Filling the World with Self-Esteem: A Social History of Truth-Making

Steven Ward


Over the last one hundred years the concept of self-esteem has grown from a fragile idea used to ground the newly emerging discipline of psychology to a basic truth about human experience and motivation. In this paper, I examine t he historical construction of the concept of self-esteem and its rise to the status of undeniable truth. Borrowing from actor-network theory in science and technology studies, I argue that truth-making can be seen as an ongoing process involving t he mobilization of human and non-human actants and the construction of an encompassing network of truth. This approach is used to show how self-esteem slowly came to dominate discussions of the self in the twentieth century. The paper also uses ac tor-network theory to critique other contemporary accounts of truth, particularly those found in scientific realism, postmodern textualism, and social constructionism.


Since it first entered the discourse of the human sciences in the late nineteenth century, self-esteem has become one of the more important and prolific concepts in psychological research, psychotherapy, and popular discussions of the self and self-help. High levels of self-esteem are said to lead to a host of positive attributes, such as good academic performance (Dukes and Lorch, 1989), well-adjusted children (Buri, Kirchner, and Walsh, 1987), happy marriages (Thornstam, 1992), and a healthy sex life (Hally and Pollack, 1993). In contrast, low levels of self-esteem have been linked to such widely varying issues and problems as teenage pregnancy (Crockenberg and Soby, 1989), suicide (Choquet, Kovess, and Poutignat, 1993), fires tarting (Stewart, 1993), and homicide (see Lowenstein, 1989).

For some people, low levels of self-esteem are not only a central cause of various psychological problems, but are also an important contributing factor to a multitude of social problems. Echoing this view, Neil Smelser (1989: 1) stated that "m any, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many of the people who make up society." Such a view of the important relationship between self-esteem and social problems led in 1987 to the establishme nt of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. The task force's final report stated that "the lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation" (1990: 4). John Vasconcellos, the California law-maker responsible for the formation of the task force, compared the new emphasis on self-esteem with unlocking the secrets of the atom and the mysteries of outer space (Vasconcellos, 1989: xi). He went so f ar as to connect self-esteem with governmental budget deficits by arguing that "people with self-esteem produce income and pay taxes....those without tend to be users of taxes" (quoted in Baumeister, 1993: viii).

The above remarks give credence to the idea that self- esteem is an intrinsic and universal part of human experience. In fact, over the last forty years the discourse on self-esteem has become so widely distributed and encompassing that its role in shaping behavior has become an undeniable truth about human existence and motivation. However, self-esteem, like all concepts and truth-claims, has a history. This history is essentially a social one: it is only "arrived at, sustained, and rec ognized through collective action" (Shapin, 1994: 6). This paper is an attempt to construct a brief history of the concept of self- esteem. It can be seen as an example of what Hacking (1988: 54) has referred to as the "sociology of concept formati on." While the origins of the term self-esteem can be traced at least to the seventeenth century (Steinem, 1992: 31), I am particularly interested in the use of term within the last one hundred years. I want to examine how, within this time fram e, the concept has been used as a conceptual key for unlocking the "inherent secrets" of human behavior and as a cure for social and individual problems. Like Hacking's (1995: 16) recent study of multiple personality disorder, I am also concerned with how self-esteem came into existence, "and how it has made and molded our life, our customs, our science."

Making the claim that psychological concepts are constructed and not discovered is certainly not new (see Gergen and Davis, 1985; Stam, Rogers, and Gergen, 1987; Gergen, 1989; Danziger, 1990; Parker and Shotter, 1992). However, these accounts a re often very imprecise about how such social construction is accomplished. In other words, while many of these accounts concur that ideas, truths, concepts, and theories are all to be seen as social constructs rather than reflections of reality, few provide detailed descriptions of the various linkages that make up a construct. Many social constructionist accounts also suffer from the problem of reflexivity, which accompanies most discussions of the relationship between knowledge and so ciety (see Lawson, 1985; Ashmore, 1989). Within this problem the arguments of social constructionists can easily be turned on their own accounts. For instance, if a concept is seen as merely the result of social forces, then the idea that social f orces are the cause of the concept must also be the result of social forces. In most cases, this problem creates a reflexivistic spiral which renders the constructionist arguments about the social constitution of knowledge paradoxical and ineffect ive (see Woolgar, 1988; 1992).

