Research into practice

Neil Thompson studies a research report into
the importance of self-esteem that challenges assumptions long held
in social work.

The concept of self-esteem has long been
recognised as an important one in social work. However, in these
days of evidence-based practice and the philosophy of “what
works?”, should we perhaps be looking more carefully and critically
at the concept to see whether our assumptions about its importance
actually stand up to scrutiny?

This is what this report does. It looks in
detail at what causes low self-esteem and what impact it can have.
Some of the findings support what has become established practice
wisdom over the years, but some do not.

The report is a review of various pieces of
research carried out in relation to self-esteem, so that patterns
and themes can be established. The research explored was largely to
be found in papers published in academic journals and in PhD

Those findings that perhaps come as no
surprise included:

– Low self-esteem is a risk factor for
depression, teenage pregnancy, victimisation, and suicide or
attempted suicide.

– There are indications that low self-esteem
in childhood is associated with adolescent eating disorders and
with earnings and continuity of employment in early adulthood.

By contrast, the conclusions that were less
supportive of common assumptions included the finding that low
self-esteem is not associated with:

– Delinquency.

– Violence (including child abuse or abuse of
one’s partner).

– Drug or alcohol abuse.

– Lack of educational achievement.

– Racism.

In terms of what affected self-esteem,
attention was given to the role of parents and parenting style,
child abuse – physical and sexual – and genetic factors. Of course,
parent-related issues and the significance of abuse will come as no
surprise to experienced professionals in social work.

This report has two major benefits. First, it
clarifies a number of important issues about self-esteem,
reinforcing how significant it is in social work practice while
also warning of false assumptions that can easily be made. Second,
it shows the value of this type of research review that enables us
to look critically at important issues and concepts in order to
make sure that we are not basing our practice on false assumptions
or preconceptions.

This report, then, feeds directly into the
debate about the role of evidence-based practice. On the one hand,
the developing emphasis on evidence-based practice in general, and
this review in particular, alert us to the dangers of relying on
untested assumptions rather than drawing, wherever possible, on the
research base available to us. On the other hand, as with any
reliance on research evidence, we need to adopt a critical
approach, rather than simply take the research findings at face
value. Research-minded practice (as part of reflective practice)
should not be equated with adopting an uncritical approach to the
role and limitations of research. No research report is the last
word on the subject and this review is no exception. I am sure
there is a lot more to be said about self-esteem and its role in
social work and related disciplines.

– The report, Self-Esteem: The Costs and
Causes of Low Self-Worth
by Nicholas Emler and published by
the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2001, costs £15.95 plus
£2 p&p. A summary is available on the foundation’s website

Neil Thompson is a director of Avenue
Consulting (
) and a visiting professor at the University of Liverpool. He is
the author of Understanding Social Work: Preparing for
(2000) and Anti-Discriminatory Practice
(third edition, 2001), both published by Palgrave.

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