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Analysis of Various Definitions of Corruption

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The essay will argue that there is no establishment of a definition of corruption universally accepted and applicable. It aims to explain corruption through different approaches and the limitations of each concept as a universal matter and regarding its applicability. The essay will reference the difficulty of measuring corruption only as matter of proving the “lack of an authoritatively agreed upon definition of what counts as corruption” and not as a matter of “a serious obstacle to measurement”. It will explore some of the different meanings of corruption in a business and individual level through ‘grand corruption’, in a community level through ‘petty corruption’ but it will mainly focus on proving that what is corrupt for one country might not be corrupt for another as the standard acceptable behaviour is not a universal matter and the importance this plays when attempting to define corruption. Even though it will challenge some of the definitions of corruption given with real case scenarios, the essay’s aim is not to debate their credibility, in fact every definition the essay will present is applicable in a certain scenario or certain circumstance, but to argue that is no standard definition of corruption nor one applicable in every case. Before it explores concepts as ‘grand corruption’ and ‘petty corruption’ from the view of Transparency International, the essay will start with a philosophical approach of the term ‘corruption’, through the work of Mark Philp, Rothstein, Heywood, referencing Robert Dahl and others. By the end of the essay, the difficulty of answering the question “What does ‘corruption’ mean?” with one clear definition of the subject, the essay will show that improvement have been done in the recent years regarding the understanding of corruption. However, it is safe to say that academics are yet no close to establish a meaning for corruption.

Suggested by Mark Philp in the philosophical debate of corruption, political corruption can only be understood if we make a commitment with the “conceptions of the political and the form of the public interest”, few scholars applied this on their attempt to define corruption in political constitutions. However, criticised for their restricted applicability to universal matters and possible lack of objectivity regarding social-scientific ideals. In order to compete these critics, Rothstein developed a “uncontroversial and universal” definition of corruption. From Rothstein observation of Robert Dahl work seeing ‘political equality’ as the ‘basic norm’ serves to be of high importance. This is supported by the example of the Swiss and British systems as, he recognizes that Britain “does not provide room for citizens to take initiatives to organize many referenda” and arguing that Switzerland is “constantly having coalition cabinets”, yet that does not cause us to consider them nondemocratic, in fact, both systems are imbedded in ‘political equality’ and are considered democratically ‘stable’ and ‘functioning’, because ‘political equality’ promotes the recognition of democratic improvements. Rothstein continues, arguing that ‘impartiality’ is the key to identify corruption as he suggests they are opposites. The term of impartiality applies to office as it is argued is a “necessary condition of the office”, when there is a disagreement among different parties the person judging it ‘must be impartial’. On these terms, Rothstein concept explains the reasons behind the universal disapproval of judicial bribery”. This is target of several critics, Rothstein concept of ‘impartiality’ does not have in consideration the individual as a human being but only as economic actor, nor it consider the limitations of human capacity, for example in the case of impartial judgement, it is argued by the scholar that the judge would be influence by the time he has to make the decision and the information he has on the case. The same article argues the poor development of Rothstein concept when regarding the ‘rule of law’, in the author claims there is a connection between legitimation in ‘procedural impartiality’ yet does not adventure explain the applicability of his work in this matter.

Flowing this approach, Heywood stresses on his work ‘Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption’, (2014, 19-22), that one must not confuse corruption with ‘incompetence’ because the two definitions must not be equal and that when defining corruption, one must remember that not every self-interested act must be considered corrupt. The author highlights the possibility of objectively defining corruption but rapidly defends the high-level difficulty of doing so as he says, “is a lot more difficult than the literature generally assumes.” He believes that the problem with defining corruption is directly related with the Western political thinking, he explains that the Western definitions and interpretations of corruption rely upon a ‘sense of political order’ in order to stop politicians to using their power and position to act inconsequently and damage the sate wealth or policies as well as affecting the community. In his understanding it is of great importance to attain people’s concept of corruption, what the community sees as corrupt and causes behind and their view of the political system to attempt to define corruption. The author admits that his work does not find one entirely applicable definition of corruption but makes a great effort to try explaining it objectively. He begins by identifying the main ‘elements’ of a political corruption definition. The first ‘element’ is the establishment of a ‘conception’ underlining limits and standards regarding the behaviour of the public office, with aim on community interest. Secondly, the assumption that corruption includes misrepresentation or self-interested representation of the public office to privilege and prioritize the interest of specific individual. Finally, the assumption that there are frequently three actors ‘involved or affected’ in acts of corruption: “the occupant of the public office (A), the intended beneficiary of that office (B) and the actual (i.e. newly intended) beneficiary of the particular exercise of that office (C)”, (Heywood, 2014, 22). After identifying these ‘elements’ the author presents us with his attempted definition of corruption. Stating, the act of political corruption succeeds when A (public official) disrespects the office conduct, not prioritizing the interest of B (public interest) but prioritizing their self-interest and a third party’s interest (C) “who rewards or otherwise incentivises A to gain access to goods or services they would not otherwise obtain”. The scholar continues explaining that in this definition it should not be assumed that A is on infringement of the law as he believes legal definitions often fail to serious cases of corruption.