The importance of the approach to be advanced here lies in its attempt to develop a more detailed, and arguably less contradictory, way for sociologists to approach knowledge. In a departure from most previous approaches in the sociology of kno wledge, I will be concerned with more than the social conditions that led to the concept's origin and development. Borrowing from the actor-network perspective of M. Callon and B. Latour, as well as other perspectives in science and technology stu dies, I am interested in tracing the heterogenous processes involved in the formation of an encompassing network of truth. I am concerned with describing the transformation of a weak statement made by an individual psychologist into a strong state ment which dominates many discussions of the self within the human sciences, as well as psychological testing measures, therapeutical techniques, psychology textbooks, self-help manuals, and public discourse. In general, I am concerned with the process of truth-making or objectification -- how advocates of a fragile concept are able to recruit and mobilize enough allies to forge a network of truth so strong and encompassing that the concept becomes a self-evident matter of fact and fades into the background of accepted knowledge.

In order to explore how the world comes to be slowly filled with self-esteem, I will first focus on how everyone comes to know something. In contrast to the realist view of knowledge, I argue that conceptualization is not the unearthing of the always-already-there or the manifestation of a natural order-of-things, but a thoroughly associational process involving the establishment of a strong network of heterogeneous allies and a resulting encompassing organizational mythology. Second, I will explore the development and expansion of the concept of self-esteem in the period from the 1890s through the early 1970s. In this section, I will examine how self-esteem was made durable and transportable by both linking it with a newly emer ging conception of human nature in psychology and by making it an indispensable conceptual tool for experimental psychology and psychotherapy. Specifically, I will argue that this period marks the transformation of self-esteem from revolutionary to normal knowledge (see Kuhn, 1962). Next, I will consider how self-esteem becomes retranslated and attached to self-help and parenting manuals in the 1970s and '80s, and how this linkage allowed the concept to become a "matter of fact" known to all. Finally, I will examine some of the implications of an actor-network treatment of truth- making for some of the current positions on knowledge.

Making Everyone Know Something

Within the traditional model of scientific realism, concepts are said to be discovered rather than created. The laws of nature, society, or human nature have ordered the world in such a way that knowledge producers are capable of extracting and conceptualizing the essential classification system embedded in reality. However, from this perspective, reality will not unlock its conceptual secrets to just anyone. The "mirroring of reality" will occur if, and only if, proper methodology has been followed and the evidence is open to scrutiny in peer evaluation and in the process of replication. For scientific realists, conceptual language is merely a neutral instrument for conveying what is already there.

Such a realist view of truth formation has grown increasing untenable in the last half of the twentieth century, primarily as the result of the growth of poststructuralism and deconstruction, or what is generally labeled as postmodern theory. F rom these postmodern positions, it is linguistic practices or the act of signification which create reality. For postmodernists, language can no longer be thought of as the "neutral instrument of a triumphant content" (Barthes, 1976: 10), but as the key ingredient in the constitution of all reality states. Discourse is not to be seen as merely a group of referential signs, "but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak" (Foucault, 1972: 49). The end result of establishing language and rhetoric as primary in knowledge-making is that there comes to be nothing beyond the text (Derrida, 1976). There is no unmediated reality waiting to be unlocked by accurate conceptualization and representation, only more and more signification (see Rorty, 1991). All attempts to escape or subdue language, such as in scientific discourse, feed back on themselves and "engender the repetition and continuation of literature" (De Man, 1971: 162). As a result, postmode rnists conclude that all truth is to be seen exclusively as a discursive creation.

While the postmodern positions have done much to debunk the realist model of truth, they still tell us very little about the power to nominate (Ward, 1995). Principally, they fail to provide an adequate account of how some forms of writings or texts become widespread and powerful while others remain local and weak. Part of the postmodern inability to fully explain truth-building appears to be the result of the "spell of representation" (see Pickering, 1993) which captivated modern reali sts as well (see Shapiro, 1983: 227). This spell has led postmodernists to conclude that if we can not have reality, we can only have texts about reality. In making this move postmodernists simply flip the dualistic epistemology of modernism and r econfigure its either/or logic (Ward, 1994). They, therefore, remain modern to the core (see Latour, 1990).

