that they might privilege the values of some groups over those of other groups, resulting in the (needless) pathologisation of individuals from marginalised groups.
SELF-ESTEEM IN APPLIED SETTINGS
Although some individuals refer to themselves as 'having' low self-esteem, low self-esteem does not actually exist within individuals, yet teachers and counsellors presume to be able to 'recognise' self-esteem (or more commonly a lack of it) in their students or clients (Dewhurst, 1991). Without reference to testing or measurement, teachers and counsellors typically 'assess' an individual's self-esteem on a basis of overt characteristics (e.g. family background, culture) and behaviours or traits (e.g. shyness, social skills). Again, more often than not, individuals from lower socioeconomic families, cultural/ethnic 'minorities' and women are identified as having low self-esteem, and therefore are perceived as deficient.
Moreover, such allegations are extended to pathologising whole groups of individuals, without considering the possibility that these groups may actually conceptualise self-esteem differently from researchers and practitioners. Thus, the label of 'low self-esteem' has come to be applied to (certain) groups of individuals, assuming homogeneity among members of those groups. Consequently, the inequalities of power which researchers and practitioners claim to be addressing are in fact being maintained.
As a result of the perceived connection between self-esteem and societal/educational 'problems' (see Barwick, 1992; Branden, 1987; Youth Mental Health Foundation, 1988), low self-esteem has been viewed as characteristic of 'at risk' individuals, particularly adolescents. Because marginalised groups are disproportionately represented in statistics relating to truancy, delinquency, suicide, abuse and under achievement, and are therefore assumed to be 'at risk', low self-esteem tends to be automatically associated with marginalised ethnic/cultural groups, the unemployed, and those from lower socioeconomic groups. The term ,self-esteem' is then bandied around as if it were unproblematic.
Furthermore, those identified as low in self-esteem are often encouraged to participate in special programmes aimed at improving their self-esteem (usually to enhance achievement or employability). For example, currently in New Zealand, 'at risk' adolescents (usually Maori) are selected for outdoor education programmes aimed at building confidence and self-esteem. On completion of these courses, participants are returned to the environments which were initially identified as putting them 'at risk', and expected to maintain their enhanced level of self-esteem.
It would also appear that if the individual fails to achieve the desirable level of self-esteem at the end of the programme, rather than perceiving the 'problem' as societal, or questioning the programme itself, it is typically the already marginalised individual who is blamed. Often, the prescribed solution is to send them on yet another course to help them improve their self-esteem. For example, after being unemployed for 12 months, it is compulsory for New Zealanders to participate in 'training' courses (including one on self-esteem). Those who still fail to gain employment after completing the courses are sent on further compulsory courses. The effect, then, of identifying individuals as low in self-esteem may be to keep them on a self-esteem-seeking treadmill, and to divert attention from the I real' social and political issues.
SO, IS SELF-ESTEEM POLITICAL THEN?
Is it possible, then, that self-esteem is being used to maintain marginalisation, by creating group differences which uphold inequalities?
It would certainly seem that the way in which self-esteem has been 'constructed' in psychological and lay discourse, limits the way(s) in which the self may be thought about, because of the differential access afforded to individuals by the discourses used. So, while it is possible for certain individuals to perceive themselves as 'successful' or 'intelligent', it may not be possible for others because of the power structures inherent in the methodologies employed by psychological researchers and practitioners. Consequently, while individuals from marginalised groups may be experiencing 'low self-esteem', the way in which this construct has been conceptualised and operationalised upholds the patriarchal relations which position women as inferior to (and dependent on) men, and subordinates women of colour.
Aside from the argument of whether it is possible to measure self-esteem (a major consideration which I have not discussed in this article), researchers and practitioners need to consider whether it is appropriate to continue measuring, assessing and even focusing on self-esteem. Given the value-laden nature of the self-esteem construct, it would seem that we need to focus our attention on finding alternative ways of describing the 'marks of oppression' experienced by (certain) women. Furthermore, if self-esteem is so essential to the well-being of individuals, there must be better ways of investigating and dealing with this ,problem' than the somewhat dubious and discriminatory measures and practices currently in use.
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Sonja J. ELLIS is now a doctoral student in the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, Loughborough, LEI I 3TU, UK.
 This article is based on issues raised in my Master's thesis. I therefore wish to record my sincere thanks to my supervisors, Dr Monica Payne and Dr Jenny Young-Loveridge, whose input contributed to the development of the ideas presented in this article. I also wish to thank Celia Kitzinger, Margaret Wetherell and an anonymous reviewers. for their helpful comments for revising the initial version of this article.
 Maori are the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand.