Approaches to Corruption: a Synthesis of the Scholarship


The scholarly literature on corruption has developed in separate disciplines, each of which has produced important insights, but each of which also has some crucial limitations. We bring these existing approaches together, and then we confront them against an ethnographic literature on corruption that over the last two decades has become extensive, but has never before been synthesized into an overarching framework. We argue that any corruption reform must meet three challenges. First, corruption persists because people need to engage in corruption to meet their needs. This is the resource challenge. Second, corruption persists because there is uncertainty over what constitutes a gift and what constitutes a bribe, as well as confusion over what is private and what is public. This is the definitional challenge. And third, corruption persists because of pressure to behave in ways that are considered moral according to alternative criteria, such as taking care of one’s kin, or standing up to legacies of racism and oppression. This is the alternative moralities challenge. We examine the strengths and weaknesses of existing approaches to corruption in meeting these three challenges.

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  1. 1.

    Kinship pressure can, however, work in both directions: while Nagavarapu and Sekhri’s 2016 study, based on micro-level regressions of survey data, found increased social monitoring among in-group (Scheduled Caste) persons, making those individuals less inclined to cheat within a social network, and Isaksson 2015, drawing from the Afro-barometer data, suggests that individual corruption experiences vary systematically along ethnic lines, as belonging to influential ethnic groups—in terms of group size or economic/political standing—is associated with a greater probability of having experienced corruption.


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For comments on earlier versions of this article we are grateful to the participants of the Northwestern Corruption Workshop, October 2016, and the staff of the USAID Center for Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. We particularly thank the other members of our literature review team: Jordan Gans-Morse, Theresa Mannah-Blankson, Alexey Makarin, Dong Zhang, and especially Vanessa Watters, who helped to review the ethnographic scholarship.

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Correspondence to Monica Prasad.

Appendix 1

Appendix 1

Appendix: List of Articles Reviewed

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Prasad, M., Martins da Silva, M.B. & Nickow, A. Approaches to Corruption: a Synthesis of the Scholarship. St Comp Int Dev 54, 96–132 (2019).

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  • Corruption
  • Principal-agent models
  • Collective action models
  • Organizations
  • Ethnography