A different approach to concept formation and truth- making can be found in science and technology studies, particularly in the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour (1987; 1988b; 1988c) and Michel Callon (1986; 1987). Actor- network theory seeks to negotiate a path between modern realism, which creates an asymmetry between scientific and non-scientific knowledge claims, and postmodern nominalism, which levels all distinctions between scientific and non- scientific knowledge and, as a resul t, truth and falsehood. Actor-network theory does not accept the modern argument that concepts are capable of mirroring reality or the postmodern assertion that all truth claims are of textual origin and, therefore, symmetrical or equal. Instead, actor- network theory looks at the ways in which concepts are crafted and spread; the means through which some statements become more encompassing than others; and, finally, the ways in which some claims are made to be asymmetrical from others. I n other words, actor-network theory is concerned with the practices which make some claims larger, stronger, and more resilient than others.

For actor-network theory any statement about the world begins as a fragile assertion made by an individual or a small group. In order for a fragile assertion to become accepted truth, it must enroll enough allies and enlist sufficient resources to establish a strong and encompassing network. Network construction occurs as a statement enlists human allies, such as other authors in citations, students in the classroom, or funding support from governmental or corporate agencies; as it inco rporates non-human allies such as charts, graphs, experimental tests, statistical models, microbes, or DNA (see Callon, 1986; 1987); and as it succeeds in deconstructing and reversing the statements of its opponents (Fuchs and Ward, 1994). Few sta tements are able to build a strong and resilient enough network to become truth. These weak statements, like most statements, fall by the way-side and become "false starts" rather than truths (see Price, 1986). However, those few statements that are successful in building a strong and encompassing network of support are able to establish and enforce a regime of truth (see Feyerabend, 1987). In this case, the heterogenous assortment of humans and non-humans has become so powerful and enco mpassing that they become part of the "normal knowledge" found in introductory lectures, textbooks, popular magazines, and everyday "shop-talk."

What is more, in the process of network building these strong statements often become objectified or "black boxed" in testing materials, computer software, or laboratory equipment (Galison, 1987). When this happens, the statement has succeeded in becoming a "matter of fact" (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985: 22-23) which everyone "in the truth" (Foucault, 1971) already knows. What began as a fragile, local, soft, and subjective statement has now been transformed by objectifying practices and n etwork formation into a resilient and universal truth: perspective has been turned into fact (see Daston, 1992). In the end, the work of a strong associational network of allies has produced natural order (see Collins, 1985).

For actor-network theory, truth has more in common with cable TV than the description provided by traditional epistemology (Latour, 1993; see Haraway, 1991: 248). A statement must plug in others in order to become true. Conversely, one must be plugged-in to be a part of the network of the truthful. Essentially, a statement must establish itself as an "obligatory point of passage" in the understanding of a particular phenomenon in order to become powerful (Latour, 1987). This process all ows a statement to insinuate itself into the "activities of other institutions and interest groups" (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985: 342). This insinuation makes the statement indispensable for anyone claiming to have an understanding of a particular t opic, object, or phenomenon.

The successful construction of a network of truth allows a knowledge producing collectivity to be formed and for "normal science" (Kuhn, 1962) to proceed. The collectivity establishes the newly crafted fact as a collective representation or myt hology of the associational network. The collective representation serves to routinize the practical activities of the organization, establish the range of cognition, economize on decision making, establish internal hierarchical and group boundari es, and ritualized the further establishment of facts (Wynne, 1982; Fuchs, 1992). The newly established fact may also serve as a moral weapon to be used against transgressors of the group's normative order or to convert the remaining isolated pock ets of conceptual atheists or heathens.

Science and technology studies reveal concepts to be created by people, at least certain types of people. However, concepts can also be seen as creating people. They are part of the process Hacking (1986) refers to as "making up people." Concep ts create new categories for scholars, bureaucrats, physicians, psychiatrists, laypeople, and other analysts to place people in and a means through which to understand, manipulate, and/or control them. As Foucault (1980) has pointed out, modern po wer configurations implant a human nature or natural order into the person and then force or persuade the individual to confess this implanted human nature. As classical labeling theory suggests, concepts also serve as collective symbols or labels through which individuals can identify and define themselves (see Matza, 1969). They become part of a group's collective consciousness or structure of meaning and, thereby, direct future cognitive and practical activities.

