Corruption: The Per Contra Interview with Cris Shore and Dieter Haller

Our Spring Non-Fiction section is dedicated to the ideas of corruption, decay and renewal.  When we set out to study corruption, we were seeking experts who were intimate with the subject.  The first, and seemingly obvious choice, were legal experts.  As we continued in our search, it became obvious that a legal study of corruption, while useful, would be inadequate.
What we wanted was a complete understanding of the idea of corruption.  Our search for experts led us to Cris Shore and Dieter Haller, both recognized experts on the anthropological study of corruption. Their answers to our questions were both enlightening and surprising.
As is the case with any subject we take up, some of their answers are potentially controversial.  Our goal is not to debate, but rather collect a point of view.  Readers who wish to add their points of view may use our Letters to the Editor to express their ideas. 
What we found most satisfying was that the answers we received are clear and provide a wealth of information.  We hope that you find the information thought provoking and useful.


BT - There are different definitions of the word "Corruption."  In a legal or criminal sense, corruption refers to a subset of Crimes.  What is corruption in an anthropological sense? 

CS & DH - The fact that there are many so different definitions of the word "Corruption" is partly what we think makes it so interesting to study from an anthropological perspective. But instead of trying to map out a separate disciplinary space or advance yet another definition and ideal-type of what corruption is "really all about" (as if other disciplines have somehow got it all wrong) our aim, as anthropologists, is simply to make sense of the way people in different cultures think about or interpret the idea of "Corruption." To put it another way, we are interested in corruption as a classificatory term. For us, corruption - like "justice" or "freedom" - is a category of thought; a way of categorizing behaviors or practices that are deemed to be if not illegal, then at least of questionable probity and legality. The trick is to fathom which practices and why, and those questions invariably lead us towards consideration of the cultural and symbolic worlds that people live in. We also recognize that corruption is a culturally relative and loaded term. What may be considered corrupt for an official in Denmark or Norway (such as giving jobs to relatives, or favoring one's kinsmen or cronies when disbursing public resources) may be considered perfectly proper and acceptable in Uzbekistan or the Ukraine - or perhaps even France for that matter, judging from the practices of successive government ministers and French Presidents.

Legal definitions of corruption tend to stress behaviors that are crimes or actions that involve the abuse of trust or the "improper influencing of people in positions of authority" (i.e. blackmail or bribery). But morality and trust are social variables that cannot easily be prescribed or defined by law. While there are clearly examples of "black corruption" (to use Heidenheimer's expression) which might include larceny and grand theft by public officials, there are also many shades of grey. Nor is it necessarily the case that "corruption = immorality," at least in the public mind. For example, tax avoidance or deliberate failure to declare income may be a crime from a legal point of view, but in countries where the government itself is widely perceived as corrupt and parasitical, such action may be seen - rightly or wrongly - as a legitimate act of resistance against an oppressive state The English word "corruption" - with its Protestant, Anglo-Saxon moralistic overtones - often fails do justice to the variety of meanings and practices that are subsumed under that label. Gifts are an interesting case in point. What distinguishes gift-giving from bribery is not the transaction itself but the morality of the exchange; the social context and ideas about reciprocity that govern such transactions - and the relationships that they create. In much of India, China and Latin America, for example, an entire moral economy and way of relating to power can be glimpsed from the study of corruption. Narratives of corruption are often the means by which, and through which, people make sense of their political systems and the state. The "bribe" in India, it has often been remarked, is the first act of citizenship. An anthropological approach to corruption also looks at the ways in which local or indigenous conceptions of corruption relate to other key concepts (for example, metaphors of greed, gluttony, appropriation etc.), and the semantic terrains and discourses that these give rise to.

BT - What behavior is categorized as corrupt? 

CS & DH - The word corruption usually conjures up a plethora of meanings from "bribery," "dishonesty," "distortion," "double-dealing," "fraud," "graft" and "subornation" to "criminality," "misconduct," "profiteering," "sleaze," "venality," "villainy" and "wrongdoing." The semantics of the term are also associated with notions of decay (as in something being "putrid") and moral depravity. In one sense, all of these are behaviors that could be categorized as dimensions of corruption. What is interesting, however, is the way that categorizations of 'corruption' shift, not only between societies, but within the same society. Nothing illustrates more clearly just how culturally constructed and arbitrary are our definitions of corruption. For example, in Italy Prime Minister Berlusconi has wrought changes to the law that have made the practice of double book-keeping no longer illegal - a move that appears to have been motivated in large measure by self-interest.  As Guardian writer Tristram Hunt reports: "...In 2003 he altered the law to give high-ranking officials (such as the Prime Minister) legal exemptions." (Tristram Hunt 2006, Guardian Weekly, February 10-16: 14).  There is a general consensus in the world of modern commerce that bribery is inimical to free trade, yet it was only in 1999 that the OECD "Convention on Combating the Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions" - an act designed to make the bribery of foreign public official in order to obtain business advantage illegal - came into force. And it is still common practice for American arms manufacturers to use "offsets" (effectively legal "bribes" or sweeteners) to secure contract deals. According to the standard World Bank definition, corruption is "the abuse of public office for private gain." The problem here is that this definition confines corruption to the public sphere: to state officials who "abuse" their public office. By default, this definition serves to rule out any serious consideration of corruption in the private sector. The ideological obsession with "liberalization," competitive tendering and creation of 'free markets' seems to have blinded policy-makers and anti-corruption crusaders to the seriousness of corruption in the private sphere and the opportunities for malfeasance that have been created by neoliberalism.

