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Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez: The Quest for a Unified Theory of Corruption

Writing from 2018, it seems rather unnecessary to keep opening academic articles on corruption by introducing the reader to its social, political, and economic significance—the phenomenon is today so ingrained in popular scholarly thought that there is hardly an individual who needs to be convinced about the position of society at large in regards to public and private malfeasance.

And yet, it is the case that the general study of corruption goes on in such an inconsistent and, in many respects, underdeveloped way that we still find it necessary to address basic elements as if it were for the first time.

Jonathan Rose, for example, published in 2017 a paper entitled The Meaning of Corruption: Testing the Coherence and Adequacy of Corruption Definitions, which reminds us of past work on the subject such as John Gardiner’s Defining Corruption published in 1993, which in turn was based on James C. Scott’s overture to his 1972 book Comparative Political Corruption.

Regardless of the innovation that Rose’s work may introduce, it forces the anti-corruption community at large to ask an embarrassing question: how much progress have we really made?

The situation of academic inquiry seems to stand sharply at odds with the state of global practice, specially when we look at the international anti-corruption movement (or regime). This movement may be defined as the variety of international, domestic, public and private actors engaged in the development, adoption and implementation of the body of conventions, review mechanisms, policy recommendations, country rankings, scholarly production, measurement tools, indicators, statistics, training courses, and advocacy practices, all with the goal of controlling and reducing corruption.

The global effort thus understood has seen a tremendous expansion of its activities and budget since the 1990s, exemplified by the rise of OECD assistance in this area from $36.3 million in 2002 to $292.7 million in 2012. Yet, its level of success remains unclear, as corruption keeps emerging as a major source of economic and political instability in many developing and developed countries alike, partly due to the impressive ability of the phenomenon to mutate and metastasize, but mostly because of the way human and financial resources have been invested.

In many ways, the international anti-corruption movement put the cart before the horse, trying to implement solutions before even understanding the problem. As a consequence, its approach to corruption was described by Florencia Guerzovich as following three distinct phases or stages that seem almost to suggest a final awakening: standard setting in the 1990s, developing diagnostics in the 2000s, and policy-making in the 2010s.

Following this counterintuitive evolution, we might even see the emergence of a fourth stage soon, represented by an emphasis on integrity in organizational ethics management and the focus on individual and social values, which would fully integrate the role of agency in anti-corruption reform efforts.

The State of Affairs. To consider the real case for anti-corruption work in 2018 and forward, we should ask ourselves if we have been witnessing an actual evolution in academia and application, or if the field has just been spinning off-axis since the measurement revolution of the mid 1990s brought about by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and others after it.

Take moral relativism and policy localization. In 1988, Robert Klitgaard’s seminal work Controlling Corruption largely subscribed to the idea that corruption is universally condemned, provided earlier in John T. Noonan’s Bribes in 1984. Yet Noonan himself, and James C. Scott before him, had also offered that corruption is best understood as a by-product of the formal norms of modern state administration, and the conflict between these and informal public values, thus suggesting that condemnation of corruption depends on local context, something that is profusely demonstrated by Rasma Karklins in The System Made me Do It: Corruption in Post-Communist Societies (2005).

Are we seeing here a reversal in academic positions, or evidence of deeper analytic elements that need to be explored? A similar situation exists with the concurrent popularity of both policy adaptation and the development of country-specific approaches to implement the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, on one hand, and the emergence of an international standard for anti-bribery management systems in the form of ISO 37001.

The convergence of these two apparently contradictory positions is highlighted, for example, by Paul M. Heywood and Elizabeth Johnson’s 2017 paper Cultural Specificity versus Institutional Universalism: A Critique of the National Integrity System (NIS) Methodology.

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A sharp reader will hopefully induce that the issue boils down to two separate dimensions of corruption and control, one basic and universal, another local and specific. Yet, very few scholars have been willing to consistently adopt such level of precision in research, and so the result is that the single, most important problem that continues haunting the literature on corruption to this day is the fact that most researchers keep sampling specific behavioral forms but endorsing their results to the entire concept of “corruption.” No wonder we still find it open for discussion.