Building the Network of Self-Esteem: From Revolutionary to Normal Knowledge

Theories of the self have a long history in Western philosophy and the human sciences, particularly since the advent of modernity (see Taylor, 1989). Accompanying these theories have been reflections on how the self can improve, enhance, or sus tain itself, particularly in the face of the objectifying and, for some, dehumanizing forces of modern society (see Starker, 1989). While the concept of self- esteem is obviously linked to these historical theories and reflections on the self, it h as only been since the early twentieth century that the concept has been employed as a tool for unlocking the inherent secrets of human behavior. Since this time, self-esteem, or such corollaries as self- efficacy, self-concept, self-evaluation, or self-ideal congruency, have come to be viewed as something that everyone possesses in varying degrees. By determining the degree of self-esteem possessed by an individual, it becomes possible to access, predict, control, or enhance an individua l's life.

The origins of the concept of self-esteem can be traced to the advent of self-psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within this period, writers like William James, C.H. Cooley, and G.H. Mead began to position the conc ept of self at the center of psychology and social psychology (see Coopersmith, 1967: 29-31; Wells and Marwell, 1976: 15-18). In contrast to the behaviorists, who avoided the concept of the self because of its unobservable and amorphous quality, s elf psychologists openly accepted it as a key for gaining an understanding of the individual and as a central focus for establishing the newly emerging discipline of psychology.

The first reference to self-esteem in psychology can be found in William James's Principles of Psychology (1950 [1890]). While self-esteem was not a central concern for James, he viewed "self-complacency" and "self- dissatisfaction" as "direct a nd elementary endowments of our nature" (James, 1950: 306). James (1950: 310) argued that self-esteem "is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities." As people experience success in acquiring this basic human need t hey feel a sense of self-satisfaction which builds their self-appreciation. Although James argued that self-esteem derives from a basic need for self-manifestation, he also felt that "self-feeling is in our power" to control (James, 1950: 311). Th is led him to argue that a well-adjusted person was one who could successfully balance actuality with potentiality.

As discussed earlier, after a concept is initially constructed by an individual or group it must be able to insinuate itself into the activities of others or face falling into oblivion. It is not enough for a concept to be simply put forth by a famous and well-respected knowledge producer. A successful concept must enroll enough allies so that it can spread and become stronger. In the case of self- esteem, it was crucial that the concept be transformed into a useful analytical tool in al lied areas within psychology, such as psychotherapy and experimental psychology. In other words, it had to move from being a peripheral concept employed by theoreticians to an indispensable concept for doing the normal, day-to-day science of psych ology and psychotherapy. This move from a revolutionary to a normal concept began to occur during the period between the 1940s through the early 1970s.

During the 1940s and '50s the first comprehensive clinical and experimental studies of self-esteem began to appear. Among the first clinical studies was Maslow's (1942) examination of self-esteem (dominance-feeling) and women's sexuality and V. C. Raimy's (1949) analysis of self-reference in counseling sessions (see Rosenberg, 1965: 271; Hamachek, 1992: 3). Using "semi-psychiatric" interviews, Maslow connected self-esteem with a variety of issues in human sexuality, such as "homosexual b ehavior," sexual position, and frequency and type of orgasm. Maslow also connected self-esteem with marital happiness and success. One of his central conclusions was that "the best marriages in our society...seem to be those in which the husband a nd wife are at the same level of dominance-feeling or in which the husband is somewhat higher in dominance-feeling than the wife" (Maslow, 1942: 278). Raimy's (1949: 154) clinical study argued that an "individual's perception of himself is of ul timate psychological significance in organized behavior." In reviewing the outcome of counseling sessions, Raimy (1949: 161) concluded that "successful cases showed a vast predominance of self-approval: the unsuccessful cases showed a predominance of self-disapproval and ambivalence."

Maslow and Raimy's clinical studies helped spawn a series of clinical studies on the relationship between self- concept and issues such as schizophrenia (Rogers, 1958), Rorschach characteristics (Bills, 1953), marital happiness (Eastman, 1958), the attitudes of psychiatric patients (Tolor, 1957; Whaler, 1958; Zuckerman, Baer, and Monashkin, 1956), and psychopathology (Zuckerman and Monashkin, 1957). During this time period, we also see the first indications of self-esteem being attached to other positions in counseling psychology, particularly the "client-centered therapy" associated with Carl Rogers (see Rogers, 1951; Rogers and Dymond, 1954). These clinical studies, along with a growing interest in self-esteem in already establ ished forms of psychotherapy, helped link the concept of self- esteem to success in therapy. This move expanded the concept's usefulness beyond theoretical understandings of human behavior to the diagnostic tools of practitioners. The concept now began to have practical significance for those seeking to both study and alter "abnormal" and "pathological" behavior.

