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Political contestations and identities

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The view provides a frame of reference to one prominent scholar, namely James Scott, who in his “Analysis of Corruption in Developing Nations” of 1969 makes one of the most interesting empirical analyses of corruption of that era. As a point of departure, he dissects the discrepancy between social norms and legal norms observable particularly in developing countries. Unlike Western societies upon which they are modeled, the legal framework in most developing countries has been adopted in an ahistorical fashion, rather than being a product of political struggles between social groups and classes. This creates a situation in which “[m]ost developing nations have not only taken over Western legal forms; they have often adopted the most restrictive and demanding forms available” (Scott 1969). This rings true for developing nations a mere or so decade old, as they were at the time. More saliently, it is still of acute relevance today: most legal reforms are produced by the development apparatus, financed by donors, and written by external consultants for recipient governments—a problem that is illustrated by the highly sophisticated constitutions and legal framework of recently democratized countries, incorporating the highest standards of human rights and accountability institutions. This tightening and simultaneous heightening of the legal framework leads to an almost automatic expansion of corruption, albeit primarily in nominal terms: whilst there may be continuity in prevailing social practices and values, the (legal) framework has shifted and lead to the legal stigmatization of such practices, now deemed to be ‘corrupt’ in legal if not necessarily in social judgment.

Scott’s key interest, however, is not primarily the distance between legal and social norms, although this remains a key characteristic and prime frame of reference in contemporary studies of corruption. Scott’s most innovative analytical contribution is the differentiated conceptualization of corruption as an a priori neutral form of political influence. The question is not legality or illegality, or even legitimacy or illegitimacy. The pivotal question is access to political decision-making: Scott treats corruption as an alternative means of interest articulation. In his words, “this approach highlights the functional equivalence of a variety of acts of political influence, some of which violate all standards of community ethics and some of which are totally beyond reproach” (Scott 1969). Like Huntington, he too is interested in the nexus between wealth and power, more explicitly looking at corruption as a means for social groups to access the political system. When does wealth act as a political resource, in which ways, by which groups? He concludes that it depends largely on the nature of the political system. It is in this analytical context that he makes his widely quoted ideal-typical distinction between ‘parochial’ corruption and ‘market’ corruption: the former denoting a situation where only ties of kinship, caste, etc. determine access to the favors of power-holders, while the latter signifies an impersonal process in which influence is accorded to those who can pay most, regardless of their person.

Here, the type of political order is on center stage; more precisely, the type of political order framing mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. Where formal possibilities of ‘voice’ by certain social groups are restricted, corruption poses an informal way to access the political system. What is striking in this table is the importance that Scott accords to organized interests, or rather to the type and level of organization of interests of particular interests.

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