feel good about themselves
British social policy and the construction of the problem
Inaugural lecture 24 January 2003
In the United Kingdom, self-esteem has acquired the cultural status
of a taken-for-granted problem that afflicts the individual and
Low self-esteem is invariably presented as an invisible disease
that undermines people's ability to control their lives. When in
a famous television interview, the late Princess Diana informed
the British public of her secret disease bulimia, her audience knew
what she meant when she stated that 'you inflict it upon yourself
because your self esteem is at a low ebb, and you don't think you're
worthy or valuable'. Diana's confession resonated with the common
sense that perceives low self-esteem as the principal cause of individual
and wider social problems.
Low self-esteem is now associated with virtually every ill that
afflicts society. Policy makers, media commentators and experts
regularly demand that action should be taken to raise the self esteem
of school-children, teen-agers, parents, the elderly, the homeless,
the mentally ill, delinquents, the unemployed, those suffering racism,
lone parents, to name but a few of the groups experiencing this
The self-esteem deficit is often presented as a condition that
transcends the individual and afflicts entire generations and communities.
According to one account, school children who turn to drugs come
from families 'with generations of lack of self-esteem'. When a
local railway station was closed down in Shildon, Co Durham, the
manager of the local train museum observed that it represented a
'devastating blow to local self-esteem'. 'Self-esteem seems to be
a quality lacking in many sections of the European community', observes
an advocate of community learning projects.
Claim makers frequently attempt to justify their concern with a
problem by asserting its negative impact on self-esteem. In a statement
of support for a Government initiative against domestic violence,
Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry,
pointed out that this act 'can have a devastating impact on people'
and that 'it can harm business as the victims often suffer from
stress and low-esteem'.
According to a report published by the pharmaceutical company,
Pfizer, it is people's 'relationships and self-esteem' which is
most affected by sexual health problems'. Anti-poverty campaigners
have shifted their focus from the broad structural picture to the
impact of these conditions on self-esteem. One recently published
study, Hardship Britain: Being poor in the 1990s is self consciously
promoted on the ground that it examines the 'experience of poverty
and exclusion, and its impact on self-esteem and personal dignity'.
Low self-esteem is not just represented as the consequence of problems
such as poverty, racism or domestic violence. It itself is frequently
depicted as a cause of social distress. Government agencies continually
point to the self-esteem deficit as the source of social problems.
''Whilst there is no single route through which children become
involved in prostitution, we know that the most common factors are
vulnerability and low self-esteem'' states a briefing document by
the Department of Health for Wales. According to Dr Christopher
Cordess, a forensic psychiatrist, people who make malicious bomb
hoax calls 'will be repeating offenders men who have very
Official and non-official public health advocates continually preach
the virtues of raising self-esteem for the well being of the individuals.
Indeed, one of the ways that campaigners promote a particular issue
is by linking it to its alleged benefits for self-esteem. Mission
statements justify a bewildering variety of activities on the ground
of raising self-esteem.
To take a few examples. It is frequently claimed that single-sex
schools and classes 'help promote girls' confidence and self-esteem'.
A major project promoting gardening for its therapeutic effects,
by the charity Thrive, claims that one of the main benefits of this
activity is that it 'increases self-esteem'.
The National Cycling Forum in its strategy document, Promoting
Cycling: Improving Health boasts that 'studies have shown that regular
cyclists, compared with inactive people, have improved well being,
higher self-esteem and greater confidence in their ability to perform
Outdoor Education claims that guided experience of the outdoors
'increases self confidence and self-esteem'. The National Pyramid
Trust aims to reach 'as many children as possible and to establish
routine check of their emotional health needs' in order to help
them build 'their self-esteem and resilience'.
The IPPR, one of Britain's leading think tanks, advocates business
support for women from deprived areas because 'enterprise activity'
can 'increase self-esteem'. Groundwork, a charity devoted to environmental
regeneration claims that the 'process of identifying, planning and
implementing improvements to the local environment offers an excellent
opportunity to improve the self-confidence and self-esteem of young
SureSlim a commercial company helping people manage their weight,
tells potential customers that the 'rewarding end product' for people
who lose some weight is 'the boost in morale and self-esteem'. The
Communities United Project that involves young people in football
aims to 'improve the self-esteem of adults by offering them the
opportunity to get involved and run individual schemes'. The Nationwide
Foundation supports volunteering programmes that focus on 'raising
the confidence and self-esteem of the volunteers themselves'.