During the period from the 1940s to the early 1970s, self-esteem also became a central concept in experimental and survey studies in psychology and social psychology (Wylie, 1961: 2). Articles began appearing in some of the leading human behavi or journals relating self-concept and self-esteem to such issues as ethnocentrism (Pearl, 1954), social class (Klausner, 1953), stress (Levanway, 1955; Sharma, 1956), performance (Benjamins, 1950), ingroup/outgroup preference (Brodbeck and Perlmut ter, 1954), aspiration and motivation (Cohen, 1954; Mussen and Jones, 1957), level of social interaction (Manis, 1955), delinquency (Reckless, Dinitz, and Kay, 1957), and private and public failure (Stotland and Zander, 1958). Self-esteem was fa st becoming a central concept for psychologists without the cultural and reputational capital to be called theorists. It now was becoming important for those doing the manual labour of psychology.

During the 1960s the empirical work on self-esteem began to multiply at a rapid pace (Wells and Marwell, 1976). Within this period two important books were published which helped to further establish self-esteem as an indispensable concept for doing psychological research. The first of these was Morris Rosenberg's Society and the Adolescent Self-Image (1965). Rosenberg was among the first to use large-scale survey research techniques to explore the factors which influence self-esteem. R osenberg identified a number of elements which influence the self-esteem level of adolescents, such as family structure, social class, ethnicity, and religion. He also tied self-esteem to a series of personality and social problems such as anxiety , low occupational motivation, leadership potential, and social isolation. Among Rosenberg's conclusions were that parenting and educational tactics were two of the most important factors influencing the development of self-esteem in children an d adolescents.

A second influential book of the 1960s was Stanley Coopersmith's The Antecedents of Self-Esteem (1967). Coopersmith (1967: 236) concluded that "parents of children with high self-esteem are concerned and attentive toward their children, that th ey structure the worlds of their children along lines they believe to be proper and appropriate, and that they permit great freedom within the structures they establish." Coopersmith helped establish a link between parenting style and the level of self-esteem in children and adolescents. This connection, in turn, was said to be an important determinant of the ability of an individual to lead a successful and productive life.

The early years (1942-1973) of empirical work on self- esteem also saw the production of series of scales to measure the concept. Measuring instruments, such as The Twenty Statements, Sherwood's Self-Concept Inventory, The Tennessee Self-Concept Scale, The Self-Esteem Scale, Social Self Esteem Scale, and The Inferred Self-Concept Scale were used in numerous studies of both the causes and effects of self-esteem (see Robinson and Shaver, 1973). This period also spawned debates on which of these measures were the most effective or had the greatest degree of internal and external validity (Wells and Marwell, 1976: 148-49; Wylie, 1961).

Three factors found during the period from the 1940s through the early `70s were crucial for the expansion of the network of self-esteem and for its growing truthfulness. First, self-esteem began to become part of the normal knowledge of clinic al and experimental psychology. It became retranslated and redirected into the daily practices of those doing psychotherapy and empirical psychology. This move allowed the promoters of the concept to recruit and expand into the vocabulary, cogniti ve structures, and practices of a new set of allies. Secondly, the stage is set for the importation of self-esteem into areas outside of psychology. This is particularly true with regard to the work of Rosenberg and Coopersmith. Rosenberg was able to introduce self-esteem into the concerns of policy makers interested in solving social problems and educators interested in increasing academic performance and discipline. Likewise, Coopersmith was able to link self- esteem with parenting role s and obligations. Both of these works would later prove essential in the expansion of self- esteem into self-help literature, parenting manuals, social policy, educational pedagogy, and the discourse of T.V. talkshows. Finally, during this period self-esteem also became objectified in the scales and inventories of normal psychology. While most researchers recognize that scales are approximations and have problems with "construct validity," once a scale is developed and implemented, traces of agency involved in its construction and use are often erased or forgotten. What is at first provisional and tentative becomes reified into the "black boxes" of psychology. As with the case of computer software or machines, as a self- esteem me asure is used over and over and succeeds in producing similar results, the measure becomes more solid and factual (see Collins, 1990). It therefore fades into the background of what is already known.

