Abstract : Marie-France Hirigoyen, a French psychologist, coined the phrase “moral harassment” in 1998. As fuzzy and imprecise as the concept is, it encountered great public success, leading to its being passed into French law in 2002. Although there is a wealth of literature on the subject, “moral harassment” has rarely been treated from a sociological viewpoint. This study is based on qualitative research conducted with harassed people and professionals concerned with the issue. It seeks to analyze what this phrase for expressing suffering expresses about how the workplace and society have evolved.
In a first part, we attempt to find out how the concept originated, from its first having been coined to how it was defined by judges in judicial proceedings. This historical part shows that the concept has been defined differently in various stages of its spreading to different circles.
In a second part, we provide a subject-centered definition of moral harassment, i. e., we study as “moral harassment” what interviewees themselves define as such. Instances and features of moral harassment are extremely diverse, and the term is frequently and easily appropriated by numerous social actors across ages, sexes and social origins.
The last part is a more analytical one. It explores to what extent the phrase “moral harassment” interpreted - as it often is – as explaining away or masking through psychologization a range of organizational, social and economic factors of violence exerted in the workplace can be seen as valid when confronted with empirical data.