Construction of the problem
Given the widespread usage of the term self-esteem in everyday
life, it is easy to overlook the fact that the problems associated
with it are of relatively recent invention. Until the mid-eighties,
the term was conspicuously absent in public discourse and did not
enjoy the status of a publicly recognised idiom.
A Factiva search carried out on all UK papers failed to find any
citation for this term between the years 1980 and 1985. In 1986,
there were 3 citations of the term. A year later, it grew to 15
and by 1990 there are 103 citations of the term self-esteem. It
was in the mid-nineties that self-esteem became a widely used word
in public discourse.
In 1995 there are 456 citations, which more than doubled a year
later. During the past seven years, citations increased every year
and stood at 3349 in 2001. A breakdown of citations in four key
newspaper sources indicates a common pattern of steady increase
in the usage of the term.
The four papers selected reflect the political divide between left/liberal
(The Guardian, The Observer) and right/conservative (The Daily Telegraph,
The Sunday Telegraph). Although all 4 papers show an increase in
citation, the expansion of the usage of the term is more marked
in the liberal papers.
For the period under consideration, there are 3 times the citations
in The Guardian as there are in The Daily Telegraph. An analysis
of the content of the two newspapers indicates that articles in
The Guardian are more likely to affirm the association of low self-esteem
with social problems than The Daily Telegraph.
This tendency reflects the contemporary liberal/ New Labourist
political imagination that has shaped recent Government initiatives.
However, the difference between the two papers is far from fundamental.
It is one of emphasis only. As a broad generalisation it is possible
to conclude that The Telegraph tends to focus on the self-esteem
deficit as the problem of the individual, whereas The Guardian is
likely to associate it with both individual and wider social problems.
From time to time, both papers have published articles that question
the claims made about the problem of self-esteem. But like the rest
of the press, The Guardian and The Telegraph appear to regard the
problem as self-evident and tend to use the term in an unreflected
The newspapers examined tend to reflect and also contribute to
recent transformation of the term self-esteem into a widely used
public idiom. However, the exploration of the material provided
through the media helps to describe but not account for the problematisation
of self-esteem. Indeed, one of the distinct features of this process
is that there do not appear to be prominent individuals, groups
and claims makers who can be identified as a distinct self-esteem
Unlike other forms of social problem construction poverty,
child abuse, hate crime, bullying its connection to claims
making activity is indistinct. The activities of campaigners in
the sphere of education or the workplace may explain the influence
of concern with self-esteem over practices in schools and businesses
but they do little to illuminate the process whereby self-esteem
has become such a central concept of contemporary British culture.
As in the United States, the problematisation of self-esteem first
developed in the field of parenting and education. Almost imperceptibly,
the self-esteem deficit became internalised as the source of child-hood
problems and low educational achievement by the parenting and the
The activities of claim makers in these fields is crucial for understanding
the process of problematisation of self-esteem in the specific fields
of parenting and education. However, their activities add little
to our knowledge of how low self-esteem became a culturally affirmed
symbol of the problem of everyday life. The transformation of low
self-esteem from an object of professional concern to one that dominates
the wider public imagination requires that we look at wider cultural
One reason why a wider cultural analysis is called for is because
the problem of self-esteem has acquired a free-floating character
that can attach itself to virtually any issue. No single group owns
the problem of self-esteem.
This is not surprising since the concept has a diffuse almost metaphorical
character that pops up in a variety of settings. We all know what
it means although it means something different to most people. Even
advocacy research on the subject is forced to concede that that
there is no agreement on the meaning of the term.
One government publication notes that 'self-esteem has received
more attention than almost any other concept as a barometer of coping
and adaptation' before conceding that research is 'not robust enough
to justify any substantive conclusions being drawn'. Yet lack of
consensus about the meaning of the term and the absence of empirical
evidence that demonstrates the problem of self-esteem does not inhibit
officials and advocacy groups from drawing very substantive conclusions
about this subject.
One reason why the absence of scientific affirmation does not act
as a deterrent to the expansion of concern with self-esteem is because
it works as a taken-for-granted common sense cultural concept. Although
its use is often ambiguous it generally connotes the sense of feeling
good about one self.
