Corruption in Public Administration

Corruption in Public Administration

An Ethnographic Approach

Edited by Davide Torsello

Despite the growth in literature on political corruption, contributions from field research are still exiguous. This book provides a timely and much needed addition to current research, bridging the gap and providing an innovative approach to the study of corruption and integrity in public administration.

Introduction: the anthropology of corruption

Davide Torsello

Subjects: politics and public policy, public administration and management, public policy


Apart from the early work of James Scott (1972), the word “corruption” has been until recent years almost absent from the anthropological literature. It is only after 1995 that corruption becomes present on a highly irregular basis in journal articles. The World Bank has funded a large research project to highlight the most important disciplinary contributions to the field (2006). The result of this extensive literature review is the relative “silence” of anthropology regarding corruption. The sum of anthropological studies dealing with this phenomenon covers only about 2% of the relevant scientific literature. In spite of this, the recent developments point to a growing interest within anthropology in the topic of corruption (mostly in politics, with some minor exceptions for business). Nonetheless, a survey of the literature conducted by the author in 2013 has identified more than 260 academic articles and books published in English, French, Spanish and Italian over the last two decades. The reasons for this “silence” could be divided between methodological, ethical and epistemic concerns. From the methodological point of view, anthropology has discovered the most visible manifestations of corruption but has decided to remain rather silent on their wider effects (Zinn 2001). Anthropology’s earlier accounts of gift-exchange processes, reciprocity, redistribution, informal economic transactions, moral economy, clientelism, nepotism, cronyism and social networks are some of the topics in which the discipline was the pioneer rather than the latecomer. The lack of research on corruption could be explained by a feeling of responsibility on the misuse of some of the ethnographic findings, which have contributed, in science as in politics, to cultural essentializations as well as to increasing the ideological gap between a “modern,” “rational” and “transparent” west and a “traditional,” “irrational” and “corrupt” rest. Anthropologists have then found themselves under a paradoxical injunction regarding fieldwork leading to the discovery of corruption practices. On an ethical and deontological level, the ethnographer cannot put into danger the people under observation. Since the ethnographer in the course of his/her observation will study the various behaviors, interactions, thoughts and symbols associated to corruption, he/she will potentially gather enough data to put his/ her respondents into a risky position.