During the period from the 1940s through the early 1970s, the concept of self-esteem recruited a vast series of human and non-human allies. These allies included psychotherapists, patients, experimenters, experimental subjects, computer graphs, scales and inventories, articles, and books. What started as a fragile statement made by William James had by the early 1970s expanded into an encompassing and heterogenous academic network. The heterogeneity of the network was what made it stron g (see Latour, 1987). Simply undoing or deconstructing the statements of William James or questioning the validity of the Tennessee Self-Concept Scale would not be enough to undo the now expansive network of self-esteem. At this point, the state ment was so interwoven into psychological thinking that nothing short of declaring an end to psychology could stop it.

Enrolling Outsiders: Self-Esteem Becomes Matter-of-Fact

In order for a fragile concept to become an all- encompassing "matter of fact" known to all, it must, in some manner, enroll allies outside of its narrow academic and professional network of support, including the general public. Most concepts n ever achieve this wide-scale enrollment because of the desire to contain access and limit control or because advocates of the concepts are simply unsuccessful in recruiting enough allies (Ward, 1995). Those concepts which remain endemic to academi c and professional networks may serve to enforce boundary divisions between disciplines and sub-disciplines or between professional and lay knowledge or to coordinate the internal normative activities of the group (see Wynne, 1982), but they never succeed at becoming a widespread truth. However, this was not to be the case for the concept of self-esteem.

By the early 1970s psychologists and social psychologists had amassed hundreds of studies of the antecedents of self-esteem and the effects of self-esteem on personal and social issues (Wells and Marwell, 1976: 5). However, during the period of peak self-esteem production, those outside the human sciences remained largely "uneducated" about the concept and its meaning for their lives. This began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the network of self-esteem began to develop n ew coalitions outside the human sciences. During this time frame, the concept was linked with a number of existing social movements and popular issues, such as educational pedagogy, social policy, business success, self-help, women's issues, and parenting advice.

Among the more important attachments during this period were those with the self-help movement. In the context of the United States, the advent of self-help literature has been traced to the Puritan goal of obtaining Christian goodness (Simonds , 1992: 140). However, beginning in the 1950s, particularly with the publication of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), there developed a general revitalization of the idea that "material attainment and personal well-bein g are the results of properly focused desire" (Simonds, 1992: 144). One of the first important works to link personal success with self- esteem was Nathaniel Branden's The Psychology of Self Esteem (1969, see Baumeister, 1993: vii). Branden (1969: 103) maintained that self-esteem "is the single most significant key to behavior." Echoing previous constructions of self- esteem, Branden (1969: 103-104) argued that self-esteem is "an urgent imperative ... a basic need" which is "inherent in (h is) nature." Branden (1969: 182-203) linked self-esteem with success in marriage, sexuality, and "romantic love." One of his key findings was that "healthy masculinity requires a self-confidence that permits the man to be free, uninhibited and ben evolently self-assertive in the role of romantic initiator and aggressor" (Branden, 1969: 193).

Most of the self-help literature after Branden maintained his contention that if an individual was to overcome adversity in life, he or she must first come to appreciate and respect his or her self. As Deborah Hazelton (1991: 1) put it, "if you expect to truly love others, you need to start by first learning to love yourself." According to these books, the first step in this process was to realize that the only one who is responsible for how you feel is yourself (Shepard, 1992: 5). Othe r writers, like Gloria Steinem, saw self-esteem in broader, more political, terms. She linked the forging of self-esteem with the struggles of woman, African-Americans, indigenous peoples, and other oppressed groups. She wrote,

No matter who we are, the journey toward recovering the self-esteem that should have been our birthright follows similar steps: a first experience of seeing through our own eyes instead of through the eyes of others.... achieving empowerment an d self-government.... and finally, achieving a balance of independence and interdependence, and taking one's place in a circle of true selves. (Steinem, 1992: 44- 45)

In addition to the attachments made with the self-help movement, during this time frame self-esteem also became one of the central ideas contained in the related area of parenting advice and manuals. Among the first manuals to link parenting st yle with self-esteem was Dorothy C. Briggs's Your Child's Self-Esteem: A Key to His Life (1970). Borrowing from "mounting research" and "accumulated evidence," Briggs (1970: xiv) declared that her book would show, "step by step ... how to build a solid sense of self- worth in your child." In her view, "if your child has high self-esteem, he has it made" (Briggs, 1970: 2-3). She argued that the key factor determining a child's development and level of self-esteem is "the child's feelings abo ut being loved or unloved" (Briggs, 1970: 4). After the incorporation of her advice, the youngster was said to be "slated for personal happiness in all areas of his life" (Briggs, 1970: xiv).

