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Organizational cultures as agents of differential association: explaining the variation in bribery practices in Ukrainian universities

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This article explores the variation in bureaucratic bribery practices of ordinary Ukrainians. Despite common arguments about corruption-generating structural constraints of economic transition and about the regional culture of corruption in Eastern Europe, interviews with university-affiliated Ukrainians reveal significant variation in rates and patterns of their engagement in bribery. This article shows that participation in corruption is closely associated with actors' exposure to organizational cultures. It uses Edwin Sutherland's differential association theory of crime to argue that the acquisition of definitions that are either favorable or unfavorable to bribery through exposure to different organizational cultures of universities leads Ukrainians to either commit or avoid bribery. Students and professors acquire crime-related definitions through (1) encounters with institutionalized bribery mechanisms, (2) conversations with peers and colleagues with more substantial experience within specific universities; and (3) observations of other students and instructors. Karl Weick's notion of organizational enactment is argued to be the mechanism whereby these learned definitions translate into specific bribery-related behaviors. Inasmuch as acting against these definitions may lead to academic or professional failure, testing their validity is risky for university members. The processes of organizational enactment of bribery-related definitions are, therefore, at the core of organizations' role as agents of differential association. The article concludes with a brief discussion of the potential synthesis of differential association and organizational theories as a powerful tool for the study of bureaucratic corruption.

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  1. Many respondents who understood bribery as ubiquitous claimed to have never been asked to pay a bribe ([28]:85).

  2. Miller et al also find that country of residence, economic pressure, type of industry, and occupation, affect individuals’ engagement in bribery([28]:275–278).

  3. In 2005 Ukraine had 1003 higher educational institutions: 130 universities, 63 academies, 135 institutes, and 2 conservatives (228 public and 102 private). These included classical universities and specialized institutes. Public universities include ‘budget’(tuition-free) tracks and ‘contract’ tracks where students pay tuition. Regulation of higher education is distributed between central and local authorities and educational establishments ([24]:45–50).

  4. Due to (1) small number of respondents; (2) asymmetric samples across the three institutions; and (3) differences between institutions (in terms of their geographic locations and size), I decided against drawing conclusions from the direct comparison between these three cases. Instead, I integrated stage I & II interviews, and used all of the data to support my arguments.

  5. The unequal numbers of respondents in each of the three categories reflect the relative ease of access to each group of interviewees and the relative involvement of each type of actors in bribery exchanges in universities. While parents tend to be involved mostly in the admissions-related bribery and have, on average, less exposure to informal cultures of universities, their testimony is used largely to support the testimony of students. Professors and students, on the other hand, tend to be involved, whether directly or not, in most bribery exchanges in higher education. While students were generally willing to participate in the research project, professors were more difficult to recruit and have, therefore, a smaller sample size.

    It is important to note that the unequal number of respondents in each group points to the potential inability of the researcher and the reader to make a direct comparison between the accounts of different actors involved in corrupt exchanges in universities. Since the sample of parents is, likely, less representative than the samples of other two respondent groups, it is important to exercise caution in drawing parallels. At the same time, given the overall small numbers of respondents in each category, as well as the asymmetry in their institutional affiliations and engagement in corruption, the juxtaposition of different accounts is not desirable in general. Rather, the accounts offered by the three types of respondents should be taken as three general perspectives on university corruption in Ukraine rather than the stories told by different participants of the same corrupt exchanges.

  6. There may be differences in corruption patterns in Eastern and Western Ukraine and among different ethnicities (Russians vs. Ukrainians, vs. Crimean Tatars). Studies find an association between the dominant religion and illegality (Lipset & Lenz 2000), which could translate into different corruption rates in the Orthodox East and largely Catholic West of Ukraine and between Orthodox/Catholic Slavs and Muslim Tatars. Also, if street-level corruption has roots in Soviet administrative tradition [23], Western Ukraine, influenced by Poland, may be less corrupt. Unfortunately, the collected data are insufficient to assess this hypothesis: due to limited time and resources, it does not cover Western parts of the country. Yet, it is fair to argue that this oversight does not directly affect the argument of the article. Whether or not there are differences between the regions or ethnicities, local organizational cultures of corruption mediate region-wide normative systems and individual predispositions of Ukrainians in the East and the West regions of the country.

  7. Many interviewees took advantage of the spaces, built into the interviews, to talk about corruption in other bureaucratic spheres, the political situation in Ukraine in general, the economic hardships of their families and other ordinary Ukrainians, and the changes that took place in the informal economies of universities and other bureaucracies over time.

  8. Large universities that combine multiple departments with different levels of prestige often develop several different local cultures.

  9. The mediating impact of organizational cultures on beliefs and, consequently, behaviors of individual members may range from slightly adjusting their moral attitudes and cost-and-benefit calculations to completely altering them, depending on the strength of individual moral and instrumental convictions and needs, potency of organizational normative milieus, and situational constraints

  10. All university alumni, interviewed for this article, graduated within 5 years prior to data collection


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Correspondence to Marina Zaloznaya.



