The history of self-esteem

Guest blogger, Belinda Drummond, continues her posts on Glynn Harrison’s critique of the culture of self-esteem in his book, The Big Ego Trip, which is available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.

Glynn Harrison, in his book The Big Ego Trip, describes how the concept of self-esteem gained academic credibility across disciplines as diverse as sociology, psychology, biology, social policy and psychiatry since the emergence of the modern self-esteem movement in the 1960s. Most notably, however, it has become an influential and powerful research area within psychology, and has gained acceptance in government and wider society as something that needs to be monitored and improved to ensure health and well-being.

But how have we got here? One of the fascinating narratives Glynn Harrison traces through his book is the history of self-esteem as a concept.

Harrison suggests one of the main reasons self-esteem emerged as such a popular concept was society’s curiosity during the 1960s about what defined ‘self-hood’. Harrison describes how society was beginning to demand a new definition of self that threw off notions of prioritising others and the individual’s duties in the social structure. There had been a long history prior to the 1960s of personal austerity and others being prioritised over the wishes of the individual. The 1960s brought sexual revolution and an increasing sense that loving others before yourself was in some way undesirable and even unhealthy. So the emphasis shifted to encouraging people to love themselves before reaching out to others (p. 18). This became the dominant dynamic within society during the 1970s, and simply transformed as the century wore on from individualistic humanism to individualistic capitalism.

Another influence, and probably the main driving force in the rise of self esteem as a concept, was the rise of psychology as a scientific discipline. Psychology during the 1960s was just finding its feet and was trying to establish itself as a credible scientific discipline. Harrison describes how self-esteem seemed, during the 1960s and 1970s to be its ‘Holy Grail’ (p. 44). The concept of self-esteem seemed definable and measurable (with the new Rosenberg Scale) so that results could be compared and analysed. The self-esteem movement produced many research findings that could be rolled out into popular culture. This was just what psychology was looking for. Popular culture embraced the results of the studies that began to emerge, and in turn the field of psychology unearthed more and more evidence that low self-esteem was linked to a plethora of negative behaviours and emotions.

Many of the leading psychologists during the 1970s such as Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and Carl Rogers centred much of their writing around self-esteem. These were heady times as self-esteem became more than simply a concept. It became the default cultural mode. ‘Nothing could stop it now … [as] we arrived in the 1980s … self-esteem continued its work in popular culture, in our schools and colleges, in our law courts and our mental health services.’ (p. 51)

So the histories of psychology and self-esteem are closely linked. Psychology’s exploration of self-esteem ensured that it found acceptance within a society becoming obsessed with ‘self’, and psychology exploited the concept to gain status and recognition as a scientific discipline. Harrison argues that the self-esteem movement within psychology actually ended up wanting more than scientific recognition. It colonised the ‘big questions of significance and personal value.’ (pp. 17-18) Through the exploration of self-esteem over the past half century, psychology had placed itself in all of our lives. Harrison’s well-researched and well-documented history is helpful, especially as it includes much interesting background and thought from within secular psychology itself.

The intimate and circular relationship between society, psychology as a ‘science’ and self-esteem as a concept is convincingly demonstrated by Harrison. It has implications for self-esteem’s status as a scientific entity. Harrison argues that the concept of self-esteem, far from being empirical and evidence based, is simply a ‘new Romanticism … baptised with science’ (p. 49).

In the next blog post we will look at Harrison’s critique of the self-esteem movement.

The Big Ego Trip is available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.


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