Most manuals advised parents that if they wanted to raise a responsible child they needed to be attentive to the building of self-esteem at a very early age. In lieu of criticizing the child for his or her performance, the parent was encouraged to use phrases like, "I was pleased to be there and be your parent," "I can see you have made lots of progress since your last effort," and "I am glad you played and participated" (Dinkmeyer and McKay, 1973: 97). Other manuals declared that "self -esteem is the greatest gift you can give your child -- and yourself.... it is the cornerstone of mental health, learning, and happiness" (Hart, 1987: 5). Some manuals went so far as to warn parents that if they did not work on building their chil d's self- esteem, particularly that of young girls, the child was at risk of becoming an "insecure, unhappy teenager" (Eagle and Coleman, 1993: 14). Girls with low self-esteem were said to be at danger of developing depression, eating disorders, being a victim of crime, becoming involved in destructive relationships, practicing unsafe sex, and being unable to compete in the high-tech job market (Eagle and Coleman, 1993: 14-15).

During the period from the late 1960s until the early 1990s, we see the concept of self-esteem retranslated for the self-help and parenting literature. No longer was the concept merely part of the specialized jargon of psychologists, but a real tool for changing one's life. The alliance between self-esteem and self-help and parenting literature allowed the concept to move into new areas and develop a larger, more encompassing, network of support. As the self-esteem literature became mor e popular and was integrated into TV discourse and everyday talk, the concept became much stronger than before. In this phase, the network of self-esteem had recruited a entirely new set of allies, including TV talkshows, teenagers, those seeking help, policy makers, drug addicts, and parents. Its network of support was now so encompassing that it had become a truth which only great effort and a new, stronger network could undo.

Is Self-Esteem Real, Textual, or Socially Constructed? The Co-Production of Knowledge and Society

In this paper, I have sought to utilize material from science and technology studies to provide a brief history of the concept of self-esteem. Self-esteem is described as having its origins in the fragile remarks of William James. From its orig ins, self-esteem became retranslated in the normal science of counseling and experimental psychology. Finally, the concept of self-esteem succeeded at enrolling outsiders in the general public via another retranslation of the concept in parenting manuals and self-help literature. In this process, the concept continually expanded and changed as it recruited and managed more allies. As a result of this process, the network supporting the concept became more expansive and, as I have argued, m ore truthful. The history of self-esteem could have been otherwise. If it had not proven to be a useful tool for those doing experimental and clinical psychology, it could have easily been relegated to the historical archives of unsuccessful ideas or false starts in psychology. Likewise, if self-esteem had not been attached to and insinuated itself into the self-help movement and parenting literature, it would have probably remained just another concept in the discipline of psychology. I n short, self-esteem's success as a concept speaks to the diligent knowledge work of a multitude of actants over a long period of time.

So, is self-esteem real, a product of discourse, or an outcome of social forces? In the present intellectual context, when knowledge claims are scrutinized there are generally three ontological and epistemological responses: realist, postmodern ist, and social constructionist. Advocates of a realist ontology have long argued that reality exists independently of human cognition and representational practices. Epistemologically this reality can be rationally apprehended if the right method s are used to extract it. More recently, advocates of a postmodern ontology have reversed the realist position by arguing that reality can not be separated from the signs and symbols used to represent it. Postmodernists argue that epistemology, as it was traditionally conceived, is best seen as a constantly changing interpretative activity, much like discerning the shifting meaning of a novel. Advocates of social constructionism argue that reality is a collective production resulting fro m prevailing social forces or society. Epistemologically, constructionists argue that certain empirical methods can be used to summon and explain the effects of the social construction of all reality.

In accordance with this intellectual and political division of labour, realists "naturalize" phenomena. They see events as a resulting from some inherent natural order of things. In turn, postmodernists "textualize" all phenomena. They see even ts as a type of story-telling enterprise which results from linguistic, rhetorical, or discursive activities. Finally, constructionists "socialize" phenomena. They see all events as products of social interaction, hierarchies, or organization. Fro m this perspective, "the social is the natural" (Lorber, 1994: 36). When placed side-by-side these three accounts of reality and truth constitute the options and possibilities now open to contemporary theorizing about knowledge.

