Corruption as social exchange: the view from anthropology

In recent years, anthropology has provided innovative and insightful accounts of corruption, at the levels of practices and ideas, in different world countries. Due to the nature of anthropological fieldwork research methodology, it has not been easy for anthropologists to study corruption through direct observation. This has called for a problematisation of the phenomenon in terms of both its salience as a universal vs. relativistic phenomenon, and of the mainstream definitions of corruption itself. This contribution has attempted to solve the theoretical impasses brought about by these two issues in the discipline of anthropology.

Anthropological and ethnographic accounts of corruption in different socio-cultural settings suggest that, although a relativistic standpoint is the most likely to be encountered when studying this phenomenon, its manifestation, perceived impact onto local societies and degree of moral refusal, there exist a number or reasons why relativism is insufficient an explanation.

First, citizens of different world countries, from Latina America to Southern Europe and Africa are well aware of the general social and ethical damages of widespread corruption, this perception is not influenced by local culture. Secondly, corruption works in strikingly similar ways across the world in business and political contexts. Thirdly, thanks to the work of international organizations and non-governmental institutions there is today a universal concern about increasing or decreasing levels of citizens’ perception of corruption in each country, what some anthropologists term “the industry of anti-corruption”. A demonstration of this can be the fact that in a good number of countries the word “corruption” has been introduced as a neologism from English, and it is used quite differently from local and vernacular expressions.

If a relativistic approach to the theory on corruption does not work this is due to the fact that one must be able to work with different definitions and different types of corruption in order to be able to grasp its complexity and theorise it. Corruption is an extremely versatile and polyhedric phenomenon, not in the ways it works, but in the several manifestations and ideas that local people attach to it. Anthropology, due to the above-mentioned limitations of field research, has mostly dealt with “petty forms of corruption”. In these forms, there is an overarching tendency, with different cultural expressions, of looking at corruption as a form of exchange, which can be more or less justifiable at each societal level. Corruption as social exchange, with all the relative emphasis on reciprocity and gift patterns, is a view that ties this phenomenon to other existing cultural practices and social norms. Looked at this way, petty corruption can be tolerated or even desirable in particular cultural contexts, not because of the famous “greasing the wheel” explanation, but because these forms of social exchange are understood by local people to “attribute agency to individuals or groups of individuals”, by rendering corruption a form of reciprocal interaction between people and the organisations they represent particularly under conditions of scarcity of determinate goods, as well as of inefficient rules of access to these goods. Understanding this approach may help policy makers to accept better the idea that slogans such as “zero tolerance of corruption”, or “eradicate corruption from society” are rather empty.

By looking at how local societies and cultures can tolerate or even desire petty forms of corruption with a more open approach that accepts different working definitions and hence different human motivations it becomes possible to introduce a more holistic and on-the-ground view of this phenomenon. This, of course, needs a good degree of empirical and comparative research, which is the main goal of WP4.

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