It is often used inter-changeably with words such as self-respect
and self-confidence. Since feeling happy and confident are desirable
states of mind the importance of self-esteem are unlikely to be
contested. It is worth noting, that in so far as society's preoccupation
with self-esteem is contested, critics tend to question the desirability
of institutions (schools, government etc) being in the business
of raising self esteem. Even research that questions the prevalence
of the self-esteem deficit, concede that 'self-esteem can be raised
through planned interventions.
There is nothing unique about the aspiration for happiness and
self-respect. What distinguishes contemporary Britain is that the
lack of self-respect is seen as problem in its own right. It is
assumed that individuals and communities today, suffer from an exceptionally
low level of self-esteem. Secondly, it is widely held that this
deficit is the source of most social problems. Finally, it is assumed
that individuals and institutions can solve these problems by raising
the level of self-esteem.
These three ideas represent a cultural myth that reflects and reinforces
the ascendancy of therapeutic ethos in Britain. This myth is not
so much the outcome of conscious problem construction as a cultural
statement about the human condition. It can be conceptualised as
a cultural resource that allows people's state of mind to be problematised,
manipulated and politicised.
Making sense of personhood
An exploration of the workings of the problematisation of self
esteem inexorably leads to a consideration of the prevailing ideas
about human subjectivity and personhood, that is British culture's
ethnopsychology. 'Every culture contains a set of ideas and beliefs
about the nature of human beings, what motivates them to act, the
way they perceive the world, how their minds work, and the emotions
that are natural to them', writes Hewitt in his description of the
concept of ethnopsychology. Ideas about emotion, individual behaviour
and vulnerability are underpinned by the particular account that
a culture offers about personhood and the human potential.
As Derek Summerfield argues, such accounts embody questions as
'how much or what kind of adversity a person can face and still
be "normal"; what is a reasonable risk; when fatalism
is appropriate and when a sense of grievance is, what is acceptable
behaviour at a time of crisis including how distress should be expressed,
how help should be sought, and whether restitution should be made'.
Until the eighties, the British cultural script regarding personhood
invoked notions of 'stoicism, understatement, the stiff upper lip
and of fortitude (e.g. bulldog tenacity' which popular memory associates
with the nations experience during Second World War). Although,
as with all cultural constructs, the notion of British fortitude
represented an idealised version of human behaviour, it helped frame
the interpretation of everyday life including the experience of
adversity. Since the late eighties this cultural orientation has
given way to a far more permissive emotional style
After the unprecedented display of public emotionalism over the
death of Princess Diana in 1997, it is difficult to sustain the
myth that Britain is the land of the stiff upper lip. Since this
event, the powerful influence of therapeutic culture on British
society has been widely acknowledged. 'The age of British reserve
is over', concluded one comparative study of national emotional
attitudes. It stated that the British are brasher than French or
the Germans but not as extrovert as Mexicans or Israelis.
Leading social commentators not only acknowledge this development
but also tend to welcome it as a distinctive feature of a more caring
and more expressive New Britain. According to Madeleine Bunting,
a commentator of The Guardian, the focus of British culture has
shifted from the 'life of the mind' to the 'life of the heart'.
She claims that 'rationality has been downgraded, emotion rules'
and boasts that since 'women are better at emoting' they have men
'particularly those over the age of 45 brought up on strict stoicism'
on the run.
The rising tide of an emotionally oriented culture has as its premise
a new version of personhood. As I discuss elsewhere, the defining
feature of contemporary ideas about the individual is its emotional
Through the problem of self-esteem people gain meaning about their
disappointments and their sense of lack of control over their life.
The concept of self-esteem affirms the sense of human vulnerability
and legitimises the problems that individuals have in coping with
the trials of everyday life. The myth of self-esteem offers an orientation
towards life that defines human emotion as the site where social
problems are constructed and where they are to be managed.
It is tempting to conceptualise the contemporary culture's preoccupation
with self- esteem as the outcome of clearly discernible tendencies
towards individualisation and the privileging of the self. Hewitt
situates this concept within the wider project of the creation of
the language of the self.
However, the historical trend towards individualisation does not
account for the peculiarly vulnerable version of the self that is
associated with the discourse on self-esteem. Ideas about self-esteem
have as their premise a uniquely fragile conception of personhood.
