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Davide Torsello: Yes, our culture is corrupt. Now what?

One day, while doing ethnographic research in Southern Italy, I interviewed the mayor of a town in which there had been investigations of corruption related to the use of public infrastructure funds.

This lovely town had increased significantly its touristic attractiveness over the years. “Can you see all those buildings?” He pointed proudly at a number of restored buildings from the age of the Spanish kingdom. “They are so beautiful…do you think that without corruption they would be so attractive now?”

What could I say? That it is illegal and amoral to make use of public funds for private purposes. But then, when the outcome of suspicious deals is that a portion of the old town center is made shine again, with expectedly growing tourism-related revenues. How could my argument stand criticism?

I decided to ask, instead, why did the mayor think that corruption can’t be eradicated. “It is easily said, I am surprised that you, as an anthropologist, have not thought about this. Corruption is cultural, that’s why it can’t be fought. You need to change the culture first.”

There is a strong similarity between this explanation and others which have recently become popular, like the one which describes corruption as a disease, or the rotten apple argument. The organization falls in the trap of corruption if a rotten apple is in the barrel. The point is not whether the barrel can isolate the bad fruit, it is that the first apple becomes rotten by itself. The same is for culture, if a whole nation is affected by a “culture of corruption,” then it is easy to expect that anyone would be infected. And then why should one change attitude and become an integrity champion?

This is exactly the argument developed by Edward Banfield back in the 1950s. A famous political scientist who served as personal advisor to three U.S. presidents, he decided to study a remote mountain village in southern Italy, where poor and illiterate peasants made up the majority of the population.

Banfield concluded, after a kind of field research, that nobody would ever attempt to innovate in a society where everyone is expected to behave as an “amoral familist” (a person who would care only about the strict interests of his own nuclear family). If everyone is expected to be corrupt then there is no incentive not to be so. If sooner or later an apple will develop a bug there is no point in scanning the organization looking for bottlenecks, walls or bad management practices. It is not the fault of the organization, after all, just as it is not the fault of corrupt individuals if they live in a “culture of corruption.”

Then whose responsibility is it?

From neuroscience to organizational behavior, all disciplines studying human behavior will tell a simple truth: the cognitive development of the human brain happens later than all other animals since it draws more extensively on the episodes of our culture, the experiences of life that we share with other fellow humans. This is what makes the backbone of culture, as we store it in our memory. Culture is as much about interrelatedness and interaction with people as it is about meaning. Clifford Geertz, a brilliant anthropologist, used to say that man is like an animal suspended among webs of meanings, that he himself has spun. These webs make up culture.

The bottom line, then, is that if a person says corruption is culture, be suspicious. He is himself an active part of that culture, particularly if in the capacity of a leader. If you want to really know if and how corruption might emerge in your organization, start screening the integrity of the organization and its culture. That will be more productive than looking to discover who might be the next perpetrator of such dishonesty (“opportunity makes the thief”).

Governments and large businesses could learn a great deal by applying the simple knowledge that corruption becomes widespread when individuals share the idea that it is not detrimental, or it is partially good, as the mayor’s case above suggests. The meaning that individuals give to corruption derives very much from the ways they are socialized, both in society as in organizations. If the psychological and behavioral perspectives are taken seriously, it is possible not only to change the “culture,” but eventually to foresee crises and save considerably.

A culture of corruption is made by individuals who think there is nothing else to do than to accept the status quo, without even reckoning that integrity can be re-established if good practices are introduced and made salient. 


Davide Torsello, pictured above, an anthropologist, is associate professor of organizational behavior at the CEU Business School of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He has consulted for business, public administration, and NGOs on integrity, cultural awareness, and strategy at management, educational, and training levels. He can be contacted here.

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  1. Davide, thank you – I think every Ethics Professional has this argument on a regular basis. I often get asked similar questions by university students I teach.

    Please allow me to share what I usually answer: Corruption is like laziness. Yes, it's part of human nature. Yes, it can be part of culture. Yes, in some cases, the immediate effects will even be beneficial. No, it will never be eradicated. But yes, it can very well be fought. By individuals, by leaders, by teachers, by parents, by colleagues, by friends.

    Corruption is not a dark, hyper-ominous evil system "out there". It's nothing more than little, basic human faults adding up if unchecked by little, basic countermeasures.

  2. Yes we are but it does not mean that we should give up. Remember when it gets darkest the start come out. We should just work harder. Enrich values in our youngsters and we will reap its benefits in long term. But things have to be taken more seriously from now on


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