Table 1 Bribery facilitating mechanisms
Fig. 1
figure 1

The dynamics of university corruption cultures

The list of respondents

M = male; F = female

Pa = parents; S = students; Pr = professors


  • [Pa1] F/50, Kiev, real estate agent, married, 2 children

  • [Pa2] M/41, Kiev high school teacher, married, 1 child

  • [Pa3] M/46, Kharkov, manager, single, 1 child

  • [Pa4] F/38, Kharkov, beautician, married, 2 children

  • [Pa5] F/37, Kharkov, sales assistant, married, 1 child

  • [Pa6] M/47, Kerch, an engineer, divorced, 1 child

  • [Pa7] F/58, Kerch, nurse, married, 3 children

  • [Pa8] M/60, Kerch, marine mechanic, married, 2 children

  • [Pa9] M/45, Simferopol, businessman, married, 1 child (attending a university in Kiev)

  • [Pa10] F/43, Sevastopol, administrative assistant, divorced, 1 child (attending a university in Sevastopol)

  • [Pa11] M/47, Kherson, car technician, married, 3 children (1 attending a university in Kherson)

  • [Pa12] F/39, Dnepropetrovsk, housewife, married, 2 children (1 attending a university in Dnepropetrovsk)

  • [Pa13], F/48, Dnepropetrovsk, pediatrician, divorced, 1 child (recently graduated from a university in Dnepropetrovsk)


  • [S1] F/24, Kiev, alumnaFootnote 12 of an Architecture department, works as a flight attendant

  • [S2] F/23, Kiev (originally from L’viv), alumna of Romance Philology department, currently unemployed

  • [S3] M/21, Kiev, 3rd-year student of Law

  • [S4] M/20, Kiev (originally from Kharkov), 2nd -year student of Engineering

  • [S5] F/26, Kiev (originally from Brovary), alumna of Middle Eastern Languages Department, works as a sales representative

  • [S6] M/25, Kiev (originally from Zhytomyr), alumnus of Sociology Department, attends graduate school in Canada

  • [S7] F/21, Kiev, 2nd-year student of Romance Linguistics

  • [S8] M/20, Kiev (originally from Sumy), 2nd-year student of Environmental Science

  • [S9] M/23, Kiev, 5th-year student of Computer Science

  • [S10] M/21, Kiev (originally from Lutsk), 3rd-year student of Computer Science

  • [S11] F/19, Kiev, 1st-year student of Journalism

  • [S12] M/22, Kiev (originally from Zaporizhia), 3rd-year student of Mathematics

  • [S13] F/25, Kiev, alumna of Finance Department, works in advertising

  • [S14] M/21, Kharkov (originally from Kerch), 2nd-year student of Aviation Technology

  • [S15] F/20, Kharkov (originally from Odessa), 4th-year student of Pre-school Education

  • [S16] F/19, Kharkov (originally from Kremenchuk), 2nd-year student of History

  • [S17] F/22, Kharkov (originally from Pervomajskyi), 4th-year student of Accounting

  • [S18] F/20, Kharkov (originally from Yevpatoria), 2nd-year student of Graphic Design

  • [S19] M/24, Kharkov, 4th-year student in International Relations

  • [S20] F/21, Kharkov (originally from Melitopol), 3-rd-year student of Management

  • [S21] F/18, Kharkov, 1st-year-student of Culture Studies Department

  • [S22] M/20, Kharkov (originally from Kerch), 2nd-year-student of Management

  • [S23] F/20, Kharkov (originally from Feodosiya), 2nd-year student of Psychology

  • [S24] F/20, Kerch, a 1st-year student of Ukrainian Literature

  • [S25] F/22, Kerch, 4th-year-student of Hotel Administration

  • [S26] M/27, Kerch, alumnus of Marine Navigation department, works for Kerch Trade Port

  • [S27] M/23, Donetsk, 5th-year student of Computer Science

  • [S28] F/22, Dnepropetrovsk, a 4th-year student of Accounting


  • [Pr1] F/57, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a language department

  • [Pr2] F/39, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a humanities department

  • [Pr3] F/45, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a social science department

  • [Pr4] M/66, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a natural science department

  • [Pr5] F/57, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a social science department

  • [Pr6] M/41, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a social science department

  • [Pr7] M/59, Kiev, does not have a family, teaches in an exact sciences department

  • [Pr8] M/35, Kiev, does not have a family, teaches in an exact sciences department

  • [Pr9] F/61, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a humanities department

  • [Pr10] M/41, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a Business department

  • [Pr11] F/34, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a social science department

  • [Pr12] F/62, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a natural science department

  • [Pr13] M/65, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a social science department

  • [Pr14] F/33, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a language department

  • [Pr15] M/67, Kiev, has a family, teaches in a humanities department

  • [Pr16] M/53, Kharkov, has a family, teaches in a social science department

  • [Pr17] M/49, Kharkov, has a family, teaches in an exact sciences department

  • [Pr18] M/42, Kharkov, has a family, teaches in an exact sciences department

  • [Pr19] F/61, Kharkov, has a family, teaches in an exact sciences department

  • [Pr20] F/31, Kharkov, does not have a family, teaches in a language department

  • [Pr21] F/55, Kerch, has a family, teaches in a language department

  • [Pr22] F/50, Kerch, has a family, teaches in a language department

Table 2 Participation in bribery by the type of respondents
Table 3 Educational affiliation of respondents
Table 4 Characteristics of the university affiliation of respondents

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Zaloznaya, M. Organizational cultures as agents of differential association: explaining the variation in bribery practices in Ukrainian universities. Crime Law Soc Change 58, 295–320 (2012).

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