And this distinct version of personhood expresses not a robust but
of a diminished consciousness of the individual.
Nor does the self-esteem deficit simply provide a diagnosis of
the individual self. It represents a general statement about the
human condition, which is why whole communities and entire categories
of people can be deemed to suffer from low self-esteem. That is
why low self-esteem can be frequently represented as a community-wide
The construction of social problems is invariably associated with
the role of moral entrepreneurs. In this case, moral entrepreneurs
play only a minimal role since the problematisaton of self-esteem
is rarely associated with the moral fault of any individual deviant.
Since whole communities and virtually the entire population are
implicated with the consequences of the self-esteem deficit, promoters
of this issue do not directly construct boundaries between normal
and deviant. Following John Hewitt's analysis of the growth of the
myth of self-esteem in the US, it is more useful to focus on the
role of what he calls conceptual entrepreneurs.
According to Hewitt, 'conceptual entrepreneurs are those who
to develop and promote ideas about the solution of individual problems'.
Through focusing on a single concept, e.g. self-esteem, conceptual
entrepreneurs seek to persuade people that raising self-esteem will
make them and the world a happier place. Hewitt argues that in contrast
to moral entrepreneurs, who promote ideas about right and wrong,
conceptual entrepreneurs focus on solutions to problems'.
An exploration of the role of conceptual entrepreneurs lies outside
the purview of this discussion. Suffice it to say that as in the,
they are active in many fields of life. They are active in academia,
mental health profession, education, industry, NGOs and the domain
of public policy.
In many ways, the cultural affirmation provided to those suffering
from low self-esteem can be can usefully understood through the
concept of the sick role developed by Talcott Parsons.
Parsons stated that the sick role exempted the individual from
having to behave in accordance with prevailing social and moral
expectations, since 'being ill cannot ordinarily be conceived to
be the fault of the sick person' and 'illness can justify certain
exemptions from normal expectations of performance'.
Parsons saw the sick role as a temporary one, during which the
therapist could establish an important emotional connection with
the patient based on the exercise of detached empathy. During this
relationship, the therapist's diagnosis of illness shapes the way
the individual understands his or her condition. Since definitions
of illness are informed by prevailing cultural norms and expectations,
the assignment of the sick role contains the potential for motivating
the reintegration of the patient into the wider social system.
Parsons failed to conceptualise the impact that the institutionalisation
of permissive therapeutics could have on culture. The relationship
between permissive therapeutics and the prevailing normative order
is one of permanent tension. Once permissiveness is granted to some
individuals some of the time, it becomes difficult to contain other
demands for exemption from the prevailing normative order.
As Lasch concluded, 'inappropriately extended beyond the consulting
therapeutic morality encourages a permanent suspension
of the moral sense'. Therapeutic culture blurs the line that divides
the state illness from that of being well and potentially provides
everyone with access to exemptions from the prevailing normative
order. In the case of self-esteem, a week version of the sick role
is posited. However, unlike Parson's sick role, the state of low
self-esteem is not a temporary condition but the defining form of
existence for certain individuals and communities. The discourse
of self-esteem can enjoy such privileged status because it gives
meaning to the ambivalent relationship between being ill and being
In an interesting contribution Donileen Loseke draws attention
to the importance of the process of 'people production' through
construction of social problems. She argues that 'claims construct
ways to "think" and to "feel" about people-categories'.
The discourse on self-esteem which is underpinned by a distinct
view of subjectivity also assists the construction of the
type of people that inhabit contemporary therapeutic categories.
It helps make sense of the experience of personhood while instructing
the individual just what kind of people they are. Loseke points
out that the 'construction of people-types is consequential for
the subsequent official interactional production of people'.
Although claim makers play a role in this process, the construction
of a culturally accepted and sanctioned version of personhood can
not be directly attributed to their initiative. As Lasch argues
personality is embedded in a specific culture and society. He notes
that 'every society reproduces its culture its norms, its
underlying assumptions, its modes of organizing experience
in the individual, in the form of personality'.
If the concept of self-esteem did not exist, other ideas that posit
the condition of fragile subjectivity and connect it to a wider
network of social problems would have emerged.
