So far no attempt has been undertaken here to define corruption. This conscious omission is due to the fact that a succinct definition of ‘corruption’ has its fallacies. Consider, for example, if corruption can generally be viewed as “an aberrant deviation of the norm”, then what norms are being deviated from? Are we referring to the legal framework or to social standards? Are there degrees of ‘aberrant deviations’ depending on the time and place in which the action takes place? Does corruption have a moral content, characterized by “the privatization of moral concerns and the accompanying breakdown of civic loyalty” (Dobel 1978) within a given political order, or is it purely nominal, “what people accuse each other of when they see them acting against their interests” (Philp 1997)? And who then are the actors of corruption? Is corruption a trait of rational public officials, of greedy or needy monopolists over a public good, whose prime objective is “to maximize the value of the bribes [they] collect from selling this good” (Shleifer 1993)? Or is it a trait of self-serving groups, lured by the gravitational force of lucrative resources that bring forth “a stampede of favored elites and would-be favored elites” (Hutchcroft 1991)? Or is it ultimately the sign of a degenerate society “rotten with a culture of graft and corruption”?
Evidently, corruption is a phenomenon that resists easy labeling. Small wonder that the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) refrains from defining corruption, hence circumnavigating the Scylla of cultural imperialism inferred through stipulative Western definitions and the Charybdis of definitional relativism attempting to do justice to the cultural embeddedness of corruption. The difficulty of defining corruption on the one hand, and the threatening image it evokes, on the other hand, seems to lend itself to metaphorical language. Speaking of corruption frequently means speaking in terms of decay and illness. The ‘rotten society’ noted above invokes a society deteriorating physically and morally. In development cooperation, for instance, it has become standard practice to refer to corruption as a ‘cancer of development’, a potentially terminal and certainly perfidious condition affecting political order, economic growth, and the capacity of states and societies.
Suffice to note at this point that “[c]orruption is not something that happens to otherwise healthy societies: no country has ever been free of it” (Johnston 1998). Just how true this statement is in today’s world is underlined by the World Map of Corruption.
A succinct overview over the most important approaches to defining corruption is provided by Robert Williams (1999), who concludes slightly mockingly: “No doubt some analysts still hope that, somewhere in the conceptual ether, there exists a definition of corruption which is sufficiently capacious and nuanced to compensate for the limits of existing definitions, yet which is brief enough to slip into the introductory paragraph of official reports on corruption. To date, no all-purpose definition is available and there are grounds for believing that the search is futile” (Williams 1999).
To pursue the objective of understanding corruption in conjunction with social and political change more clearly, we need to dwell for a moment on the definitional aspect—not so much to name ‘corruption’ more precisely, but to carve out the sociological problem that corruption denotes. For as widespread perceptions on the extent and indeed practices of corruption maybe, as oscillating and multi-faceted as the phenomenon may be, as emotional and evocative denouncements of corruption may be, the sociological problematic of corruption needs to be pinpointed more precisely. Put in a nutshell, the problem of corruption emanates from its boundary-crossing nature. Corruption, in modern societies, always denotes some form of transgression of the public and private, the official and the unofficial, the legal and the illegal, the formal and the informal. Suffice at this point to peel out the core of corruption, as embodied by the currently most widely used and intuitively plausible definition of corruption. In the succinct formula coined by Transparency International, corruption is “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Notable and new here is the openness of the definition, putting the abuse of power on center stage, but allowing contextual leeway with regard to the (public or private) sphere such transgression takes place in.
More narrowly and more classically, corruption is circumscribed as “the abuse of public roles or resources for private benefit”.