The Invisible Politics of Self-Esteem: A History, 1960-1990
Dr Ian MillerZoom
In 20th-century America, self-esteem became a key psychological tool used to assess and measure well-being. Self-esteem transformed from a specialist concept into everyday idea. We now take for granted that self-esteem underpins personal happiness and emotional well-being. However, self-esteem, in its modern psychological sense, is a relatively new idea. We have naturalised the concept, rarely considering it as an idea laden with invisible racial, gendered, political and class-based implications.
This exploratory paper investigates the targets of self-esteem advice (e.g. women, African Americans), the spaces in which self-esteem was promoted (e.g. schools, homes) and the broader debates in which self-esteem became entwined (e.g. black civil rights, feminism). These micro-studies feed into the paper’s broader aims: to uncover the underlying politics of self-esteem’s history and its ambiguous, contradictory positioning between the politics of radical emancipation and conservative neoliberalism over time.
Key questions asked include: What are the historical foundations of the use of the term ‘self-esteem’? What political and socio-cultural conditions existed that allowed self-esteem theory to flourish in post-war America? How did individuals and communities learn about and integrate self-esteem into their everyday practices? How did self-esteem practices intersect with the liberating politics of race, gender, class and sexuality? How did activist groups fighting for collective improvement navigate self-esteem theory’s neoliberal potential to be individualistic, moralising and victim-blaming?