Given, contemporary ideas about the condition of fragile personhood,
the problematisation of self-esteem requires little self-conscious
construction. Indeed, in this context, self-esteem is best conceptualised
as a cultural resource to be used by claim makers in a variety to
The politicisation of self-esteem
By straddling the divide that separates the public from the private,
self-esteem becomes readily susceptible to politicisation . According
to campaigners, the issue of self-esteem is a 'political matter'.
'There is no more important task in a modern state than bringing
up the next generation to be confident, interested and generous
This lobby argues that 'security promotes self-esteem' and hence
promoting psychological well being is the business of the state.
Therapeutic activists regard individual distress as the key issue
for government. 'There are increasing numbers of us who are no longer
content to just mop up the emotional mess of individual distress
caused by the torrents of low self-esteem seeping into the fabric
of our society', writes one activist before adding that 'we are
urging the powers behind the thrones of public policy and business
to take their share of responsibility'. From the standpoint of therapeutic
activists, tackling the plague of low self-esteem is the pre-requisite
for the creation of a just society.
British officialdom and its institutions have proved to be remarkably
responsive to the demand that it takes responsibility for the self-esteem
of the public. Indeed, the problematisation of self-esteem is both
internalised and actively promoted by the state. Concern with the
self-esteem deficit has become institutionalised through a large
number of social programmes designed to solve an expanding range
of problems. Public policy is not simply oriented towards the emotional
well being of the individual citizen. Some programmes seek to raise
the self-esteem of whole schools and communities.
The politicisation of self-esteem has been fuelled by the reorientation
of the welfare state towards the repair of psychical injury and
related therapeutic functions. Although this shift the style of
governance is not the subject of our discussion, it is worth noting
that this development represents an attempt to confront the problem
of legitimation faced by authorities throughout the Western World.
Through supporting the aspiration of citizen's to achieve a sense
of esteem, the state has sought to establish points of contact with
an otherwise disenchanted public. Self-esteem discourse readily
helps connect private problems with public solutions. Through its
institutionalisation it also provides an instrument of governance
to what has been characterised as the therapeutic state.
The institutionalisation of the therapeutic ethos is clearly demonstrated
in the case of Britain. 'It is telling that technologies similar
to those employed by counselling have now become part and parcel
of the way in which the current British government governs its people'
Since, the early eighties when counselling emerged as a government
policy directed at reintegrating the unemployed, therapeutic intervention
has become a normal feature of social policy. These policies paralleled
by the 'explosion of the therapy and counselling industry in Britain'
has led to the colonisation of what David Smail calls the 'territory
of ordinary social discourse'.
Moreover, the loss of credibility in the project of classical welfarism
has encouraged the state to adopt a more individualised and therapeutic
style of policy making. Increasingly, policies are represented as
'supporting' and 'empowering' if not quite treating individuals.
As Barbara Cruikshank argues in relation to the rise of the self-esteem
movement in the US, this development is 'premised upon the limits
of politics and the welfare state'. It is worth noting that some
of the most vociferous promoters of the problem of the self-esteem
deficit are former leftists and trade unionists, who have substituted
the repair of psychic damage for their previous commitment to welfare
state led social reform.
Since the mid nineties, policies are justified on the grounds that
they 'support' a particular target group. Policy does not so much
aim to 'solve' problems but to support otherwise disempowered clients.
This is particularly the case with policies that are designed to
tackle social exclusion and encourage inclusion. The manner in which
the language of social exclusion and inclusion is used conveys the
impression that people suffer from disadvantage as a condition of
Norman Fairclough's study of the language on New Labour suggests
that social exclusion is conceptualised as a 'condition people are
in, not something that is done to them. Social exclusion is rarely
presented as a process but rather something like illness that people
suffer from. That is why the experience of social exclusion is frequently
presented as a subjective one. 'Social exclusion is perceived and
experienced 'subjectively', write the authors of a report for the
Scottish Executive. In this report, this experience is presented
as a form of social isolation that encompasses ' lack of contact
with other people, a feeling of being trapped, low self-esteem and
self-confidence, and feelings of insecurity, hopelessness and depression'.
The same point is echoed by the Library and Information Commission's
report Libraries: the essence of inclusion. The report indicates
that social exclusion is experienced subjectively and is therefore
specific and relative to each individual, group or environment'.
