Habitus, Hysteresis and Organizational Change in the Public Sector

Peggy McDonough, Jessica Polzer


This paper examines the daily struggles of unionized employees whose municipal workplace was undergoing major change influenced by New Public Management. In-depth interviews with 45 front-line service providers revealed widespread frustration with working conditions and relationships with management. We interpret this response as an embodied expression of hysteresis, a term that Bourdieu used to describe the gap between changing field conditions and habitus. We argue that organizational change posed challenges for these workers because it produced a rupture between their taken-for-granted ways of being a “good” public servant (i.e., public service habitus) and what was expected of them after restructuring. Moreover, on the basis of gendered occupational class differences in employees’ practices, we suggest that hysteresis is itself a socially-structured phenomenon that reflects the tacit calculation of what was possible (or not) for workers occupying specific positions within the stratified order of the organization.


Bourdieu; habitus; hysteresis; gender; occupational class; organizational change

Full Text: