Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Making people feel good about themselves
British social policy and the construction of the problem of self-esteem

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 society alike.

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 problem.

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 little self-esteem'.

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 active tasks'.

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 people'.

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 common-sensical manner.

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 lobby.

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 education establishment.

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 developments.

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 vulnerability.

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 issue.

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…seek 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 room…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 well.

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 settings.

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 citizens'.

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' notes Arnason.

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 their existence.

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 and hopelessness'.

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 employment prospects'.

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 Sport Scotland.

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 as help'.

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' literacy.

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 to parent.

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, or contributions'.

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.