Here the erosion of civic solidarity and of informal networks is
recast as essentially a psychological problem.
Of course every social phenomenon is experienced subjectively.
However, with the concept of exclusion, the psychological dimension
acquires a decisive significance.
The Library and Information Commission explicitly focuses on what
it calls the 'psychology of exclusion'. It notes that 'individuals
may become excluded through; experiencing or perceiving alienation;
isolation; lack of identity; low self confidence, low self-esteem;
passivity; dependence, bewilderment, fear, anger, apathy, low aspirations
Tackling this psychology of exclusion is not simply justified on
the ground that it assists social integration but also because managing
this condition of psychological distress is increasingly interpreted
as an integral part of the business of the state. This tendency
for state policy to address the condition of suffering is supported
by wider cultural norms, which as Brown notes, regard 'suffering
as the measure of social virtue'. Thus inclusion, both at the level
of policy making and that of culture represent an attempt to fulfil
the demand for recognition and affirmation
In its most extreme form, the ethos of inclusion subordinates social
and cultural policies to the exigencies of recognition and the therapeutic
ethos. Take the domain of culture. The Department for Culture Media
and Sport (DCMS) has vigorously promoted the inclusion agenda by
promoting projects that make people feel good about themselves.
To this end it has targeted museums, galleries, cultural organisations
like the Art Council and local cultural services to adopt its therapeutic
approach. Local organisations, interested in gaining funding have
quickly fallen in line. Thus the Director of Leisure and Cultural
Services of Wigan Council promotes the benefits of sports, art and
play on the grounds that these activities 'improve cognitive and
social skills; reduce impulsiveness and risk taking behaviours;
raise self esteem and self confidence and improve education and
Sport bodies requesting government funding now know that they need
to flag up their commitment to social inclusion and advertise its
therapeutic benefits. 'Sport is an ideal vehicle for improving self
esteem and helping people feel better about themselves', claims
The Government has established a special team of advisors called
PAT (Policy Action Team), that specialises in policies that target
social exclusion through raising the self-esteem of the excluded.
It is worth noting, that the Policy Action Team 10 social inclusion
report to the DCMS acknowledged the potential for subordinating
cultural services to demands of therapeutic recognition. 'We do
not believe that every artist or sportsperson should be a social
worker by another name, or that artistic or sporting excellence
should take second place to community regeneration', it noted.
However, artistic excellence was conspicuously absent from the
examples of best practice that the report promoted. One scheme praised
by PAT 10 was a centre in Manchester, where people recovering from
mental illness 'find that the arts are not merely a powerful antidote
to loneliness, but also a significant means of self-fulfilment and
of giving pleasure to others'.
The DCMS has wholeheartedly embraced the spirit of therapeutic
culture. A recent document published by the DCMS, Centres for Social
Change: Museums, Galleries and Archives for All demands that curators
of museums and galleries take on board the objective of 'combating
social exclusion'. It instructs curators that they have a duty to
'increase individuals' self-worth, value and motivation' and to
raise 'self-esteem'. This goal of transforming Britain's cultural
institutions into centres for therapeutic engagement with excluded
people is one of the clearest illustrations of the project to construct
a public infrastructure for the cultivation of a therapeutic ethos.
Critics of the project of recasting social problems into that of
exclusion sometimes interpret it as reflecting an agenda committed
to moralising. This thesis is most persuasively argued by Ruth Levitas
who claims that the approach of the Social Exclusion Unit
is 'about the pursuit of moral conformity and social order, presented
Whilst this thesis captures an important aspect of the process,
it is important to note that the objective of conformity is rarely
expressed in a morally literate form. Indeed, the reorientation
from social with a capital S policy making, can be most accurately
interpreted as part of a wider turn towards the therapeutic. Let's
look at the experience so far.
The institutionalisation of therapeutic policy making received
a major boost in the eighties under the conservative Thatcher and
Major regimes. During the Thatcher era, many counsellors and therapists
were astonished by the sudden demand for their services by the public
sector. "What is however both ironic and reassuring for those
of us who have been in the counselling and guidance field for years,
is the sudden appearance as part of the common core in both prevocational
education based courses and in Youth Training Schemes (YTS), of
such components variously labelled as counselling and guidance,
reflecting upon experience, social and life skills, personal effectiveness
and personal development', wrote a delighted proponent of the counselling
movement in 1984.