BT - What crimes are classified as corruption? 

CS & DH - As anthropologists, we are not interested in trying to construct formulaic definitions that can then be applied to particular contexts. What interests us is what the people we study consider to be corruption. These are the "social facts" and norms that are relevant to them, and they differ from culture to culture. All cultures have created their own standards of behavior that they consider to be appropriate and inappropriate, legitimate and illegitimate, right and wrong - and these local standards may often contradict the legal codes and norms. However, we also recognize that there is a wider dimension, one that serves to connect small localities to ever-wider global forces, including international discourses of "good governance" and "anti-corruption." That means that we must also look at the way global standards influence local understandings of corruption, and vice versa.

BT - What is the role of corruption in a society?  More specifically, who engages in corruption, what are the deleterious effects of corruption, where is corruption most likely to be found, when does corruption begin to show effects on society and how does corruption gain a place, or achieve acceptance, in a society?
CS & DH - There are several questions here, none of which have easy answers. What role corruption plays in a society is complicated by many factors, including history, politics and general public attitudes to the rule of law. Our contention is that an anthropology of corruption focuses not only on what corruption negates (such as fair trade, equal opportunities etc.), but also on what it produces and creates - i.e. the webs of power, the social relations and the various informal practices that it gives rise to. In Italy, for example, it has become quite commonplace for elected politicians to use corruption allegations - and counterallegations of politically motivated slurs aimed at character assassination - as part of the ritual of electioneering. Accusations of corruption here play a similar social role to witchcraft accusations in an earlier age. And in an age where "fighting corruption" has come to be perceived as a social and political good, even some of the most unlikely politicians have jumped onto the bandwagon. In the West, "good governance" has become a stick to beat developing countries into compliance and reform on a range of internal matters.

In countries such as Britain and Germany, corruption is seen as an aberration within the political system; behavior that distorts the proper functioning of our advanced industrial society based as it is on legal-rational norms and bureaucratic and universalistic principles. But in many societies these ideas are alien imports that are far from universally accepted or practiced. Beneath the rhetoric of "good governance" and Western ideals, the old practices of patronage and nepotism continue; what we might call corruption actually is the system: the modus vivendi, the way jobs are obtained, favors granted, support and services administered.

To say this - to recognize the complexity of behavior labeled as corruption - is not to endorse it or minimize its deleterious effects. There is nothing romantic about corruption - be it systemic, endemic, covert or overt - or those countries where corruption is taken for granted as the "way the system works." On the contrary, the effects are almost invariably inflated contracts, distorted development priorities, increased exploitation and inequality, heightened uncertainty and an undermining of democracy and the rule of law. The definition of corruption may be a culturally relative but that doesn't mean we should adopt an attitude of sentimentality or moral relativism when assessing its consequences.

"Who engages in corruption?" and "where is corruption most likely to be found" are also questions that are hard to answer in abstract or general terms. It is still often assumed that endemic corruption is the disease of developing and Third World countries; countries with weak civil societies and where the culture of legal-rational administration has shallow roots. According to many theorists of development, corruption represents the antithesis of modern bureaucracy; it supposedly a manifestation of the values of "patrimonialism" and "backward" rural societies that have failed to develop clear rules that distinguish between the private sphere and public office. Certainly, the relationships created by corruption often share many of the characteristics of patronage and clientelism (i.e. covert actions based on personal ties and pragmatic codes of conduct rather than formal rules). However, the recent collapse of many of the world's leading multinational companies, from Maxwell Plc and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International to Enron, WorldCom and the Italian dairy giant "Parmalat," serves as a useful reminder of the ethnocentrism behind such assumptions.

BT - Does corruption have an effect on the daily lives of the members of a society?  If so, how does it impact those lives?

CS & DH - Certainly it does: in societies where corruption is endemic it may extend into all walks of life, from the allocation of contracts to the distribution of jobs and other "scarce" resources. In India, for example, even the act of installing a domestic telephone or electric meter allegedly involves clients in an intricate web of illicit dealings with middlemen, brokers and "corrupt" officials. Corruption has a way of implicating everyone that is dependent on the system that produces it. But we also have to distinguish different levels of corruption. There are countries and contexts where it is expected to even bribe officials to get access to social services on a low level of hierarchy, lets say the policeman of the housing are one lives in, or the register of births in the local town hall. But in other countries, such as in Germany, these practices are not common at all. Still, ordinary German citizens are affected by large scale corruption, more indirectly: as media consumers and citizens by being flooded with ever more "corruption scandals," and as tax payers because their taxes are not spent effectively.