Such responses, however, are often self-defeating and paradoxical. They point to the either/or legacy of modern epistemology which continues to inflict itself on contemporary approaches to knowledge and truth. Either we have real causes of phen omena, such as nature or society, or we have an endless swirl of signification about phenomena. The realist claim that a phenomenon like self-esteem is real, but has only recently been discovered and reported, denies the important knowledge work t hat must be accomplished for everyone to know something. The postmodernist claim that all knowledge is signification fails to tell us why some "texts" are stronger and more successful than other ones. The social constructionist's argument that s elf-esteem may seem real, but is in actuality the product of social forces, quickly falls into the reflexive dilemma associated with one vocabulary trying to explain and replace another. For instance, why should one believe that the claims of the constructionist are truer representations of knowledge production than the claims of realist psychologists (see Woolgar, 1988). Are constructionist accounts not just rerepresentations of the representations of others?

In contrast to the above approaches, I have attempted to use actor-network theory to delineate a different course for understanding the development of knowledge. In opposition to the realist view, I have argued that knowledge is always produced imagery. Knowledge can never be separated from the signs used to represent it. However, in opposition to the postmodern position, which also makes this claim, I have sought to illustrate that all statements are not equal. Some are made stronger a nd more real than others. In fact, some become so strong that traces of agency and knowledge work are erased and replaced as reality. Again, this is not due to the inherent nature of the claim, but the types, lengths, and strength of the associati ons that link objects and people together. Finally, in contrast to social constructionism, I have sought to avoid purely social explanations of knowledge because of their problems with reflexivity. For example, it seems difficult to argue that s ociety (i.e., special interests, professions, politics, etc.) caused self-esteem since it is merely part of the constructed vocabulary and causal mechanism of the discipline of sociology. By its own standards social constructionism cannot have a h igher epistemic status than realism.

With these criticisms in mind, perhaps it is more beneficial and less contradictory to see self-esteem and society, as well as knowledge and society in general, as simultaneous co-constructions. In such accounts, "solutions to the problem of kn owledge are solutions to the problem of social order" (Shapin, 1988: 539). Constructing self-esteem also means the building of a particular associational entity or collectivity that views and acts in accordance with certain ideas and within certai n constraints. In other words, self-esteem, once constructed, offers an alternative form of a possible society (see Woolgar, 1994: 11). A society with the concept of self-esteem is different from a society without it. The actants which were mobili zed to build the concept of self-esteem into truth are also responsible for building a particular social order or arrangement. While this concept was being formed, many other actants were also being mobilized to construct other truths and social arrangements -- indeed, "unknowns" and "societies" are constantly under construction. The things we call "society," "history," and "knowledge" are due to those historical and ongoing constructions. The entities we now call knowledge and society a re the cries of a strong and encompassing coalition of actants, not the accurate or inaccurate representation of the real or the outcome of "social forces."

Such a view calls for a fundamental change in the way sociologists approach knowledge and truth. Since its development, sociology has been concerned with showing how society affects all domains, including knowledge and "that august thing, truth " (Durkheim, 1983: 68). It has substituted the almighty "nature" of natural scientists with the omnipotent "society" of social scientists. However, such sociological reductions of knowledge have usually encountered contradiction and paradox. Socio logists are unable to show how their knowledge about the social construction of knowledge is free from the very "social conditions" which they describe. This contradiction has led to a general skepticism regarding the ability of sociology to acc ount for knowledge. This paper has sought to use actor-network theory as a means for charting a different way for sociologists to approach knowledge, truth, and reality. This approach is certainly no "magic bullet" for the epistemic ills of the so ciology of knowledge, but it does offer a new, less contradictory vocabulary for coming to terms with the complex relationship between knowledge and society (see Woolgar, 1994).

So, in the end, it is possible to conclude that some people do have self-esteem. However, having self-esteem, like having a soul, attention deficit disorder, karma, or tuberculosis, is only possible within the confines of a particular associati onal network. Like being a Buddhist or a Baptist, if an individual steps outside of the network which supports the existence of self-esteem or is enrolled in another network he or she possess and is something entirely different.


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