Although therapeutic politics making acquired momentum in the eighties,
it was under the Blair Government, that it came to exercise an important
influence on the presentation of public policy. One of the principal
underlying assumption that informs New Labour policy making is the
importance of connecting with people's emotional needs and to offer
measures that can boost the electorate's self esteem.
New Labour rhetoric is deeply embedded within the therapeutic discourse.
Concepts like the Third Way, social inclusion and exclusion are
directly wedded towards the objective of offering public recognition
to the emotional needs of the British public. For example, according
to Tony Blair, the problem of social exclusion is not so much about
material poverty as about destructive influences that are 'damaging
to self esteem'. Not surprisingly, almost every initiative promoted
by the Blair Government's Social Exclusion Unit is designed to raise
people's self esteem.
Some of New Labour's most highly publicised initiatives
teenage pregnancy, employment schemes, parenting initiatives
prescribe the raising of self-esteem as its main objective. So a
Government initiative designed to tackle under achievement by girls
promised to 'boost girls' self-esteem'.
Getting people to feel good about themselves influences Government
policy in education and health. Margaret Hodge, former under-secretary
for education and employment remarked that 'developing self confidence,
self esteem and social skills is as vital as learning to hold a
pencil and count to ten', when the Government announced its plan
to spend £ 8 billion on an integrated early years and childcare
strategy'. An integrated health care initiative launched in February
1999 was promoted on the grounds that the real health problem in
many communities was 'lack of self esteem'.
The Government's Rough Sleepers Unit continually emphasises the
importance of giving 'homeless people the help and support they
need to rebuild their lives, restore self-esteem and a sense of
self-worth'. The Government's 'Healthy Schools Initiative' is 'committed
to valuing and promoting the well-being of all its pupils; and providing
the necessary support to enhance self-esteem'.
The June 2000 Government sponsored 'Body Image Summit' is paradigmatic
in this respect. During the months preceding this event Government
Ministers spoke out on the alleged danger that the pressure to be
thin posed for young women's self-esteem.
According to Tessa Jowell, the then Minister for Women, young women
are 'being held back from fulfilling their aspirations and reaching
their potential because they lack confidence and self-esteem'.
Helping young girls to raise their self-esteem is also advocated
by the SEU on the ground that it will help them to say no to sex
if they choose. Consequently social problems are increasingly presented
as rooted in psychological pathologies that require therapeutic
treatment. Even the hard-nosed Treasury has adopted this approach.
One of its consultation documents, Enterprise and Social Exclusion
argues that local development policies will be marginal unless they
help foster 'people's skills and self-esteem'. Other consultation
papers argue that people can be 'removed from economic deprivation'
through 'raising poor self-esteem'.
Many of New Labour's distinctive policies target people's emotions
and offer counselling, and therapy as part of its programme. This
approach has gained prominence in the field of education policy.
There is now a manifest tendency for school pupil's socialisation
to take the form of emotional training. It is worth noting that
a British Government Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship
and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools considers self esteem as
an important core skill. The Department of Education's guiding statement
on 'Sex and Relationship' education instructs schools to undertake
the task of building pupil's self-esteem. Schools are advised to
prepare young people to have 'the confidence and self esteem to
value themselves and others'.
A similar approach informs the pedagogic perspective of the Scottish
Executive. Its national guidelines insists that if pupils lack self-esteem,
they are 'unlikely to make progress in classroom learning. Accordingly
Scottish schools offer special focus programmes which attempt to
develop children's emotional skills. The most widely used technique
is 'circle time' in which 'pupils sit in a circle and say something
about their own feelings on a special issue'. They may be asked
to complete a sentence beginning "I feel happy when' or 'I
feel sad when'. This technique is often linked to the realisation
of the objective of emotional intelligence, 'that is the ability
to understand and mange one's own emotion.
Although, the development of emotional education within the national
curriculum is still at an early stage, some local authorities have
already adopted a self consciously therapeutic approach. In 1998,
the Southampton Educational Authority took a decision to assign
emotional intelligence the same level of importance as 'ordinary'
Southampton teachers are encouraged to 'take time and stare' in
order to understand their own emotions so that they can help develop
the emotional literacy of their pupils. A variety of Government
sponsored pilot projects aim to assess whether therapeutic techniques
can be used effectively as teaching tools.