Important exceptions do exist, of course. Monika Bauhr’s Need or Greed? Conditions for Collective Action against Corruption, published in 2016 and building on another remarkable paper co-authored with Naghmeh Nasiritousi, makes an important contribution towards analytic precision in corruption studies, and so does Jennifer Bussell’s argument in Typologies of Corruption: A Pragmatic Approach (2015).

However, these efforts are not enough to bring balance to the relation between theory and data; major lines of classic inquiry that were pushed aside with the development of measurement strategies and the unceasing preference for quick and shallow empirical studies have yet to be appropriately resolved. Noonan’s concern for the corruption-inducing role of reciprocity and gift-giving; John G. Peters and Susan Welch’s suggestion of corruption tolerance as a function of the size of the beneficiary; Scott’s association of grand and petty corruption with input and output stages of the policy cycle, respectively; and W. Michael Reisman’s adoption of the ideas of myth systems and operational codes, to give but a few examples, need to be fully studied in light of new developments.

But, more importantly, there is big potential for the integration of these ideas with those presented in The Logic of Political Survival (2003) by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his team; Social Traps and the Problem of Trust (2005) by Bo Rothstein; and/or Private Corruption and its Actors: Insights into the Subjective Decision Making Processes (2008) by Tanja Rabl, to mention but a few promising approaches introduced more recently.

I also have tried to take a step forward in this direction by exploring the application of David Easton’s work to the study of anti-corruption reforms, in my 2017 paper A Systems Model of Corruption and Anti-Corruption Reform: International and Domestic Pressure, and Government Strategies to Preserve the Status Quo.

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The (Possible) Future. The range of possibilities for interaction and synergies between different approaches forces us to look beyond the safety of our traditional research and embrace the diversity of disciplines that inform the study of corruption, in hope of someday developing a unified theory of corruption that may actually stand a chance against the biggest policy challenge to global development of the current era.

Economists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists have an obvious wealth of expertise to provide, but we can even look beyond and apply System Dynamics if we feel adventurous enough. The key is to begin crossing disciplinary boundaries with more ease and frequency, and to do so driven entirely by the analytic requirements of the specific subject.

How would a unified theory of corruption look like? To provide a precise answer would be to take credibility away from the potential of such effort to make a real difference in the way we engage with our subject of study. But if I had to venture a general outline, I believe it would need to describe the phenomenon of corruption starting from concrete information regarding human moral development, recognizing the role of both agency and socialization.

From there, it could build up by considering the roles of bureaucratization, professionalism, the division between public and private spheres, and similar historical processes to analyze the rise of divergence and of integrity in office. Cultural anthropology, and then organizational studies, would be the core disciplines from which to draw crucial perspectives, supported by appropriate input from historical jurisprudence and legal history.

Once the precise stimuli had been identified, approaches from social psychology such as the theory of planned behavior could pick up the lead and formulate appropriate models to describe the interaction between incentives previously identified. Parallel to this progress, the specific behavior of elites and individual leaders could be modelled from a political psychology approach, recognizing the role of political agency in crucial decision-making processes.

Finally, the above knowledge could inform, and be integrated into, a political model that takes account of economic considerations such as utility maximizations, rational choice, and other key concepts. With enough data, the cherry on top could potentially be the development and running of a computer simulation model to assist policy makers and practitioners in general.

A unified theory of corruption needs to become the goal of our field if we have any hope to ever provide the answers needed to curb corruption in a consistent and long-lasting way. Hopefully the international anti-corruption movement in general, and research centers in particular, will take notice of both the need and the potential for such a massive endeavor, and begin drawing plans to fulfill the scientific and social call of this century.


Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez, pictured above, is International Associate at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. He has served as external consultant to the Office of the Prime Minister of Peru on matters of ethics, transparency, and access to information, and is currently engaged in the development of the Daily Corruption: News Feed & Database project with NGOs in Latin America and Africa. His topics of research include corruption tolerance, the politics of anti-corruption, and integrity management. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Tsukuba. He can be contacted here.

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