The psychological literature on self-concept and self-esteem has a long history, stretching back to the American work of James (1890), Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934). Self-psychology has been cast as an alternative, initially, to the dominant paradigm of behaviourism and, more recently, to the cognitive paradigm which has grown in strength from the influence of both information processing theory and Piagetian theory. Self-psychology found expression in various educational reform movements that emphasized the importance of human feelings and emotions (Jones, 1968), as well as the need for a holistic approach to schooling (Silberman, 1973). Given its oppositional stance, it is not surprising that self-psychology is part of the current attempts to reform educational opportunities for various disadvantaged groups, including girls.
In this chapter the terms 'self-concept' and 'self-esteem' will be used interchangeably, to refer to evaluations of oneself with regard to either a specific activity (for example, mathematics self-concept or self-esteem), or in some global or general manner (global self-concept or self-esteem). While researchers have tried to distinguish the content of one's self-perception (self-concept) from the evaluation of those contents (self-esteem), in practice the distinctions are often blurred.
The purpose of this chapter is to assess the research which has been employed in recent writing on girls' self-esteem. First, the descriptive or correlational research comparing the development of girls' and boys' self-esteem is examined. The assessment of this literature suggests that there is no convincing evidence that girls have a self-esteem deficit. Second, research is critically examined which places self-esteem in a mediating position between various social practices in schools and differential outcomes for individuals. The research literature examined is