One project, which involves 4 secondary and 2 primary schools in
East London, presents itself as an experiment to see whether psychotherapeutic
techniques can help children do better in class'. The first phase
of this project involves the carrying out of an 'emotional literacy
audit' in each school. Once problems areas have been identified,
an action plan will be devised, leading to initiatives like anger
management schemes and meditation sessions.
Another project, based in Lambeth Supporting Parents on Kids
Education is run by Stephen Scott, a child psychiatrist.
This 3-year project aims to give children a good start by developing
their self-esteem. The project also aims to involve the children's
parents in a therapeutic relationship in order to show them how
The SEU's therapeutic style draws heavily on the approach associated
with John Vasconcellos, the State Senator representing the Silicon
Valley in California. Vasconcellos, one of the leading advocates
of therapeutic politics regards self esteem as a 'social vaccine
safeguarding us all' from a variety of social ills. 'Our future
wellbeing, economic as well as social, depends upon appreciating,
incorporating everybody into our California family, as healthy growing
responsible persons', notes Vasconcellos.
In Britain, Californian self-actualising psychology is tempered
by the legacy of the welfare state, leading to a synthesis, which
some of its supporters call 'positive welfare'. Writing in this
vein, Anthony Giddens asserts that 'welfare is not in essence an
economic concept, but a psychic one, concerning as it does well-being'
and therefore 'welfare institutions must be concerned with fostering
psychological as well as economic benefits'.
As an illustration of these psychological benefits, Giddens points
to the provision of therapy: 'counselling, for example, might sometimes
be more helpful than direct economic support', This shift of emphasis
towards the affirmation of the self is not just a minor add-on to
traditional welfare concerns but represents an attempt to forge
a link with an intensely individualised and fragmented public.
The internalisation of the therapeutic imperative by the British
State has a long history. However, the import of this trend was
rarely acknowledged and was certainly not self-consciously promoted
as an explicit political project. In recent years, however therapeutic
policies have assumed considerable significance as part of the New
Labour project of modernising the Welfare State.
The political approach associated with this project, particularly
its emphasis on the concept of social inclusion is oriented towards
establishing points contact with an individuated British public
through the therapeutic management of social problems.
One of the underlying features of this approach is the need for
public authority to offer recognition and esteem to the individual
self. Principally, inclusion is about offering recognition to otherwise
misrecognised or invisible groups and individuals. It offers the
right to esteem to all sections of society. Blair has defined his
vision of a good society as one committed to the 'belief in the
equal worth of all'.
This recognition accorded to an individual's worth represents an
important shift from the previous concept of social equality to
that of the idea of 'equality of esteem'. As a psychological/pseudo
moral concept, equal worth has little in common with previous ideas
about either equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes.
It also has little in common with the distinction often drawn in
moral philosophy between respect and esteem. According to Fraser,
this distinction contrasts respect which is 'owed universally to
every person in virtue of shared humanity and esteem, which is accorded
differentially on the 'basis of persons' specific traits, accomplishments,
The importance that Government policy makers attach to solving
problems through raising people's self esteem is driven by the conviction
that some of the key problems facing people are rooted in a private
sphere that characteristically fosters emotional havoc and which
produces emotionally illiterate individuals who are unable to sustain
thriving relationships or act as responsible citizens.
For its part, the public has no objection to policies that promise
to make it feel better about themselves. However, it is unlikely
that the public has serious expectations about the efficacy of therapeutic
governance. Its relation to these policies is that of acquiescence.
For most, the main merit of the politicisation of self-esteem is
that it provides an exemption from having to reflect or to take
responsibility for the failures of life.
Outwardly the politics of self-esteem holds out the promise that
individuals are, at least potentially in charge of their destiny.
However this promise proves to be an illusory one. Acceptance of
an ideology that medicalises distress and low achievement forces
the individual citizen into a relationship of dependency with the
professional and the institutions of therapy. Inevitably, as Gergen
suggests, when a sense of deficit is inflicted through professional
intervention it leads to the enfeeblement of the self. That makes
it doubly attractive to government. Through this relationship of
passivity a new relationship of subservience is forged with the
institutions of the state.