BT - In your research, have you found a direct relationship between corruption and other crimes?  If so, and more specifically, does corruption serve as a catalyst for other crime, or does the prevalence of other crime create a fertile ground for the introduction of corruption, or are the two only related insofar as they coexist in a specific environment?

CS & DH - Yes. In our experience, corruption creates webs of power and networks of personal relations. It is typically associated with practices of clientelism and cronyism, both of which are features of unequal interpersonal (or dyadic) relationships. In the bureaucracies of the European Union, where Cris Shore worked, there was a direct relationship between corruption and a host of related phenomena, including fraud, nepotism and mismanagement. Indeed, according to many EU insiders, an entire "parallel system of administration" had evolved within the EU civil service, with its own rules, codes, and career opportunities. The question of which came first, corruption of the related practices of cronyism is something of a "chicken or egg" conundrum. Perhaps it is fair to say that these practices are both cause and consequences of each other; that corruption, insofar as it promotes law-breaking and collusion, is undoubtedly a catalyst for other crimes.

BT - Is there an equilibrium with corruption?  Is there a level of corruption that a society can bear, as opposed to the crime of murder, which most members of a society would find repulsive? 

CS & DH - Yes, there are levels of corruption that would appear to be acceptable or tolerable, if not to a society at large, then at least to its governing elites. Throughout the Cold War period, for example, many Western donor countries, particularly the United States, were happy to accept what would today be considered quite shocking levels of corruption in the countries to which they gave financial and military support. That was regarded as an acceptable price for keeping communists and other groups hostile to US interests out of government. There was also a fairly pervasive attitude during much of the 1970s and 80s that a small amount of "corruption" (understood in the benign sense of "bending the rules" or adopting informal measures to "by-pass" the regulations), was perhaps no bad thing: that bureaucracies tend to strangle initiative and entrepreneurship and that a little bit of rule-breaking was simply a way of oiling the wheels of the machine. What we seem to have witnessed, with the ending of the Cold War, is a change in attitude here. The rise of the global anti-corruption movement is a reflection of this. It is not that corruption as a global phenomenon is necessarily on the increase (although it may well be); rather, it is that many of the previous ways of 'doing business' are no longer tolerated under the banner of "good governance."

BT - Is there a condition precedent to corruption, without which corruption cannot flourish?  If so, what is that condition or those conditions?

CS & DH - Trying to identify the root causes of corruption is a bit like asking "what are the causes of deviancy?" The answer is many, but any explanation depends on one's definition of "normality." That said, there are a number of factors that can be identified that may contribute to corruption. As David Lovell points out in his chapter on endemic corruption in the former Soviet Union, one is the rise of the career politician who joins politics for personal gain. Another is the rise of state intervention, with more opportunities for bureaucrats and politicians to circumvent the rules and act arbitrarily in their own interests. These factos provide motive and opportunity. However, another view is that corruption - at least in Russia and Eastern Europe - is a product of unrestrained enthusiasm for the market mechanism, the blurring of the lines between public and private, and the primacy of greed. Another driving factor is the decline in individual political party members and the rise in their dependency on big donors such as Bernie Eckleston in the case of the UK Labour government. The scandal that led to the downfall of Helmut Kohl in Germany was also linked to illicit private funding of the ruling Christian Democrat party. However, as Lovell sums it up: "The 'structural temptation' to incidental corruption can be explained in a relatively straightforward way, despite the diversity of causes already identified. Corruption of this type occurs when government has a monopoly supply of a good, where there is discretion on the part of officials, and where there is relative secrecy." That combination of monopoly, individual discretion and absence of accountability plays a major role in facilitating and encouraging corruption.

BT - What drew you to the study of corruption?

CS & DH - For Dieter Haller it was the general interest in informal political and economical practices and structures that coexist and underpin the formal ones. The informal structures that often make the formal ones work. Beyond this there were those colleagues who, like myself when doing research in a tax haven (the British crown colony of Gibraltar), had stumbled over cases of corruption in their fieldwork. These experiences usually occurred in casual hallway conversations, at conferences, or at parties - but seldom found their way into print.  

Part of the aim of our book was to turn the subject into a recognized field of scholarly research with our discipline. For Cris Shore, interest in corruption also arose from a fieldwork setting. In his case, the fraud scandal of 1999 resulting in the resignation of the entire college of Commissioners occurred while he was completing research on the organizational culture of the European Union's civil service. Again, there was very little in the EU literature that dealt seriously with (or even recognized the existence of) nepotism, cronyism or corruption in the EU's administrative system.

BT - Is there anything that we have not covered here that would assist the reader with understanding corruption, or anything that you feel is important to add to our discussion of corruption?

CS & DH - Yes. Perhaps two things are important to add here given the widespread assumption about corruption as deviancy: First, rather than being incompatible with stable bureaucratic structures, it is important to recognize that corruption may often be complimentary and necessary to the maintenance of political stability. Second, by focusing on the relationship between the public and the private sector only, much of the anticorruption movement fails to target the new and ever growing arenas where corruption flourishes in the neoliberal era: the relationships within the private sector.


Issue 2

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