Why Culture Matters For Understanding Corruption

“Katherine remained absorbed in her thoughts that evening. The next morning,’ she was to meet the doctor who would conduct her scheduled surgery two weeks later. It appeared she was not only preoccupied with the surgery. She had listened to an advice from a neighbour, who prompted her not to go “empty handed” to see the doctor for the first visit. She wanted to consult more people on what she saw as a delicate issue – how many banknotes to stuff the bottom of the chocolate box she was going to present the doctor with – but she had no time. Chocolate boxes are useful containers she thought. After all what she was giving was apparently just sweets. There were only two problems: how many banknotes to slip in the box and how to hint discretely at the hidden content when seeing the doctor. Reflecting on these issues, she did not sleep that night.”

Dilemmas like this may be frequent in Eastern European countries where paying “extra” for basic services is the norm. What some scholars name “petty corruption” (to use an expression which is often problematic), is often reducible to a number of practices that are determined by culture, and underlined by social values. In the chocolate box example, paying a bribe to a doctor in order to “secure” a good service is part of a widely diffused concern with gift-exchange practices. Proper gift exchanges are an extremely important part of the code of conduct of individuals in Eastern European countries, which accompany every moment of their social lives. Chocolate boxes, flowers, bottles of good alcohol are some of the most customary objects of these exchanges that bring with them an incontestable aura of innocence and goodwill. Stuffing these innocent gifts with money is quite different. But how much of these practices is culturally determined?

Anthropologists have started dealing with corruption relatively recently, with a shy attitude to this phenomenon. To the present day there are less than twenty books written by anthropologists with the word “corruption” in their title, although the number of scholarly articles is steadily increasing. Does this mean that culture, one of the main objects of study of anthropology, does not matter for corruption? Obviously not, as the chocolate box allegory suggests. One of the main reasons for the reticence of anthropologists to research corruption is that by doing this they might endanger respondents and informants in their fieldwork sites.

It is an uncomfortable truth of anti-corruption research and policies that although this phenomenon may share similar patterns in different regions of the world, the justifications that local people may or may not attribute to it are culturally determined. If paying a small bribe to a police officer is accepted in an African country, as may be stuffing chocolate boxes with banknotes, this is due to local ideas of, not only what is “worth” doing, but also what is “proper”. Cultural differences play a strong role, stronger than what has so far been acknowledged in research, making corruption a phenomenon which is both resistant and extremely adaptable to organizational change. This is like saying that new and stricter international and national regulations on transparency and integrity may bring corruption further under the surface, or may lead to a change in its actors, moving away from political party members towards private organizations, for instance.

In a comparative anthropological study conducted by ANTICORRP (Work Package 4, “The ethnographic study of corruption ideas and practices”) over 8 countries, it has emerged that countries cluster over local responses to perception of corruption following cultural patterns like gift, favour exchange, social networking, informal economic transactions, and interpersonal trust. These practices clearly contribute to providing means to justify corruption to the interviewed people. With important differences. In Italy and Turkey, for instance, exchanging favours is an important cultural practice that allowed for corruption to emerge, but not gift exchange. In Bosnia, Kosovo and Tanzania social networks and informal economic transactions are the spheres in which individuals might expectedly resort to corruption without being accused of breaking social norms.

Successful anti-corruption strategies and policies today need to confront the reality that cultural differences influence peoples’ perception of the damages of corruption. Failing to understand this simple message brings about inconsistencies in the ways corruption is tackled, even within less distant countries like the EU member states. When observing that a “premium chocolate box” is an appreciated gift in an Eastern European country, whereas it is not in a Northern European country, rather than reaching an easy conclusion on different levels of integrity in the two regions, it may make more sense to understand that gift-exchange may have a stronger perceived relevance in Eastern than in Northern European societies. The persistence of some forms of corruption may be tied to local cultural practices and to their perceived need, more than to standard explanations on the different levels of economic and institutional development.

Davide Torsello is associate professor of social anthropology at the University of Bergamo, Italy, and is the leader of Work Package 4 for the EU FP 7 ANTICORRP project. His most recent book publication is entitled: The New Environmentalism? Civil Society and Corruption in the Enlarged EU, 2012, Ashgate.

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