Transparency International offers an overview of corruption as “The abuse of entrusted power for private gain”, dividing corruption in ‘grand corruption’, ‘petty corruption’ and ‘political corruption’. It enlightens ‘grand corruption’ as the use of ‘high-level’ power to advantage a minority, harming the society often with impunity. An example of ‘grand corruption’ is the case of the Ukrainian ex-President Viktor Yanukovych accused of the burglary of U.S. $7.5 billion. Transparency International accuses Ukrainian prosecutors of ‘reluctance’ when publicly judging his actions and tolerating the ex-president to freely spend the ‘stolen wealth’ in Moscow under protection of the Russian Government, once Ukraine cannot legally effectuate ‘private prosecutions’. ‘Petty corruption’, in other hand, is defined has the daily misapplication of power ‘by public officials’ towards common citizens when trying to access public services such as police stations. Stressing that this is a reason for concern specially in the public sector since “corruption incidents in the public sector (7,4% in 2011 versus 7,2% in 2010) compared to the private sector (3,4% in 2011 versus 4% in 2010)”,. Using the Greek financial crisis of 2011 as an example of ‘petty corruption’, the ‘2011 National Survey on Corruption in Greece’ showed that the financial crises caused a reduction of the cost of this type of corruption ‘by 78 million euro’ with essential public services like hospitals being the heart of ‘petty corruption’ of this issue in the public sector. Lastly, this movement defines ‘political corruption’ as the self-interested management of “policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers”, through the overuse of their position in order to ensure the maintenance of their “power, status and wealth”, (Transparency International). This type of corruption is pointed as the one deserving more concern and attention. According to Transparency International, 2019, the main challenge when fighting this type of corruption is containing the influence ‘corrupt actors’ might have upon ‘political leaders’, as it is in the case of many Arab governments. Despite the applicability of the concepts, the measurement of corruption from the Transparency International has been questioned many times. Considering the practice of corruption often being done in secret it is hard the evaluate the credibility of this data. Indeed, the CPI (Corruption Perceptions Index) is the most used indicator of global corruption, nevertheless it is, arguably, made from the opinion of a small percentage of, either experts or business-related people.

In conclusion, this essay identified different attempts to explain corruption on different fields, such as, the context of ‘impartiality’ defended by scholars like Rothstein, the attempt of defining corruption from Heywood on his work ‘Routledge Handbook of Political Corruption’ through a social-science approach and the division of corruption by Transparency International in ‘grand corruption, ‘petty corruption’ and ‘political corruption’ that led to finally dividing the occurrence of corruption between the private and public sector. In the end, corruption in the public sector showed more reason for concern based on CPI data. Nonetheless, as it points out through the essay, all these conceptions of corruption are reason for disagreement between those who adventure defining corruption. Leading us to the inevitable conclusion that the occurrence of corruption, even though in some states is a matter of “common knowledge”, is difficult to define. It is however generally accepted that corruption is a practice of “clandestine nature”, leading to the use of corruption indices based on the opinion of small groups of people in business positions. To finalize, despite academic studies of corruption recently increasing significantly, there is no stablished definition of corruption. From Heywood (2014) it is possible to see the Western influences on some of the corruption concepts as well as the presence of need to explain liberal constitutions and free market. Similarly, to critics of realism approach of International Relations, corruption is criticised for its lack of specific definition. As Jonathan Rose stresses on the article “The meaning of Corruption”, “If corruption is to mean something, it cannot mean everything”. The meaning of corruption continues lacking a definite definition with global applicability, despite many definitions being developed, however based on social opinion, cultural concept or relying on a the opinion of the minority opinion of influential people.

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Analysis Of Various Definitions Of Corruption. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from
“Analysis Of Various Definitions Of Corruption.” GradesFixer, 10 Dec. 2020,
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Analysis Of Various Definitions Of Corruption [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Dec 10 [cited 2022 Jun 27]. Available from:
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