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Self-esteem is the positive or negative attitude people take toward themselves. Yet to properly understand it requires seeing its relationship to associated superordinate and subordinate concepts (self, self-concept and global/specific self-esteem, respectively; see diagram) (Owens et al. forthcoming). The self is an organized and interactive system of thoughts, feelings, identities, drives, and dispositions that characterize a unique human being. Self-concept is the totality of a person’s thoughts and feelings toward their self as an object of reflection. Through self-objectification, people (i.e., the subject, the knower – the “I”) figuratively stand outside themselves and perceive and react to their self as an object of consideration (i.e., the object, the known – “the me”). Acknowledging the self’s subject/object duality provides the philosophical basis for sociological studies of self-concept, and consequently self-esteem.
The self is predicated on reflexivity and language. Reflexivity entails viewing oneself as others might (self-as-object) while labeling, categorizing, evaluating, and manipulating oneself (self-as-subject). Language – whether verbal/nonverbal or written/ unwritten – drives reflexivity. The reflexive self is central to human abilities, including planning, worrying about personal problems, ruminating past actions, lamenting present circumstances, envying others.
James (1890) outlined the earliest formulation of self-esteem as individuals weighing their “perceptions of success” in some role or domain (e.g., sports, academics) versus their pretensions (desire) for success in the role or domain (e.g., being the top college debater).
Self-esteem = Success/Pretensions
Since James, many sociological theories of self-esteem have been posed, with most being indebted to symbolic interactionism and social comparisons. Rosenberg’s (1979) four principles of self-concept formation, and by extension self-esteem, have garnered the most contemporary sociological attention. First, the principle of reflected appraisals, stemming from Cooley’s looking-glass self and Mead’s role-taking, sees self-concept as a product of how we believe others perceive us. It includes three basic kinds of reflected appraisals: perceived selves, the most important, is ego’s speculation on how specific alters cognize him/her; direct reflections are the actual, direct, responses that alter has toward ego; and the generalized other is ego’s composite sense of what others think of him/her. Second, through social comparisons, people evaluate themselves with respect to particular individuals, groups, or social categories. Social comparisons can be criterion-based (i.e., superior/inferior, better/worse) or normative-based (i.e., deviance/conformity, same/different). Third, the principle of self-attributions has people observing their own behaviors and behavioral outcomes, then drawing some conclusion about themselves (e.g., funny, popular, intelligent). Finally, psychological centrality sees the self as an interrelated and hierarchically organized system of identities and attributes. It helps protect one’s self-esteem by pushing potentially damaging self-attributes and identities to the periphery of the self system, while holding enhancing attributes closer to the center.
Self-esteem is also a social product and a social force. As a social product, its origins are investigated (as in the four self-concept principles above). As a social force, self-esteem is a vital gauge of a population’s psychological and emotional well-being. It also contributes to our understanding of myriad social problems and issues such as prosocial behavior, participation in social movements, and deviant or risky behavior. These underscore the importance of the self-esteem motive, or the fundamental human desire to protect, and if possible, enhance one’s self-esteem.
Failing to recognize the difference between specific and global self-esteem has led to considerable confusion and mischaracterization of this vital concept because each is associated with different outcomes (see earlier diagram). Specific self-esteem is tied to a person’s particular roles, identities, activities, contexts or attributes (e.g., academic, physical, social, moral, family), and tends to predict behavioral and performance outcomes (e.g., grade point average). Global self-esteem is an overall characterization of one’s self as worthy/worthless, good/bad, useful/useless, etc., without reference to specific social contexts, activities or identities. It tends to predict emotional and psychological outcomes (e.g., depression).
- Festinger, L. (1954) A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations 7: 117-40.
- James, W. (1890) The Principles of Psychology. Henry Holt, New York.
- Owens, T. J., Stryker, S., & Goodman, N. (eds.) (2001) Extending Self-Esteem Theory and Research: Sociological and Psychological Cambridge University Press, New York.
- Owens, T. J., Robinson, D. T., & Smith-Lovin, L. (in press) Three faces of identity. Annual Review of Sociology 36.
- Rosenberg, M. (1979) Conceiving the Self. Basic Books, New York.