NB: This is a seminar paper I delivered in 1999, the full text of which may be read here:
Introduction: The most striking thing about the term `corruption’ is the combination of its ubiquity as a diagnostic category in the sociology of administration, with its rhetorical, pejorative meaning in civil and political life. One the one hand it is treated as an analytical term in state discourse and in an ideological spectrum ranging from proponents of the status-quo to its radical critics. Development experts, World Bank economists and politicians cite corruption as a barrier to `growth’, free investment and social justice. Sociological processes, institutional flaws, cultural norms and errors of judgement by policy makers may be cited as its causes. It may be attributed to insufficient modernisation, looked upon as an inevitable reaction to cumbersome bureaucracies, or treated as a fact of life. It has also been treated as an inevitable symptom of transition from backward (and more recently, ex-Communist) economies to modernity. In this case its pejorative aspect gets diminished - it has been suggested that “the taking of bribes by government officials in these countries can be viewed with equanimity to the extent that it at least indicates an understanding of how market forces operate in a liberal economic environment”.
‘Corruption’ is equally useful as a rhetorical device in criticisms of the establishment. Politicians of different persuasions regularly accuse their opponents of corruption, although these accusations are often references to personal characteristics and idiosyncrasies rather than part of a systemic critique. Its normative tint makes corruption a suitable idiom for a range of populisms, not to speak of imperial concerns. And by describing as fortuitous elements of degeneration which signify fundamental shortcomings in the polity, the discourse of corruption serves to detract from broader issues.