Corruption : Anthropological Perspectives (Anthropology, Culture and Society)

Haller, Dieter and Shore, Cris (Editors)
Pluto Press, London
0745321577 (pb)

Order this book?

Cover of book Corruption is a notoriously difficult subject to approach. In the past, studies of corruption were limited due to ethical concerns, cultural sensibilities, and methodological difficulties. Ethical concerns stemmed from the researchers having to resort to 'gift giving and bribery themselves, and researchers exposing informants and putting themselves in danger as they explored the nefarious realms of organized crime and corrupt politics (pp. 15-16). A normative trend towards protecting cultural sensibilities was also in place effectively making corruption research taboo. This trend would continue until the mid 1990s when Transparency International began publishing its annual Corruption Perception Index. Methodologically, corruption is difficult to approach because of its occult nature and because individuals are reluctant to admit their interaction with it even when it is pervasive. Sian Lazar in Chapter 5 'Citizens Despite the State: Everyday Corruption and Local Politics in El Alto Bolivia', provides an excellent exposition of how perceptions of corruption tend to ignore the actual individual's role in it while emphasizing corruption as part of others' interaction with the state. Lazar (p. 212) states:

Telling a story about corruption often serves more to highlight the moral integrity of the teller than anything else. Corruption is always somewhere else, perpetrated by someone else. It is further, relative the same act can be perceived by one person as corruption and by another as legitimate recompense for services rendered.

The methodological approach to corruption research remains grounded in the analysis of perceptions of corruption and almost entirely through one instrument, The Corruption Perception Index. As the ethnographic study by Lazar illustrates, perceptions of corruption are oblique; consequently, perceptions of corruption cannot be veraciously quantified.

Given that corruption is notoriously difficult to approach ontologically and methodologically, what can anthropology provide for the study of corruption? An anthropology of corruption is most important in terms of clarifying an ontology of corruption. For example, Shore and Haller (p.6) refer to corruption as an 'ethnographic enigma and a 'social fact' in the Durkheimian sense.' The later, corruption as a social fact, is of particular usefulness in explicating an ontology of corruption. As a social fact, Chapter 8 'Corruption in Corporate America Enron Before and After' illustrates that corruption is not limited to developing countries. In the case of corporate corruption in the United States (p 159):

Corruption is something more than mere outlaw behavior by a few corporate and political executives. It [corruption] is a part of corporate and political culture more pervasive and acceptable among elites than we realized. In short, it [corruption] is becoming institutionalized.

An ontology of corruption cannot be limited by definitions of 'abuse of public office for private gain' or 'those acts performed by officials when departing from their legal obligations in exchange for personal advantages'. In Chapter 3 'Rethinking Corruption in Post-Soviet Russian Health Care' this is illustrated by the bypassing of the fee-for-service healthcare system instituted in the early 1990s through 'personalized payments' generally consisting of both money and gifts such as spirits. MacLennan (p. 51) states, 'Many of those I interviewed stated that accessing paid forms of health care through official channels was not the most effective way of ensuring competent health care and nor was it the most ethical way of conveying the payments.' Thus, the ontology of corruption in post-Communist Russia, in the healthcare sector, involved seeing corruption as acceptable given that it promoted better healthcare. However, the perception of healthcare service was not one of solely paying to receive better services, thus, precluding others who could not afford to make personalized payments. Instead, it involved a change of norms concerning the professional status of healthcare personnel, especially doctors. In the post-Communist, fee-for-service system, doctors were still paid meager wages, but normative changes involving a public desire to promote the status of health care professionals had taken hold. The story told by MacLennan is significant because it illustrates how the norms governing the perception of corruption are subject to change during systemic transitions.

Changing norms is a hallmark of this work's exposition of an anthropology of corruption. In Chapter 6 'Integrity Warriors: Global Morality and the Anticorruption Movement in the Balkans' (p. 103) highlights a 'movement towards increasing morality, ethics, and simply 'doing the right thing' in human affairs.' According to Sampson (p. 103), this movement falls under the well-known labels of 'global governance', 'oversight', 'accountability', and 'transparency.' This wave of anti-corruption occurred out of the institutionalization of anti-corruption virtues; what Sampson refers to as the 'projectization of anticorruption.' Thus, the growth of organizations predicating an anti-corruption morality necessarily depended on more than rhetoric. 'Anti-corruption is now at the stage where what were once moral campaigns and virtuous ideas must now be converted into grant categories and technical assistance contracts (p. 109).' Sampson goes further and makes an important point by noting that the institutionalization of anti-corruption creates a discourse that involves an entanglement of non-government institutions, government, and politicians: 'moral projects become intertwined with money and power' (p. 111). In this context, nuance in anti-corruption develops as politicians may choose to employ anti-corruption rhetoric and projects.

Overall, this is a very informative work provides an understanding of the perceptions of corruption in different cultural and institutional contexts. The selection of cases from different countries, Romania, India, the United States, Portugal, Bolivia, and others, provides varied ethnographic analyses that allow for interpretation of discourses on corruption. The discourses in this work tend to emphasis public perception of corruption in relation to the state; the discourse is a weaker, although not absent, when it comes to other domains such as the market economy and civil society. In the future, works in this genre could benefit from incorporating a social science framework. Chapter 6 on the globalization of ethics is a step in this direction as it provides a generalizable base from which theories can be constructed.

J. David Granger
Georgetown University