Anticorruption Co-opted: Problems with the Purported Polygamy-Corruption Connection

Whether or not a country’s culture can be blamed for causing corruption has come up on the blog before.  This question comes up in a great variety of contexts, but one that may be less familiar to many readers is the purported causal link between polygamy and corruption. Polygamy has been called a “breeding ground” for corruption, and blamed for the spread of corruption in, for example, South AfricaGhana, Nigeria, and South Sudan. But the empirical evidence to support this claim is very weak. Given that weakness, it’s somewhat puzzling why the claim has gotten so much traction in some quarters. This may be one of those cases where the alleged link between a cultural practice (here, polygamy) and corruption is motivated less by a concern about corruption, and more by objections to–and deep social clashes over–the cultural practice. Corruption, in other words, may be a stalking horse for other concerns.

First, as to the alleged polygamy-corruption link: Scholars have noted that monogamous societies are generally less corrupt than polygamous societies. That by itself is likely true, on average–but this correlation has been used to claim that polygamy actually causes corruption. The primary line of argumentation is that, with an increased number of people to provide for, individuals are more likely to accept illicit income. Some scholars have taken this argument several steps further, claiming that people who grew up in polygamous households experienced “inadequate paternal contact” and a “scarcity of goods and services” that caused them to develop a “strong desire to acquire wealth to satisfy their exaggerated fears.” Other arguments posit that the large, complex families that come with polygamous relationships distract politicians from fighting corruption or that polygamy creates a form of “absolute power” within the household that then “corrupts absolutely” outside the household. Further, some have contended that when there are laws banning polygamy but it is nevertheless widely practiced, the overall legitimacy of the law is hurt, thereby causing corruption to seem less bad.

There does seem to be some logic behind the first claim—someone under greater financial pressure might perhaps be more likely to engage in corruption to make ends meet. However, there are many problems with both that argument and the others that call into question this disproportionate focus on polygamy.

  • Correlation is not causation. Data to back up the polygamy-corruption link is scarce, and what little does exist is so macro in scale that multiple marriages can’t truly be singled out as a contributing cause. In at least some of the cited studies, it’s not clear whether or not factors like poverty and geography were controlled for. In other words, even if polygamous societies are more likely to have higher rates of corruption, that might be because poorer countries are both more likely to be corrupt and to have polygamy. Additionally, although the idea of a “gender gap” in corruption is contentious, to the extent that one exists, there may be some spillover into the largely big-picture studies that have been done so far, since men are far more likely than women to be polygamous.
  • Financial pressures are not limited to polygamous households. The strongest argument for a polygamy-corruption connection centers on the greater demands on one’s resources that come from caring for a larger family. However, large families are not unique to polygamous marriages. Should we be subjecting bureaucrats with large extended families to particular scrutiny? Nor are multiple partners found only in polygamous relationships; many politicians from around the world engage in affairs.  Moreover, there are many other non-familial financial burdens which a person might experience. In other words, even if there is some intuitive sense to this link, without more to support it, why should we focus on polygamy any more than we do anything else that comes with higher costs? Thus, even giving the financial pressures argument the benefit of the doubt, in order for polygamy to hold up as something meriting particular attention from anticorruption advocates, at least one of the numerous supplementary claims needs to have some validity–yet none of those supplementary claims has yet been subjected to serious scrutiny.
  • The psychological effects of polygamy are also not unique–Yes, some research indicates that children of polygamous marriages may be more likely to experience psychological problems, but the same can be said of children of divorce. It would be a big stretch–indeed, many would find it implausible–to suggest that high divorce rates are an important cause corruption; we should be equally skeptical of the analogous argument made in the case of polygamy.
  • The polygamy-corruption link trades on stereotypes without offering any scholarly support for the connection. With the anticorruption crusade already fighting claims that it has a pro-Western bias, harping on an unproven connection with a practice that is more prevalent in the Global South than the Global North hurts the cause.  Papers that explicitly link polygamy to “greed” and then to a purported mindset of an entire country towards corruption not only overgeneralize, but do so in a particularly harmful way—even when those papers are written by citizens of the criticized country.

Given this lack of evidence that polygamy is singularly problematic in terms of causing corruption, it seems possible that much of the writing that focuses on polygamy’s role in causing corruption is less about corruption per se, but rather is using the language of anticorruption in service of an entirely separate argument about polygamy as a cultural practice. Indeed, many of the papers that contend that polygamy promotes corruption cite back to one particular text: How Polygamy Wrecks Nigeria, a short book which argues, in purple prose, that “polygamy is Nigeria’s number one enemy” (apparently it not only causes corruption, but it’s also responsible for “the continuous destruction of the ozone layer”).  Though one should be wary of ad hominem critiques, the fact that the polygamy-corruption critique hasn’t successfully made its way into mainstream corruption scholarship, but instead tends to be recycled in similar language and based on the same few tenuous threads of evidence amongst writers already devoted to inveighing against polygamy should perhaps raise some suspicion as to the claim’s legitimacy.

However, with many other potential angles of attack against polygamy, there’s not much to be gained for its critics by situating it in the corruption framework; it’s not as if there is any anticorruption tool that is likely to aid them in their cause. Moreover, given the lack of data, the disproportionate emphasis on the link risks the appearance of cultural stereotyping.  Research into a broader connection may be merited.  However, until that research is done, the papers that prematurely draft corruption into the service of an anti-polygamy war are, at best, gaining little for their cause and, at worst, damaging the credibility of anticorruption advocates.

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