Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 12/2009

Contextualizing Conceptions of Corruption: Challenges for the International Anti-corruption Campaign

Malte Gephart

December 2009

German Institute of Global and Area Studies


While in an initial legal and academic anti-corruption wave corruption itself was at the center of analysis, research is now increasingly focused on anti-corruption discourse and praxis. The latter analyses have generated numerous criticisms of anti-corruption activities and anti-corruption research, and these are presented in this literature review. These criticisms range from the anti-corruption norm’s legitimacy deficit, to the difficulty of defining and measuring corruption, to the discourse’s depoliticization through its technicalization. The anti-corruption movement faces particular difficulties with respect to the tension between the universality of the anti-corruption norm and its simultaneous contextualization for specific and local application. This tension is especially important because it touches upon the central issues of the respective political communities, such as the division of the private from the public, which differ from one cultural context to another. The contextualization of anti-corruption concepts has to be enabled in various areas: first, with respect to the culturally shaped conception of the division between the public and the private; second, with respect to local understandings of corruption, that is, what is actually meant when talking about “corruption”; and third, with respect to the low socioeconomic development levels in some countries, which do not permit the absence of corruption (evading a zero-tolerance rhetoric).